Posts Tagged ‘caucus’

Democratic Reform — can’t we be more upbeat?

April 11, 2012

“Democratic reform” is a term that doesn’t often excite most citizens. And most citizens view those excited by democratic reform as having a masochistic streak.

The term makes it sound as though we have failed, or have at least let our democracy fall into disrepair. The term suggests that we need to redeem the status quo with some pretty serious restoration or some incrementtal improvements, to get us back on track.

Let’s shift our focus. Instead of thinking about “reform”, why don’t we think about AiD — an “Adventure in Democracy”.

The democracy we are familiar with is essentially 175 – 200 years old. It’s held up pretty well in the face of immense technological and social changes. It’s time for us to adopt a more modern view of democracy itself, at which point the challenge is not to cut out the corrupt, or restore the familiar, or make incremental improvements to the status quo.

The way our political mechanisms work reflects the pre-democratic conviction that sovereignty flows from the top down — citizens are not really moral enough, or educated enough, or social enough to really participate in the decision-making process, so we should only allow limited citizen participation (consultations, and advisory boards, and letter-writing, etc.) and leave the decision-making to the ‘proper authorities’, the elected representatives who have become moral enough, or educated enough, or social enough through the experience of being elected (or perhaps, through the experience of belonging to a party that does their thinking for them).

There is a model of government called “subsidiarity”, which says that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people who will live with them, and the person or people at the very top should decide exactly where decisions are made. Democracy represents a model of government in which decisions are made as close as possible to the people who will live with them, and the people who will live with them decide exactly where decisions are made.

Every Albertan is also a Canadian, and also a citizen of a city, town, or village, or rural municipality. It is not for the government of Canada to decide how the decision-making pie is sliced, and it is not for the government of Alberta to make that decision, and it is not for our local council to make that decision. All of these elected representatives are our servants, and they must let citizens decide which servant will do which work.

We don’t need to reform democracy, in order to improve on the status quo, or correct our previous errors.

We need to think of democracy as an adventure into unknown — and incredibly rich — territory. We shouldn’t think of our work as ‘reform’, and the drudgery that needs to be done ‘to clean up’. We should think about creation and invention, faithful to the ideas of:
• freedom from tyranny (and from being a tyrant);
• harmony
• the rule of law;
• natural equality;
• citizen wisdom; and
• education; and,
• forward-looking wisdom without certain knowledge.
(my thanks again to Paul Woodruff).

Particularly at this time, we don’t want politicians telling us how they would ‘reform’ the system. Left to their own devices, that could prove to be very self-serving. We should welcome input from every candidate and every party, but now is the time that citizens should claim the primary role of inventor of the democracy to come.

The sky’s the limit for good ideas — great ideas. However we have arrived at the felt need to do good work to promote democracy, let’s make the most of the opportunity.

To promote the conversation, think of
• the electoral process, including how we choose our representatives (first past the post, or proportional representation, or some other means); who is entitled to vote; means of representative accountability (such as recall);
• the role and organization of parties; campaigning, including financing elections, advertising, using new technology (robo-calls);
• the role and organization of the Legislative Assembly and the role and organization of caucus (including party discipline); the purpose of Committees; the Officers of the Legislative Assembly, setting M.L.A. pay;
• citizen participation (citizen initiatives) and decision-making (for example, when the Constitution of Alberta is amended [yes, there is a Constitution of Alberta]) — Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy, and whiste-blower legislation.

One of the choices available to Albertans in this election is to be the last out of the past as far as democratic processes are concerned (the most sophisticated expression of the old way of doing politics), or we can be first into the future, exploring 21st century ways of living democracy.

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Some Thoughts on the Role of Caucus

November 25, 2010

Personal decisions being played out in the Legislative Assembly these past few days invite us to remember the origins of the party “caucus”.

The original reason for a “caucus” was so that the government (the Cabinet) would have friendly yet tough critics in the Assembly — people sympathetic to the work of the Cabinet without being tied to it; people whose influence after Government Bills were introduced would improve the legislation and save the government from major policy and/or public relations disasters.  I was in the P.C. caucus from 1971 to 1986 and I contributed to – and assented to — a series of decisions that, in retrospect, were mistakes.  We began the process of moving caucus too close to Cabinet, so that its friendly/critical role vis-à-vis government decisions was diminished – slightly at first and then severely, and then eliminated.

As important as the issue is, the positive contributions — being made by Raj Sherman and Ken Allred — to changing the process are equally important.  No government needs unloving critics – an opposition which merely asks voters to “throw those scoundrels out and throw us in”.  At the same time, no government is well served by uncritical lovers – syncophants.  What any government (Cabinet) needs is loving critics, and that is what the government’s caucus should be.  Caucus members, other than Cabinet Ministers, should be encouraged to express themselves as Ken Allred and Raj Sherman are trying to do.

The current debate is being conducted at the “11th hour”.  I venture that it would never have come to this if members of the government caucus had felt free to dialogue with citizens much earlier.  Solidarity is an interesting concept.  More on solidarity, soon.

Further to Crossing the Floor

February 2, 2010

My last post draw comments from some readers, which I appreciate.  I was not clear about my position, and I will try to be more clear.

I believe that government business should not be conducted in caucus.  Caucus, after all, is not the government.  The Cabinet is the Government.  One of the important problems that we face in Canada (Alberta and elsewhere) is that the caucus of supporters of the government has been co-opted into the very ranks of government.  If every government needs a first rank of loving critics, governments in Canadian Houses of Assembly have lost this first rank of loving critics by drawing them (the government caucus) inside the web of government and extinguishing their capacity/willingness to offer loving criticism.

Relatedly, parliamentarians from other Commonwealth “mature democracies” are often astonished as the severe party discipline that is imposed as a matter of course, in all Canadian Houses of Assembly.  What we call ordinary party discipline would be called the three line Whip in Westminster, and where it is applied here as a matter of course, it would be applied in the U.K. fewer than 10 times in a typical Session.

My comment about the M.L.A.(s) was not to suggest support for caucus secrecy.  I only wanted to say that, right or wrong, the two M.L.A.s  knew what they were getting into when they joined the caucus, and they accepted the (odious) ground rules for quite some time:  indeed, they apparently supported the rules in conversation with supporters and constituents.  We never heard unease or opposition from either M.L.A. until after the P.C. caucus convention of strict secrecy was betrayed.  Caucus secrecy was a virtue when it was useful, and an incidental consideration when the expedient benefit was in repudiating it.  I suspect that caucus secrecy is equally important for the Wild Rose caucus.  Perhaps interested citizens should test the commitment of the Wild Rose caucus to openness.  Should the Wild Rose caucus be equally worried about the constancy of their two new M.L.A.s?

In summary, I think how the M.L.A.(s) handled the issue says more about them than its says about caucus secrecy.