Reviews of Power Shift


Review by Frank Bayerl, CCPA Monitor, September 2012

Vaughan Lyon, a Trent University professor emeritus of political science, has written an important book that deserves to be read by anyone concerned about Canadians’ increasing cynicism toward politics, declining voter turnout, and the shift in power he so clearly outlines from Parliament to the Prime Minister’s Office and to the Prime Minister himself.

We live in what purports to be a representative democracy where elections allow us to make our views known to those who represent us in Parliament. All too often, however, those elected representatives follow a rigid party line set by their leader and ignore the views of their constituents. This naturally leads to voter cynicism and frustration.

As Lyon writes, “an accurate description of our system would be that it is one where citizens delegate their political powers and responsibilities to a party, particularly its leader, that is engaged with other parties in an often corrupting adversarial competition.” This system Professor Lyon refers to as “partyocracy.”

Over the course of our history, as political parties gained more and more power, citizens saw their ability to influence policy decline. “In the real world,” the author says, “elections are exercises in frustration for those who try to send clear messages to our rulers. The more we want and need to direct how the big state wields its power, the more alienated we are by how little we can do this by voting.”

He deals convincingly with the “myth of the mandate,” whereby voters are supposed to have given whatever party wins an election carte blanche to enact its policies. There are many things wrong with this assumption, beginning with the fact that in most elections the winning party does not receive a majority of the votes. Second, the winning party may not have expressed a clear position on many of the policy issues it then decides to legislate on. Third, elections are not referenda on specific issues, and voters may have simply wanted to give a different party the chance to govern. Finally, only a small minority of the electorate is truly engaged in the political process and knowledgeable about policy issues.

As a result of various historical developments, including notably the increasing power of political parties, we have ended up with “prime ministerial government” instead of representative democracy. This results in personalized policies, loss of critical input, the sidelining of Cabinet, and the virtual irrelevance of Parliament.

Examples of personalized policy in our recent history include Pierre Trudeau’s obsession with the Constitution at the expense of economic policy and Brian Mulroney’s pushing of his free trade agenda when a majority of Canadians opposed the idea. The intense focus on the party leader means that “his or her interactions with the public must be guarded, cautious, and carefully scripted by advisors. A misspoken word can commit a whole government; can destroy a carefully constructed public persona; can weaken the PM’s hold on power. Only the utterances of heads of central banks are scrutinized as closely, and those by only a small segment of the community.”

It is the hold of the parties over our political system that Professor Lyon identifies as the root of the evils afflicting Canada’s political culture. The political party, he says, is a 19th century institution that has outlived its usefulness: “The style of politics they impose — exaggeratedly competitive, adversarial, and divisive — is ill-suited to modern governance.”

Several chapters are devoted to explaining the political parties’ negative impact in terms of patronage, corruption, automatic opposition to anything proposed by a rival party, the distortion of policy-making by the need to appeal to fringe elements in a party, and the inability to take decisive action on critically important issues such as climate change for fear of losing votes.

A powerful quote from a former Cabinet member in the Trudeau government, Donald Johnston, sums up what party discipline has done to the House of Commons: “The imposition of party discipline in the House of Commons has eroded the value of the institution. It has turned intelligent, vigorous, creative MPs into eunuchs. It has depreciated the value of the standing committees. It has permitted Cabinet to abrogate all meaningful policy development. Worse, it has permitted the Prime Minister’s Office to emasculate even the Cabinet.”

Unlike this reviewer, the author of Power Shift loses no time in setting out his proposed solution to the evils of partyocracy. It is what he calls “constituency parliaments” (CP), a network of elected representatives in each of Canada’s 308 ridings. Lyon envisions a CP consisting of approximately 100 representatives in each riding, elected from wards, on the basis of one member for every 1,000 votes. The members of each CP would work closely with their MP to develop a majority position on issues of particular concern to them. The MP would then represent their views in the Commons. He or she would not be bound to vote accordingly, but in practice would probably do so most of the time, being subject to the constituents’ approval come election time.

Lyon does not believe it advisable that MPs be required to vote according to the CP’s recommendation, since the CP would focus on only a few issues of particular interest and because MPs should reflect a national viewpoint, respond to the views of their Commons colleagues, and be open to persuasion by them. The CP model, Lyon believes, would reverse the flow of policy direction from top-down to bottom-up. These representatives would be ordinary citizens with an interest in policy issues. Over time, some would become expert in certain areas and might want to stand for election themselves. The exchanges of views that would take place in the CP would have the effect of increasing general citizen knowledge of issues and involvement in their discussion. Candidates for Parliament would be nominated by the CPs, thereby greatly reducing the role of parties at the local riding level.

In another significant change, the Prime Minister and Cabinet members would be chosen by MPs from among their ranks, in consultation with the CPs. Under this system, parties would not immediately disappear, but would likely wither away gradually as their role ceased to have meaning. The author envisions the CPs meeting for perhaps one month a year and outlines in detail how CP members might be remunerated at modest extra cost to the taxpayer, but he does not deal with the question of how members holding full-time jobs would be accommodated. Would leaves of absence be mandated? If not, CP membership might be skewed toward the retired, students, and the unemployed.

Lyon outlines a detailed model of how the CP system could work to reduce voters’ alienation from and cynicism about the political process. He presents it not as a panacea for all our political ills, but as a major step toward improving democracy and re-engaging citizens in public life. Whether it would do all he claims is an open question, but the detailed plan he lays out at least deserves serious discussion.

The second half of Power Shift deals with other distortions of public administration which the author believes would be corrected by the withering-away of political parties, such as the politicization of the public service and the exacerbation of national unity issues. Essentially, over time, Canada has shifted from a two-party system to multiple parties that represent regional interests, beginning with the United Farmers of Alberta in the 1920s and followed by Social Credit, the CCF, Reform/Alliance, and the Parti Québécois.

Lyon is particularly astute in his analysis of how the party system has played into the hands of Quebec separatists, especially during the Mulroney years. The PC party’s acceptance of Quebec’s interpretation of the events surrounding patriation of the Constitution helped them gain a major victory in 1984, and Brian Mulroney proceeded to attempt to amend the Constitution along lines that would appeal to Quebec voters.

As William Johnson wrote, “Meech Lake was the consummation of Brian Mulroney’s Faustian bargain with the ultranationalists. It gave him power, twice. Now the country still pays the forfeit.”

A contemporary example of the way regional party interests distort policy is the lack of action on climate change driven by the interests of Alberta as a Conservative base of support. Many commentators have recognized the deficiencies of our current Parliamentary system and have proposed reforms such as proportional representation, giving individual MPs more power, providing public funds for parties to reduce the influence of lobbyists and plutocrats, or holding more referenda. Lyon dismisses these suggestions as wholly inadequate.

Proportional representation has been proposed for a century and has gotten nowhere. While Lyon views it as an improvement, it would leave the party system intact and would not further empower citizens.

Paul Martin’s vision of the role of Parliament, Lyon says, was very similar to his own, but Martin did not have a realistic model for achieving it. Martin wanted to free MPs from strict party discipline by proposing a three-line classification of legislation, with MPs free to vote as they wished on the first two categories of bills. But “the survival instincts of MPs on the government side would cause them to close ranks on almost all issues, regardless of any formal offer of freedom implied by the designation of a bill as first or second line.”

Martin’s questioning of the current Parliamentary arrangements should, the author says, have logically led him to question partyocracy itself, and he was naïve to expect the opposition parties to respond positively to his proposals while the structures that reward intense partisanship remain in place. As for public funding of parties, it has been tried, but it does nothing to strengthen the voice of the average citizen within the party, and the funding formula advantages established parties at the expense of new ones. Nor is more frequent resort to referenda a solution, as they are “a means of managing, not empowering, citizens.”

Professor Lyon feels that the time is now right for change: there is widespread belief that MPs should represent their constituents’ views rather than those of the party; he has set out a realistic alternative model; and there is openness to reform because so many people agree that the present system is dysfunctional.

The great strength of Power Shift is that it offers an acute and clear-sighted analysis of our present difficulties. A serious debate should now begin among citizens, commentators, and political scientists as to whether his proposal for constituency representation is indeed the feasible and effective solution that is needed.

Interview by Jessica Bruno, Hill Times, September 3, 2012

Canadians are tired of being part of the “political audience” and want in on policy- making action, says author and political scientist Vaughan Lyon, whose book Power Shift: From Party Elites to Informed Citizens, outlines a radical new approach to re-connecting Canadians with governing.

Mr. Lyon, a now-retired political science professor who taught at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., for more than 25 years, told The Hill Times recently that he’s tired of the dogma that political parties are a necessary part of running the country. He posits that with Constituency Parliaments, or groups of informed locals who advise their members of Parliament, the House of Commons can become a place of consensus policymaking that truly reflects the needs of Canadians.

“That’s a dramatic shift in power, revolutionary if you will, but conservative in the sense that it’s not trying to push an idea on citizens, it’s a matter of trying to adopt a system that would incorporate the wishes people already have,” he explained. The new system would be simple, relatively inexpensive, and wouldn’t require any constitutional amendments, Prof. Lyon said.

The system has mind-bending implications for how Canada’s government would work, and Mr. Lyon said the shift would result in changes to most aspects of Canada’s current system, from the extinction of the parties to a non-partisan prime minister and Cabinet.

A former member of the New Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals, whom he ran for provincially in 1960, Prof. Lyon said he found the party experience unfulfilling. While he’s devoted a book and several years to advocating for a new system of government, Prof. Lyon points out that Constituency Parliament isn’t the only possible way to reform the system.

“There may be a better idea out there,” he said, but we need to develop it soon. “The longer we stall on doing this, the more we are going to find people going to the streets in order to try and get representation. Because they know that there’s something not right in the system, and they’re so correct in thinking that,” he said. This Q&A has been edited for length and style.

How did the book come about?

“I was really quite frustrated that the public seemed to be almost deliberately ignored. Parties, naturally, didn’t talk about an alternative to parties. But academics, in many cases, keep on repeating the old refrain that without parties you can’t have democracy. The media and so on all went along with this and regarded parties as inevitable. I thought, ‘This is silly, there’s always more than one way to do something.’”

How would Constituency Parliaments work?

“The model is a very simple one. You would take constituencies, divide them up into wards of roughly 1,000 people. Those 1,000 people would elect a representative to a Constituency Parliament. The Constituency Parliament would meet annually with its MP and the chair to discuss the major issues before the government, and then the MP would go off to Ottawa with a clear authority behind him or her from the constituents. ‘My constituency wants X and Y and Z’ and there would be no argument with that position because it’s been carefully discussed locally and he would be responsible to his constituents for carrying their issues forward.

“There would be a contest initially between control of the party leaders and the control of constituents. The success of the MPs would depend far more on the relationships that they build up with their Constituency Parliaments than it would on the party Prime Minister. One of the things that would happen if you had a Parliament composed of these members, all empowered by their Constituency Parliaments, that they would set up a managerial committee and a nomination committee and they would take over all the functions of organizing Parliament and choosing a Prime Minister and Cabinet that would normally be done by the party leadership.

“We’d go from a hierarchical system of Parliament to one that was firmly based in the citizenry. The citizens would have a real opportunity to develop policy and see the policies represented in the Commons.”

Do you know if there’s anything similar to your system elsewhere?

“We could look to the north of Canada actually, at Nunavut’s non-party administration.

“There’s a lot of variation among the liberal democracies and many of them are organized in a way that gives people much more participation. You can think of Sweden and the Nordic countries and Switzerland, for example. Canada is kind of unique in the sense that the citizens are so limited in the amount of participation that they now have. They are simply voters and members of a political audience between elections. “The system cries out for change.”

Where would the resources to run Constituency Parliaments come from?

“If you break down the resources in terms of how much it would cost each Canadian, you’d come to a figure of about $15 a year, which seems to me a very small price to pay for a responsive political system.

“The resources to fund a Constituency Parliament would come from taxpayers. The system wouldn’t work on a voluntary basis any more than Parliament would. I’m proposing that citizens meet for a month a year and that they get paid for that roughly a 12th of what all the MPs in Ottawa would earn, without all the perks and so on.”

Would we have to amend our constitution in order to put this system of government in place?

“That’s one of the beauties of it. It would not require that at all. It could be instituted simply by legislation.

“It’s not really an extra level of government, it’s people meeting with their MP and making sure that their MP is able to represent them properly by developing a constituency position on issues, so that the MP doesn’t have to go to Ottawa and guess how his constituents would respond to something like Canadians getting involved in Afghanistan and so on.”

Parties are obviously invested in keeping a hold on their power, so how would you initially gain enough political support or traction that they would be forced to give it up?

“That’s a crucial question isn’t it? I think there’s two factors. One is that a great many of MPs already want to get out of the constraints of a party, so you have that factor in the background. There are few issues where Canadians are as agreed as on the desirability of constituency representation. So you need to bring these two together.

“What I hope my book will do is show both groups how this could be organized, because one of the reasons this dysfunctional system is in place is because people don’t feel they have any alternative. They are born into a party system and they’ve been told that parties are absolutely essential, which is a myth, a dogma, and so they feel they have to live with it.”

Thinking back to the push to get mixedmember proportional representation in Ontario-are Canadians really open to changing how their democracy works, or are they frightened?

“I think the contradiction really is that people feel so uncomfortable in engaging in political changes, when number one they don’t trust the people who are leading the changes. There is a deep distrust of people who are in politics or are MPs. They have an instinctive hesitation about going along with that.

“The second thing is that I don’t think PR-although I would favour it-that it really meets the basic needs of people. There isn’t very much for people in that new voting system. They’re still just voters, they’re merely voters, they’re still part of the political audience and they’re not empowered.

“What I think would change the attitude of people a lot is that if they understood that were they given Constituency Parliaments or some other mode of representing organized constituency viewpoints that this was to empower them. They would then own their government. It wouldn’t be a we/they situation; they would control the government.”

It’s my understanding from reading the book that Constituency Parliaments would be non-partisan-

“-Let me back up on that. Constituency Parliaments would compete with the parties. If people, who tell pollsters that they dislike and distrust parties, decide that they would rather vote for a party candidate for office rather than for somebody who was nominated by the Constituency Parliament or who was running as a complete independent, that would be fine, we would continue on the present system if everybody showed a preference for party government. I’ve been told that I’m trying to kill parties. I’m not trying to kill parties, we have freedom of speech, freedom of organization. What I’m wanting to do is give people an opportunity to adopt a system of representation that they say they want. If it turns out that they don’t want it, and they vote for parties, then the idea of Constituency Parliaments and so on would not be offered in particular constituencies. This system could be adopted on a constituency-by-constituency basis. It need not be adopted nationally all at once.”

At the Parliamentary level, after MPs have potentially consulted with their Constituency Parliaments and know how they want to be represented, and they’re bringing that to the House of Commons, what happens? How do debates and disagreements at that level get sorted out?

“The Constituency Parliament would have its own agenda and it would only have time to discuss major issues that were of interest to its members. Many other constituency Parliaments would discuss different issues. You would have 308, or 338 with the change, members with very different mandates. They would organize the House of Commons, set up a management committee that would organize the committee structure in the House of Commons, just the way parties do now except that these committees would function as real discussion groups rather than simply yet another opportunity, in many cases, for the parties to battle back and forth.

“The management committee of the House of Commons, working with the Cabinet, would develop the government’s program. This would mean that some of the issues that constituency Parliaments wanted to see raised would not get raised, and that the MP would have to go back and explain to the people back home why they weren’t raised.

“The management committee in the House of Commons, which was elected by the members, would have this crucial role of aggregating the various viewpoints in the House on the basis of committee recommendations, and working with the Cabinet develop the government’s program.”

By extension, could we have a Prime Minister who is not necessarily ideologically motivated but simply motivated by service to the country? Could we possibly have a non-partisan Prime Minister?

“Not only possible but inevitable, I think. … I think the electoral process is being distorted by using it to endorse policies. It can’t do that effectively. It should just be used to select leaders, and then the policy should be determined quite separately through this widespread consultative process. We’re really shifting power dramatically here.”

Article by Barbara Yaffe, Vancouver Sun, July 2, 2012

The Harper Government’s recent action in muscling through Parliament a massive omnibus budget bill has called into question the health of Canada’s democracy.

So, a newly published book about Ottawa’s woeful dysfunction is timely. In Power Shift, From Party Elites to Informed Citizens, Vaughan Lyon, a political scientist from Vancouver, argues it is time to kill off political parties.

Canada, he says, needs a more grassroots political enterprise in which party democracy [would be transformed into] policy democracy.

Lyon envisions thousands of ordinary Canadians serving in non-partisan constituency parliaments, one for each of the 308 federal ridings.

They’d be paid for a month of toil and deliberation each year, and would work closely with newly non-partisan MPs representing them in Parliament.

A prime minister and cabinet could be chosen by the unaffiliated MPs in consultation with the constituency parliaments, either from within the MPs ranks or beyond, as in the U.S.

By way of such a “quiet Canadian democratic revolution,” Lyon says Canadian taxpayers at last would get a genuine say on government decisions in a process devoid of the partisan self interest that now taints and corrupts policy making.

Imagine how different things might have been had such a system been in place provincially when the Campbell government moved to introduce an HST in B.C.

Lyon, a professor emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., writes: The existing political system can be thought of as an old and battered ship whose days of good service have long passed.

Under Lyon’s model,political leaders and bureaucrats now preoccupied with defending themselves and their government from opposition attacks and general criticism, would have to earn the support of a parliament representing these local leaders.

Lyon’s ideas are radical. But an argument can be made Canada’s governance infrastructure is in need of an overhaul.

Voter turnout has been dropping like an anchor. Back in the 1980s, some 75 per cent of those eligible cast ballots. In last year’s federal election 61 per cent voted. Richmond had the lowest turnout of any municipality, at 50.7 per cent.

People are alienated from government. Polls regularly show they are cynical about and mistrustful of politicians.

And public protests like the 2010 G20 fiasco in Toronto, the 2011 Occupy movements’ tent cities and most recently Quebec’s student demos all point to a profound frustration with the status quo.

At present, governing parties, to preserve their competitive advantage over their opposition, keep a Machiavellian hold on information.

They muzzle a bureaucracy that, in the public interest, should be free to blow the whistle and provide data to the taxpayers who pay the freight.

The problem with Lyon’s proposal is, it is so untested. Only a few tiny islands in the South Pacific govern at the national level without parties. Uganda tried it in 1986 but Ugandans voted to reintroduce parties in 2005.

It is a good bet Canadians would want to see a Western democracy test the model in the interest of some tire-kicking before making a purchase.

Because folks generally are turned off politics, it would be difficult to organize the sort of activist groundswell necessary to launch such a huge project.

Indeed Canadians have shown themselves to be less than daring about political reform.

Think of referendums held in recent years in B.C., P.E.I. and Ontario on adopting a proportional representation voting system. All were defeated.

That said, Stephen Harper is doing a good job convincing voters this country’s government is in desperate need of a dose of democracy.