Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Debate 2010 - My view

So now that the views have been exchanged, what do I think? Should we move to a system where we elect our Governor General (as proposed by David Mader) or stay with an appointed GG (as proposed by Sir Francis)?

Upfront, I find Sir Francis' proposal to be the more workable solution. It is a decision that I struggle with, as having a direct say in selecting our Governor General (or President) is appealing to me. My heart is with David, my mind is with Sir Francis.

The notion of "consent" plays a large part in this. Sir Francis takes a stab at showing that lack of active opposition is not necessarily consent. But I find from my experience that there is a part of voter apathy that has formed from a disinclination to engage and become informed. Some/many Canadians appear to consent to the form of government we have by trusting to the "experts" as it were.

So I find myself in a circular argument, can voter apathy be overcome by increasing voter involvement? Or would such a system require more effort from the electorate to be properly informed, and ironically push them away? It is not my argument that the average Canadian is incapable of being informed and engaged, it is my contention that many Canadians choose not to be. I even see this in my own life, I am much less interested in municipal politics than I am in provincial or national politics; this is somewhat contradictory as what happens at the municipal level has a much greater impact on me in the provincial or national legislatures. But even so, I have not the heart or inclination to involve myself at the municipal level (I don't even know who my councillor is, or what ward I am in). I have posted on this theme before, and argued it is not necessarily a bad thing.

It is from that viewpoint, a personal viewpoint without any scholarly study, that leads me to the solution proposed by Sir Francis. Our consent of the system we enjoy is based on trust. We trust that those who occupy our high offices will work in our favour, and not in their own. It is that trust that has been badly shaken of late. We see this in the protests occurring online and planned for this weekend, and even in the polls as the Conservatives lose support.

And yet our system of government has worked for us for nearly 150 years. I am hesitant to dramatically change that system, which David's proposal will do. But I need my trust in the system to be restored. In balancing the two concepts, I concede that I am willing to stay with an appointed executive.

Sir Francis' proposal is not without its weak points. Specifically the reliance on those with a "scholarly knowledge of Canadian constitutional law." I agree with David that this may well be a too-small subset of the Canadian population. But one weakness does not a poor argument make. If it is agreed that this is the largest obstacle to acceptance of this proposal, than how do we work around it?

Could we not extend the group of suitable candidates to all of sound mind, clear thought and the relatively nonpartisan? Let parliament appoint their candidate(s) from this group to the Prime Minister. Could the final candidate thus selected not go through an intense 3 week (or 3 month) course with noted scholars learning the history, traditions and aspects of Canadian Constitutional law and practices? Can we not train them to understand the powers they have been given? I do not find this an unreasonable proposition. As it is, we really do not vet the experience and learning of those seeking the office of Prime Minister, as the Americans do not in their selection of President. It is expected that those elevated will learn on the job.

The difference is that the powers granted to the Governor General are to be seldom used. Learning on the job is a matter of learning during matters of great import, of "crises" (it is for this reason that I do not condemn Michaëlle Jean for her acquiescence to Stephen Harper. Her inexperience protects her, but it shows the flaws in our system.) Given the expected rarity of the use of these powers, we could have parliament vet a team of scholarly advisors that the Governor General could rely on when these decisions need to be made. It is not without irony that there appears to be a lack of consensus amongst the scholarly over the Governor General's granting of Stephen Harper's request for prorogue last year. My trust in the system would be much stronger if these debates had happened in Michaëlle Jean's presence, and that those debates had formed the basis for her decision to grant Harper's request. It would have set the precedent for this years unilateral decision by Harper, and would have showed him that such decisions are not made lightly and are not to be taken for granted. The outcome would have been uncertain, and would have given Harper pause.

In my view, a small tweak in how Michaëlle Jean reached her decision last year, by consulting with constitutional scholars, would have introduced enough uncertainty to force Harper to calculate the value of his move this year. If she had clearly showed that "No" was an option, then we would not be where we are now. And the additional tweak of having her being selected by our MPs or some subset thereof, her position would not be as directly dependant on the PM's whim as it is now.

Now this solution only solves one small area of the concentration of power in the PMO. This is where the merit of David's argument starts to play. As his proposal was more broad, it also dealt with the relative unimportance of back-bench MPs, and arguably even the PM's cabinet. However, I still think that as much as it may be a better system than what we have now (assuming we could start again) our appetite for the changes needed is low. There may be other ways, other tweaks, that restore the value of our elected representatives and make them less beholden to the leaders of their respective parties. And yet, as I muse on this, I think its an idea to keep in our back pockets. We may need it if we cannot effectively tweak the system we have now. We may yet need to do a complete remodelling.

Filed under DebateJan2010

1 comment:

Sir Francis said...

Your insights are much appreciated, Catelli, and thanks for opening your salon to an exchange of views that I, for one, found quite invigorating. I've never really had an excuse to formulate my views on this topic in any systematic way, and I was glad of being given one. Cheers.