Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"The interest and duty of a wise people…"

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose; and there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
— George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796
On the eve of Ontario's general election, one can at least look forward soon to a return of honest signs and billboards advertising things that people can actually use. Otherwise, one is inclined to remember Andrew Coyne's recent observation that there are no "politics on Earth that is shallower, more boorish, less worthy of the attention of serious people than Canadian politics," for which he cites the provincial election as "the most tedious non-event in living memory."
The Liberals can hardly dare to issue a platform, having broken every promise in the last. The Tories, principled sorts, have declined to offer much of any. Ontarians can have little clue what impact the election of either party would make in their lives, or what difference it would make which one they choose.
Ontarians have apparently decided to stick with the devil they know, and damn the consequences. But if the general election is occasioning such thundering disregard, the simultaneous referendum on the proposed mixed-member proportional (MMP) system is drawing barely a breath.

A good thing in itself, since MMP proposes to fix a problem that doesn't exist with a solution that makes a real problem worse. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to suggest what problem it is actually supposed to solve, but it certainly isn't the problem of a "shallow, boorish and unworthy" politics. At best, Gods of the Copybook Headings can give its proponents the benefit of the doubt:
At the heart of every major objection to our current simple plurality, or First Past the Post, system is its inherent unfairness in over representing the one party that wins control of the House and the under-representation of all others … This cri de coeur of unfairness presupposes a standard of fairness; that parties should have as much influence in the legislature as the democratic will allows. Never is it questioned as to why the standard of fairness should be on how parties are represented.
In fact, it is the over-representation of parties in the political arena in the first place that has made politics so "stupid." As parties have concentrated the debates and decisions of parliament under strict partisan lines governed by central party administrations, the interests of constituency blocs — what are commonly called "special interests" — have been cultivated to support and reinforce the parties' commands over legislative dealings in a quid pro quo that distances citizens from the process. The concern of special interests in a democracy, it should go without saying, is not for democracy itself but for political objectives that are unquestionably better served in an arena in which policies can be bid up by centralized parties whose concern is for power. Such an arena is not only the enemy of cautious and rational deliberation, it inevitably turns out to be the enemy of freedom — like everything else, it is up for brokering and dealing to political advantage.

In other words, as the Interim puts it in a recent editorial, "What is really needed is not MMP reform, but 'MPP reform.'" Electoral reform refers not to the problem of how we are governed but to the outcomes of elections, and it is instructive to note who generally supports the idea. MMP, a fantastically contrived appliance to run on top of the most elementary of processes, would graft the distribution of political parties on to the distribution of representatives to create a bicameral legislature in one house, sitting both popular representatives as well as partisan appointees without a constituency except the parties to whom they owe appointment. Parties, it should be added, who are among the authors of the discontent that is supposed to have motivated in the first place these proposals for electoral reform that entrench their supremacy in the electoral process.

At the very least, as Colby Cosh wrote in 2004, "[i]t is wise to require that every MP should command the certifiable support of some specific geographical community," and even if the geographic community doesn't choose to exercise its discretion in the matter of choosing a representative or a party, it serves as a potential check upon them at least where lists of party appointees cannot. It may be decided by a majority of the public that they are represented best by parties instead, and it cannot be denied that party affiliation is a very useful indicator of a representative's inclinations… but they are far better indicators to parties of who they shall reward, who will compose the government's institutions, and an incentive to increase those institutions to spread their influence. If we choose to disregard this, and embrace instead the conceit that parties embody a general democratic will, then we at least can be said to have obtained the government that we deserve.

Gods of the Copybook Headings' "Address to the Electors of Ontario is a valuable and highly recommended primer on the general history of party influence on politics in British-descended forms of government, including an elegant and incisive quote from the great parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke on the role and function of democratic representatives. The essay concludes fittingly:
For generations now we have elected flatterers of every party and nominal belief. This October the electorate of this province have an opportunity to check, though not reverse, the complete degeneration of our elected representatives into flatterers and to allow for better men and women, and better ideas, to some day come forth.
See also, from the London Fog: Proportional representation — recommended by 4 out of 5 activists! and The penalties of proportional representation.

And we might also be wise to resurrect for Americans their former custom of a reverential reading of Washington's Farewell Address:
They serve to organize faction; to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community, and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans, digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

… [T]he common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it."