Friday, September 23, 2011

The Samara reports & the Australian political system

In Rebuilding the role of MP as representative, I referred to a report by the Canadian Samara Foundation on the functioning of the Canadian Parliament based on exit interviews with 65 MPs. I really should have said project, for there are in fact four reports in all. You will find all four here.

The reports are really worth reading if you are interested in the functioning of Parliament for they provide an alternative perspective to Australia. After all, it is not so long ago that we had the so-called new paradigm that then dissolved into an increasingly vicious business as usual model.

You will need to be patient in reading. The modern internet layout used is cluncky and slow for those of us actually used to reading. I do wonder what the internet is doing to our ability to read! Still, there is some very interesting material there.

Differences between Australia & Canada

Both Canada and Australia have Westminster systems of government. Yet while this leads to common issues, the two countries are remarkably different.

Part of the difference is constitutional.

I am not talking here just about differences in the powers of the Federal Government in the two countries; in formal terms, the Commonwealth has specified powers, with the states responsible for everything else; in Canada, the provinces have the specified powers. More, there are a whole series of institutional differences that affect the functioning of Parliament. As a simple example, the Australian Senate with its separate but largely equivalent powers as compared to the House of Representatives is very different from the Canadian Upper House. This makes the Canadian Lower House far more important.

Part of the difference is one of scale. It's not just that Canada is a bigger country than Australia. Their House of Commons is more than twice the size of the House of Representatives. This affects operations.

Then there are differences in geography and political culture. The political geography of Canada is more diverse, more divided than Australia, the party political structures more varied, less stable. This also affects the way Parliament operates.

Differences in philosophy

I was really struck by the very basic differences in the articulation of what we might think of as the constitutional or even philosophical role of MPs in the two countries; while there are similarities in problems and issues, Australian thinking struck me as far more articulated, more defined, more thought through.

I have to be a little careful here, because my own experience, views and writings are strongly influenced by my own history. I am not necessarily representative. Yet when I look at both the views of Canadian MPs and of the Samara Foundation itself, I was really struck by the absence of clearly articulated views on the role of MPs and the relationships between MPs and the role of Parliament. Here I quote from Samara:

According to Canada’s Library of Parliament, an MP in the Westminster system of government—the system on which the Canadian Parliament is based—has three traditional roles. The first is to consider, refine and pass legislation. In other words, to establish policy and pass laws.

The second is to hold government accountable for its administration of the laws and to authorize the expenditure of required funds. That is, to ensure that the laws are being carried out properly, and that tax dollars are being spent responsibly.

The third role is to determine the life of the government by providing or withholding support. This means to vote for things you support, and against things you don’t.

Note that there is no reference in this to the MP's role as representative, the focus is on Parliament. Canadian MPs themselves placed the representation role as central, but there is little discussion as to how this might fit in with the definition given above.

MP as outsider

One very striking thing about the Samara analysis is the way that MPs saw themselves as outsiders. To understand this, we need to look at the way MPs entered Parliament.

In Australia, politics has increasingly become what we might think of as a professional career path. Increasingly, our politicians are selected from those who have gone from university though structures and activities linked to party of choice. Specific high flyers or perceived "good candidates" are targeted by the party machines. All this means that Parliamentarians are increasingly seen as less representative. 

Canada seems very different, much more like the Australia of fifty plus years ago. Most interviewed MPs had been active in their local communities; there they were really insiders. Yet they fell into national politics almost be accident, by serendipity, because they were asked to stand. They were also far older than their Australian equivalents with an average age on entry to Parliament of 47. I could find no obvious equivalents among Canadian MPs to either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott.

I wondered if this was simply a timing issue. Samara was interviewing exiting MPs, so to understand their experiences and to equate them to Australia we have to go back to the time that they were preselected. The average length of time in Parliament for exiting MPs was 10.3 years. Accepting that this is an average, professionalisation in Australia is well advanced compared to Canada.

One of the reasons for this is, I think, the relative stability of Australian political parties compared to Canada. In a practical sense, it is a bit hard to plan a professional career when you main vehicle - the party - is unstable.

MPs' likes and dislikes

There was an interesting pattern in MPs' likes and dislikes.

All the MPs felt ill-prepared for Parliament. All struggled to some degree with their conflicting roles. Some, an apparent majority, liked their representation role. To others, this was an interference with their perception that their role was to legislate and debate policy. As in Australia, MPs representing country electorates found their electors more demanding with greater expectations about the local role of MPs than those representing city electorates.

Universally, MPs felt that question time had become a damaging, stylised piece of political theatre, that debates in Parliament had lost meaning. SAM_ItsMyParty_v2-10 copy

As illustrated by the graphic, most MPs thought that  their real work took place away from public Parliamentary activities. Here I had a bit of a problem with the underlying assumption in the Samara analysis.

The real work in the graphic does not include electoral work. The Samara people were in fact surprised at the importance placed on this by MPs since this was outside the Parliamentary model Samara was using. Samara was also concerned about lack of transparency, whereas I thought that Samara was misunderstanding the nature of the parliamentary process.

Most MPs struggled with their relationship with parties, seeing parties, party games and party discipline as a significant problem.

Samara cruelly, but in a way accurately, likened the party system to a franchise model in which the party was the franchiser while the MP was the local franchisee. MPs had certain freedom and were expected to deliver locally, but this took place within a narrowly defined space.

I had a different take here from Samara. None of the reports actually discussed the role of the party within the political system. I thought that this was a weakness. Further, I thought that the Canadian system was in fact less rigid and more fluid than that in Australia. As an illustration, I quote:   

A couple of MPs did cite examples where their party leadership had clearly outlined their expectations. One Liberal MP mentioned being given guidelines for effective dissent. “[The leader] brought in three-tier voting. Tier one was like a confidence matter, such as a budget or throne speech [where MPs were expected to support the party.]. Tier two would be policy matters that are very important, and that MPs would be encouraged to support it. Tier three was free votes. And if we thought that [an issue] was a category one instead of a category two we could thrash that out beforehand,” the MP said.

This approach and others such as the role of abstentions in voting compares to Australia's more rigid party disciplines.

Almost universally, the successes and achievements nominated by former MPs as the things about the things that they felt proudest were not big ticket items that formed the stuff of daily reporting, but smaller individual changes that they had brought about often despite of, not because of, the system.  

Declining prestige of Parliament and politicians

Those interviewed appeared to be all aware of a decline in the prestige of Parliament and politicians. Politicians were now less trustworthy than used car salesman, while both party membership and voluntary voting were at an all time low. Yet when they came to to suggest solutions, their focus was not on things tfour_big_questions hat they could do individually as MPs, but on process and systemic changes.

The four key questions posed by Samara based on the interviews had the same system focus.

I found it remarkable and a little sad that there was so little focus on principles, structural relationships and roles. Question two begins with the term "a job description". How very managerial!

In my last post I used the term vocation. The MP's role is a job, but it's more than that. It's a key and complicated role defined by history that is central to our system of government. I think that we would do well to remember that.     

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