The Truths About Parliamentary Reform

by Eric Portelance
December 8 2003

         For some time now, there has been talk in both Canada and the United States about reforming their respective political systems.  Some Canadians have been looking to reform the parliament and institute a system which resembles the American presidential system.  On the flip side, there is similar talk in the US of instituting a British-style parliamentary system which would bring more stability to American politics, and create a better climate for debate.  While so far there has been little serious discussion regarding this theory in Canadian parliament, many right-leaning politicians feel that it might be the appropriate solution if we are to curb the declining trend in voter turnout rates.  However, if this is the true reasoning behind such a change, it might be important to note that the US has even lower turnout rates than we do, and that no other country has ever fully adopted their system.  Hence, switching to a presidential system would most likely not solve that problem, but it would certainly change the dynamics of the political climate in this country, and the way we interact with government.

         If Canada were to one day seek parliamentary reform, it would necessarily have to be a complete switch to a presidential system, because mixed systems such as the one employed by France usually causes more problems than good.  One of the main things that would change is the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government at the federal level.  The current parliamentary system relies on the fusion of powers, whereas the presidential system is based on the separation of powers.  This is evident when looking at the role of the Prime Minister and his cabinet.  In a system based on the British model, the executive branch of government is also a part of the legislative branch, and so they partake in all voting in the House of Commons, as well as being the focus of question period.  The members of the executive branch are not directly elected by the population as a whole, but rather by the constituents of his or her riding, like any other MP.  This person only becomes the PM if he is the appointed head of the party which gets the most seats in parliament.  The PM will then select his cabinet from the elected MPs in his party.  This is an exact negative image of the presidential system in the US, where each level of government must be elected on separate fixed terms, and have no true correlation between each other.  In a said system, the president is directly elected, and is forbidden to be a member of the senate or congress.

         Along with a change in political systems, it is obvious that the relationship between the aforementioned branches of government will change.  A parliamentary system generally creates majority governments, and since there is a fusion of powers and strict party discipline, this makes it very easy for the executive to pass a bill through the House, as it is almost certain that their majority government will vote in favour of it.  The senate will also vote the same way as the executive branch, because its members are appointed by the Prime Minister and are usually loyal to him.  In the presidential system, however, it is significantly harder to pass through a law because not all members of the senate and congress will necessarily vote the same as the other members of their political party.  In this sense, the system of checks and balances in the American system can be considered more democratic, but it also causes major problems as it dramatically stalls the political process.  Thus, if you are in favour of government acting quickly, then a parliamentary system might be the best solution.  In contrast, if you want the system to be the most democratic possible, then a presidential system works best.  It therefore might be possible to argue that leftists would be more in favour of the parliamentary system, and conservatives in favour of the presidential system.  But since those who lean right tend to dislike drastic changes and prefer to rely on tradition, this is also an unlikely scenario.

         The other dynamic that would change as a result of a different political system would be the way in which pressure groups would interact with government.  In a parliamentary system, the fusion of powers enables such groups to impact government in a much more direct way, since they only have one person to convince.  If they can convince the executive branch, and more specifically the Prime Minister, then it will be relatively easy to pass a new law on such an issue.  However, in a presidential system, this would be almost impossible, because even if you convinced the President that he should make a change in legislation, it’s far from a guarantee that the bill would be passed through the legislative branch, and even if it does, it might not even loosely resemble the bill that the executive first drafted.  For the pressure groups, they therefore have to rely on other sources in order to get their message heard.  Through the media, they will try and convince the voters of their point of view, and this in turn will hopefully change the minds of the members of congress and the senate as well.  It is therefore possible to say that it is much harder for pressure groups to get concessions from the government in power in a presidential system.         

        The other thing that would change if we were to move to an American-style system would be the relationship between an MP and his constituents, and the main reason for this is the mass confusion that the presidential system often causes.  In such a system, 3 votes have to be cast, and therefore, it is difficult for the average voter to understand how the system works, and who they should go to should they have a question or concern.  Take the example of your average Joe American who dislikes a law that was passed and would like to consult with his congressman about it.  However, since there is no party discipline, it is very difficult to condemn a congressman for voting a certain way, because he may or may not vote the same as the other members of his political party.  This causes a situation where the President which Joe American voted for is in favour of a certain law, but his congressman who is part of the same political party voted against it.  Not only is this already complicated enough as it is, but there’s also the Senate to worry about, which is completely separate.  It is therefore obvious to see that while the system of checks and balances may produce a more democratic system, it in turn confuses the voter, because it is difficult to know how your representatives are voting.

         In the parliamentary system, it is infinitely simpler, but also less democratic.  As a rule of thumb, all members of a certain political party will cast identical votes, and if you have to voice a concern, there is only a single representative that you need to contact, and his voting patters are very clear simply because you know how the rest of the party voted.  However, if you wish to try and change his mind, the representative is usually more worried about following the choices made by his party leader than listening to his constituents.  Even though you may have voted for this person, it is still seen as being less democratic.  In a presidential system, the representative is much more conscious of the wills and choices of his constituents than those of his party.  It is in this way that the relationship between constituents and representatives would be so radically different.

         All this really leads up to one main question which is really the reason this debate has been brought up.  Will parliamentary reform lead to higher voter turnout rates?  It is quite obvious that it will not, and this is proven by the fact that the voter turnout rates are considerably lower in the US than in Canada, and they continue to decline.  In reality, changing our political system will not provide immediate benefits to the average Canadian, unless they strongly feel that government needs to be even more democratic than it currently is, because this is the only “advantage” that the presidential system would provide.  On the contrary, such a system would only create more confusion in the political system, one which is already despised by a large part of society.  They dislike politics so much that they chose not to vote, and quite simply, changing the system will not reverse this trend for it will only create new problems, like a more unbalanced political system due to the checks and balances that a presidential system would bring.  Political reform is merely avoiding the true problems of low voter turnouts: alienation, hypocrisy, corruption, political rationality, and the necessity to take sides.