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Canadian Contra

Making the case against mindless tinkering.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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Against Reform
by John Pepall
Toronto, 176 pp., $19.95

Against Reform

Canada’s Conservative party won a clear majority in last week’s federal election. So the Canadian constitution is safe, for now.

Virtually every Canadian election in modern times has had electoral reform as part of the debate. And this one—especially as it was the country’s fourth election in seven years—wasn’t any different. Jack Layton, head of the New Democrats, the left-wing party now official opposition for the first time in its history, promised to abolish the Senate if he assumed power, calling it a tool of political patronage. Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed no inclination to stand athwart history: He wouldn’t make changes that would require renegotiating the constitution—a thorny prospect in a country as regionalized as Canada—but he did promise reform, perhaps allowing provinces to hold senatorial elections. (Alberta already does, but it would take constitutional change to remove the prime minister’s power of appointment.)

The debate over electoral reform can be difficult to follow, especially for those not fortunate enough to have grown up under parliamentary government. But if you want to understand that system, and the constant calls to change it, you can do no better than John Pepall’s knife-edged treatise, Against Reform. Pepall might be Canada’s most curmudgeonly commentator. His all-encompassing title really is genuinely all-encompassing: He is against not just some suggestions for political reform, but all of them. Moreover, he is almost always convincing.

He begins with a simple—but important—observation: “We have forgotten how and why our political institutions came to be. Behind Canada’s experience with our existing political institutions lie centuries of political evolution in Britain.” Pepall doesn’t mention Friedrich Hayek, but the Austrian economist’s insights into how social and political institutions evolve through trial and error into a spontaneous order apply here. The Westminster model of parliamentary government has been honed over generations; it’s not an au courant system created by a few bureaucrats.

As Pepall says, “We are distracted by the spectacle of American politics.” Fixed elections, for example, lead to a cycle that begins years before the actual voting day, with dozens of possible candidates making their way into the news. Canadian politics looks (like much of the rest of the country) staid in comparison. But it seems a fair question: “Why should we not know when the next election will be?” There are plenty of reasons. Floating election dates have their advantages—not the least of which is avoiding America’s overlong, expensive election cycle. 

Pepall has an even better one: “Americans are stuck with their politicians for however long their terms may be.” When a Canadian government misbehaves, it is subject to a nonconfidence vote. (The Conservatives lost such a vote, which led to this election, only 30 months after the last one. The Liberals sorely miscalculated.) Pepall asks supporters of fixed dates a good question: Why would champions of democracy object to an election? Consider how this might have affected one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed in the recent history of the United States. Instead of holding a proxy election on Obamacare in Massachusetts—which didn’t stop the administration from passing it—Americans could have had a national election to vote on it
more directly.

Pepall examines each call for reform, and finds it wanting. His approach is analytic, his conclusions full of common sense. More surprising, he manages to make the details of parliamentary wrangling entertaining. 

Typical free votes in the House of Commons have been on issues like abortion or capital punishment, which are supposed to touch politicians’ generally obscure consciences. Such free votes have in any event been just for show. No free vote has ever frustrated the wishes of the government.

So much for the push for less party discipline. 

Underlying his arguments is an emphasis on “strong government,” a phrase that may be anathema to many Americans but is about structure not content. A government must be able to get things done, and it cannot do so when parties dissolve into factions that make it impossible to form a stable government. Proportional representation gives every interest “an incentive to break off and form its own party.” You might like what the Green party promises, but even in Canada the Green party has no chance of forming a government—and that, in the end, is the essential function of a parliamentary system. The Greens aren’t even interested in developing the comprehensive platform needed to be in the running. They have no desire for mass appeal.

Pepall isn’t wholly conclusive. As a teenager I worked with the fledgling Reform party, which campaigned for a Triple-E Senate—equal, elected, and effective. (“Equal” meant that each province would have the same number of senators, as in the American system.) Layton is right; the Senate is a conglomerate of cronyism. But as leaders of every party promise reform, Against Reform is sorely needed. John Pepall is a masterful guide through the thicket, and a wry one, too. As he notes, echoing Yeats, “Some advocates of reform are full of passionate intensity.”

Kelly Jane Torrance, a native of Edmonton, Alberta, is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard and movie critic of the Washington Examiner.

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