Our hollow parties

TheGlobeandMail.com – Commentary – Our hollow parties
July 6, 2008. TOM KENT

With the latest cabinet shuffle, the federal government now has the best-qualified Foreign Affairs Minister available from its caucus. That being said, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minimal shuffle matters little. Mr. Harper will remain the acting minister of almost everything. Cabinet government has become a formality – which MP holds which portfolio only peripherally significant.

Parliamentary democracy is government by some MPs constituting a cabinet answerable in Parliament to MPs as a whole. The leader of the leading party chooses, as prime minister, who will be ministers. How well parliamentary democracy is working can be measured, however, by the degree to which choice is limited by the strength of the candidates. Mackenzie King was a masterful prime minister, but it was inconceivable his cabinet could exclude, most notably, C.D. Howe and Jimmy Gardiner. The government was embodied in powerful ministers collectively – not in the leader alone.

Most MPs are bred in their parties. We are in poor political health because the parties have been hollowed out. They were inherently strong when newspapers and meetings were the means of political communication. Then, if you wanted to be involved in public affairs, you belonged to a party. Other organizations were few, specialized, often elitist. It was in a party that you discussed policies, developed skills with which some emerged as opinion leaders, power brokers, candidates, perhaps MPs and more.

New ways of communicating – television, the Internet, e-mail – shattered the monopoly of political parties as the instruments of public influence. It was now easier for people to connect, to form their own groups to promote, prod, protest for this particular cause or that. Party memberships shrank. The leaders alone became TV presences in every living room. Advertising and photo-ops replaced large meetings and long speeches. The functionaries around the leaders crowded out the politicians.

It was not greater virtue that made the parties of 40 and more years ago more democratic than today’s. Partly it was greater membership, mostly that politics was then cheaper. Money had been decisive before, when the franchise was limited and personal bribery widely accepted, but for much of the 20th century, a more popular politics had been less expensive. Then the new modes of communication made money once again the fuel of partisanship. At the peak, Paul Martin’s $12-million drove competitors out of the Liberal leadership race. They left politics. The hollowness became plain in the subsequent race, when two of the three favoured candidates were newcomers offering to begin their membership of the party by leading it.

Politics has since been cleansed of most private financing. That financing went where the donors thought it would most advance their interests. The public funding that has replaced it can go where the public determines. Under present legislation, however, it goes to the parties as such, to their head offices. It makes political power even more centralized in party machines.

This is the outrage to democracy that demands a popular revolt. Public money for politics is justified only if it helps people to give time and energy to work in democratic parties for the policies they think best. It should be under the control not of central party officers, but of party members.

They work in constituency associations. The public funding due to a party should be paid to those associations, in proportion to their membership. This would require, of course, that each association maintain a register of people who, as of some fixed date each year, had paid a legally fixed membership fee. The registers would be subject to audit by Elections Canada. A minimum membership size would be necessary to qualify for funding, and in fairness a party that fell short of the minimum in some constituencies would forfeit that proportion of its national funding.

As usual, the devil would be in some of the detail, but there is no reason why he should frustrate the purpose of the legislation. That purpose being to shift the locus of power. While constituencies would undoubtedly transfer much of their money to headquarters, for use nationally, the composition of the spending would be democratically determined. More would surely be used to service the membership with resources for evaluating policies and strategies. Participation in a party could then regain some of the appeal, the sense of practical effect, now lost to other organizations. No doubt in a trickle at first, but perhaps in time robustly, numbers would grow. Constituency associations could become again the breeding grounds for many able MPs and potential cabinet ministers, not the components of centrally run machines.

If new funding legislation cannot bring that about, nothing will. There will not, in any event, be an immediate miracle. The confusion of the Liberal Party may be beyond early repair. The Conservative Party may so lack an alternative that Harper domination will continue even through another minority. What is sure is that there can be no reliance on any extended period of better parliamentary government until the personnel of our parties is strengthened. And the way to make that possible, perhaps probable, is to make constituency associations the points of funding and power.

Tom Kent served as principal assistant to prime minister Lester Pearson

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