Common ground

Lawrence Solomon

February 9, 2008

Americans are not like us. The U.S. election campaigns demonstrate the divide. Barack Obama inspires on a message of uniting Americans. "I’ll be the President who finally brings Democrats and Republicans together," he said after the results were in on Super Tuesday, in a signature theme of his campaign. He is running as a candidate who can rise above partisan bickering and work with the opposition to "get things done for the American people."

His chief opponent in the fight for the Democratic nomination to be president, Hillary Clinton, has much the same message. She, too, will work with Republicans in a spirit of bi-partisanship to "get things done for the American people." Her record as a U.S. Senator, where she distinguished herself through her ability to work with her colleagues across the aisle, bears witness to her work-a-day willing-to-compromise disposition.

The Republican that either Obama or Clinton will face in the U.S. general election, John McCain, also sold himself to the electorate on the basis of his willingness to work with members of the other party "to get things done." Much to the chagrin of hard-line conservatives, McCain has sponsored major legislation with leading Democrats, as attested to by the names of his co-authors: McCain-Kennedy (on immigration), McCain-Feingold (on electoral reform) and McCain-Leiberman (on homeland security). Both of McCain’s leading rivals for Republican nominee, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, likewise sold themselves to the electorate on their ability to work across the aisle.

Americans want politicians who will compromise and co-operate. This is a reason they elected George Bush as president – he ran promising to be a "uniter, not a divider" – and this is a reason they elected Bill Clinton before him. Because the American electorate values bi-partisanship, politicians run on their ability to make nice to the other side.

How different north of the border. Can anyone imagine Stephane Dion and the Liberals running for office on a pledge that, if elected, they would reach across the aisle to Stephen Harper and the Conservatives to find the common ground needed to "get things done for the Canadian people?" Would the NDP’s Jack Layton? Would Stephen Harper, who countenances no dissent from members of his own party, woo voters by holding high the spirit of bi-or tri-partisanship? Would any of his predecessors?

Only during times of minority governments, when parties have little choice but to co-operate, do politicians display their cross-party co-operation skills. But these are typically seen as periods of brinksmanship, not statesmanship. In the current government, Stephane Dion has been repeatedly ridiculed for needing to cooperate, and all leaders jockey to avoid the appearance of weakness that comes from saying a kind word about an opposing party’s position.

Americans and Canadians differ for good reason, of course. Unlike Canadian legislators, who are subservient to their parties’ interests, American legislators are much more their own men, with their own jobs to do. An American legislator is free to propose legislation; a Canadian legislator has no such freedom – the private members’ bills that do exist are but a farce. These bills proceed in random order, by lottery, not by their importance or the level of support that they can muster.

First and foremost, U.S. legislators represent their constituents, typically trying to win as much advantage for their constituents as possible. A Canadian MP, in contrast, must first and foremost represent his party’s wishes to his constituents. While an American congressional representative will lobby his fellow congressmen on behalf of his constituents’ desires, a Canadian MP will lobby his constituents on behalf of his party’s desires.

Canada’s adversarial parliamentary system is a factor here, but only one factor. The United Kingdom’s parliamentary system in Victorian times allowed all MPs to vote their conscience and still elects leaders who tolerate more dissent than ours, and MPs with more spine. In practice, all votes in the U.S. legislative arena are free, some votes in the U.K.. are free, few votes in Canada are free. Our party leaders demand, and get, tribal loyalties, depriving us of independent representatives who can ordinarily find allies among legislative colleagues in other parties.

We would not need to adopt the U.S. system to obtain representatives worthy of the name. We would merely need to loosen the party grip over MPs, give them the right to routinely vote their conscience, and to introduce their own legislation. We would need to let them co-operate with members from opposing parties, without viewing them as traitors. With our politicians able to think for themselves and for us, we would have different expectations of them. We, too, would then expect them to work together to "get things done for the Canadian people."

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute.

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