Public opinion polls show that Canadians have lost respect for their political
parties and institutions. They are more inclined to engage in protests
or to work for interest groups to influence public policy. Parties are
seen as less representative of their views and more interested in fundraising
and electioneering. This article, drawing on many decades of political
involvement and academic study of politics, suggests some things that might
be done to regain public support for our parties and institutions.
Political parties today fail to involve their membership in policy development.
Members wish to do more than wear a button during an election campaign
and raise funds in between. Members must have input in policy development.
MLAs and candidates were enlisted to assist in this province-wide effort.
This idea was borne out of a discussion I once had with Tommy Douglas,
as I drove him to Winnipeg from a speaking engagement in Brandon. I asked
him what advice he could offer concerning the internal bickering which
had caused the exodus of three caucus members. His words were, Keep your
Caucus members busy with public policy. There is no better garden than
one well tended and it enriches their purpose and they are thus able to
contribute while at the same time demonstrating to the public an Opposition
Party that is prepared to listen to those whom it wishes to govern. The
more I thought about his message, the more I realized how Tommy had hit
the nail on the head.
In Manitoba, during the eighties, we made considerable progress in developing
some innovative methods in enhancing the role of backbench members of the
Legislature. Real votes were held in caucus; all caucus members including
its cabinet members were treated as equals. Caucus members attended and
participated in cabinet committees and reported back. Detailed briefings
of budget estimates and proposed legislation were always shared with the
Caucus. Their approval was required for the legislative process flow chart.
Personally, I feel we should also have ensured more rotation of Caucus
members within cabinet. I believe most members can benefit from a stint
in Caucus as well as in Cabinet. There may be some merit to the proposal
by Belinda Stronach, for the election of Cabinet Ministers by the caucus
membership. This proposal has been too easily dismissed by editorial writers.
Certainly the Prime Minister should continue to designate the ministerial
positions. Editorial writers complain that such a system will increase
caucus factionalism. This may be partly true but it would also reasonably
diminish some of the excessive power First Ministers exercise in respect
to caucus matters. Perhaps, a better balance as is exercised in New Zealand
and Australia could be considered.
We could have more effective use of our legislative assistants. Greater
use of members should take place in various committees meeting with the
public before legislation is introduced in the House. Finally, more private
members resolutions and Bills should reach a vote. The House should also
be given a greater role in approving major appointments.
While there are additional occasions where free votes should be encouraged,
I would caution against too much enthusiasm on this score. First, if a
Caucus works together as a team, there may be little need for more free
votes. Unfortunately free votes may pit one member against another in a
public venue and create unnecessary dissension, which is better avoided.
Secondly, if there are too many free votes, a weak member may buckle from
the pressure from powerful lobby groups, break ranks and other members
are likely to point a finger at that member. I recall the threat we faced
in regard to the introduction of Public Auto Insurance in 1970, and years
later with compulsory seat-belt legislation for motorists, compulsory helmet
legislation for motorcyclists and amendments for sexual-orientation human
rights legislation. The same pressure was experienced in respect to our
controversial French- Language legislation.
Much more needs to be done to fix the party system. First, we need to
discourage the practice of guaranteeing nominations to incumbents or allowing
party leaders to name local candidates. Second, we need to further cleanse
politics of Big money. Let us make no mistake; the old phrase, Those
who pay the piper play the tune" remains true. To its credit, the former
Chrétien Government with support from the Opposition parties limited contributions
from corporations, unions and individuals and also provided some public
funding to political parties. Also to its credit the current Conservative
government, with opposition support, is further restricting contributions
by corporations and individuals. Although the legislation is still riddled
with too many loopholes, it has been a major step. Unfortunately, any doubt
about enforcing these provisions has been heightened by the lack of authority
on the part of the Chief Electoral Officer to ensure federal parties are
not breaking political financing laws.
Third, we need to deal with abuses in third party advertising to avoid
the problem that besets American political campaigns. Fourth we need to
level the political field between organizations that advocate on behalf
of the consumers and the disadvantaged on the one hand and lobbyists working
on behalf of the rich and powerful who enjoying lavish tax subsidies. Much
of the recent controversies in the federal parliament tarnishing the reputations
of the previous Liberal government, have related to a real or a perceived
association between political contributions and the favours that were subsequently
Our government and some other provincial governments were among the first
to enact conflict of interest and Freedom of Information legislation. Provisions
were enacted to provide funding for constituency offices, thus enabling
Members of the Legislature to do a better job of serving their constituents.
Limits were imposed on what could be spent in election campaigns by political
parties and public funding was provided to defray the cost of campaign
expenditures. These measures were a significant step in reducing the disproportionate
influence of the rich and powerful on the democratic process.
The Importance of Consultation
Shortly after the 1969 election when Ed Schreyer became Premier of Manitoba,
I learned a lesson which convinced me of the advantages of public consultation.
As the newly appointed Minister given responsibility for the contentious
auto insurance file, I chaired a feasibility committee that toured the
province, receiving oral and written submissions, about whether public
auto insurance would be feasible. We heard many real life experiences from
the provinces motorists. Although this perhaps proved to be one of the
most contentious issues in Manitoba history, public input was vital to
the recommendation we eventually would make to proceed with such a plan,
despite the fierce hostility of the Insurance industry.
Later in the 1980s, I saw an unfortunate experience with a lack of public
consultation relating to the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. Although,
the Corporate community was heavily involved in the discussions with the
Unites States and also later in the NAFTA negotiations there was little
or no input from other sectors of society. My government did arrange a
series of public hearings in 1987 to obtain input about the proposed Canada-US
Free Trade Agreement. These meeting were extremely well attended far beyond
our expectations, and continued our tradition of seeking input from the
Before our Environment Act was enacted in 1987 documents were distributed
throughout the province to all potentially interested groups including
municipalities, environmental groups, farming organizations, companies
involved in the production and distribution of chemicals, etc. so they
could study the proposed legislation and consider making comments in writing
or at meetings which were being scheduled throughout the province. Indeed,
the consultation was very thorough. It was an opportunity to meet and listen
to Manitobans and also to convince them of the necessity to proceed with
more stringent and encompassing environmental legislation. Even those who
were concerned with some new aspects of the legislation because they thought
it might impose a tough burden on them were very appreciative of the opportunity
to express their views.
There were submissions by 400 concerned citizens, business people, environmentalists,
and farmers. Also 60 written submissions were received. It was an opportunity
to build trust and convince them of the practicality and the necessity
of tougher measures in order to protect our environment which in the long
term would result in a healthier economy for Manitoba. The consultation
proved useful for all interested parties including for our government as
proponents of the legislation. We got some very useful feedback that helped
us improve the legislation. This was the type of legislation that might
have given us a great deal of difficulty in the House and in Committee
had we not involved a broad spectrum on Manitobans in the drafting process.
It was a new era in environmental protection for Manitoba.
It was at the time the most comprehensive, far-reaching, foresight and
up-to-date environmental legislation in Canada. Even today the legislation
remains almost totally unchanged. Governments, both federal and provincial
could learn much from this consultation process.
Consultation also means permitting Opposition members to play a more meaningful
role. When I was Attorney General for Manitoba, I recall the advantage
of having Opposition members play a key role in decision-making. We were
able to convince some Opposition members to work with us to enact what
was at that time, the nations most progressive legislation involving the
equal division of marital property on the breakdown of marriage. Some Opposition
members actually voted with the government on this issue.
To proceed without sufficiently consulting affects the quality of proposals
whether they are constitutional or otherwise.
Accountability and Transparency
I believe it is critical to sound an alarm bell over the tendency to believe
we can deal with all the flaws in accountability and transparency by simply
enacting more laws. Too often we fail to acknowledge that no law will be
sufficient to prevent abuses of power by those governing. In my opinion,
most human flaws in judgment can be best remedied by injecting more sensitivity
and awareness in decision-making by those entrusted with positions of authority.
Governments problems frequently stem, not from its main departmental administrative
responsibility, but from Crown agencies and corporations beyond direct
Ministerial control. University of Manitoba political scientist Paul Thomas
sums this up well:
These are bodies that are not within the main departments of government
and ministers are not directly accountable for them but they answer to
the legislature for them and their reputation and the reputation of the
government can suffer when things happen. As governments reduce the size
of their public services and rely more and more on outside bodies both
to design and deliver programs, the chain in the line of accountability
lengthens and there is often a weak link in the boards of directors who
do not do due diligence.1
Often a Ministers role in directing a crown corporation has been played
both ways by the political Opposition and the media. That is, Ministers
have been held directly responsible for anything that is wrong at a crown
corporation or sometimes an agency as well, of course, as being held responsible
for fixing it. Yet explicit policy direction is said to constitute political
interference, compromising the independence of Crowns or agencies in
setting and following their own business plans.
Crown agencies and corporations must be mindful of not only their profit
and loss statements, but also of their important role in serving community
interests. For instance, the Manitoba Public Insurance Corporation, unlike
the private sector, does not differentiate rates according to age or gender
based on the recognition that although these factors can be measured, they
are irrelevant to sound public policy. The Manitoba Hydro and the former
Manitoba Telephone Systems cross-subsidize the costs of services in rural
and northern areas based on the belief that all citizens, wherever they
live in Manitoba, deserve an equal level of basic utility services.
However, sometimes, crown corporations regrettably establish short-term
or survival goals, which frequently conflict with the longer-term social
or economic goals of governments.
Some of these were costly to taxpayers. Poor management has often been
the reason for failure. In particular, processes ensuring accountability
of the Crown Corporation to the Minister, to the cabinet, to the Legislature,
and to the public were not robust. Too often policy decisions reflected
the vision of public administrators instead of politicians and occasionally
politicians avoided the responsibility, which was clearly theirs to assume.
Examples are not difficult to list and would encompass four administrations.
Public perceptions persisted that crown corporations were out of control".
Ministers were blamed despite potentially exonerating circumstances. The
boards of directors failed to understand their proper role, tending to
focus more on operations and less on strategic and public policy issues;
perhaps their role was not clearly set out for directors in their mandate.
Sometimes corporations like the MPIC and the MTS did not sufficiently foresee
problems or use suitable crisis management techniques to limit damage.
Regrettably we failed earlier in our term to enact reforms in the crown
corporations, which would have tightened up accountability, and headed
off some of the difficulties we later encountered during our last two years
By 1986, my administration had been convinced that better processes were
essential to keep crown corporations accountable. The government, and the
electorate, required maximum accountability.
Considering all the factors involved in accountability, control, corporate
autonomy and performance, the Government in 1987, enacted legislation known
as The Crown Corporation Accountability Act, 1987. Unfortunately, much
of this legislation was later gutted. This structure was designed to precisely
define the responsibilities of all of those engaged in the process. An
early warning system was required to alert those at the political level
of any planned corporate actions. Political accountability meant the public
had the right to know, and the government had a duty to disclose intentions,
successes, and failures.
Transparency is also essential with rate approvals. For instance, hostile
reaction to the auto insurance rates announced by my Government in December
of 1987 and the resulting lack of confidence by the public in their fairness
or necessity, it is unfortunate we had not established an independent review
of Auto Insurance Rates. After our term, the Conservative Government, learning
from our experience, required all rate increases to be approved by the
Public Utilities Board. More transparency was essential.
Another area where transparency is essential is when there are serious
allegations of misconduct on the part of Ministers. I am proud of the record
demonstrated by my ministers during our time in government but there were
a few examples where disclosure and resignation were the best policy.
One such occurrence involved one of my Ministers in 1987 where there had
been a minor car accident and the Minister had been drinking. He telephoned
me with the news early the following morning. I advised him it was a no-win
situation but you have the opportunity to come out of this looking very
honest. Call a news conference before the media get wind of this and announce
your resignation. It was a sad moment because he had been gaining momentum
as an able and well respected cabinet minister. Unlike others, however,
he had not tried to dodge or runaway from the incident. The public response
subsequent to his announcement was supportive. He plead guilty, paid his
fine, attended a treatment centre and he voluntarily extended, from one
to five years, his driving suspension term. After a reasonable period,
he was reappointed to Cabinet and became an increasingly respected Minister.
Another instance occurred shortly after our re election in 1986. The Winnipeg
media would level a serious accusation in their endeavours to damage a
senior and well-respected Minister and our government. The newspapers
headlines screamed that the Ministers partner gets hydro contract. Over
the Victoria Day weekend the paper ran six stories detailing the ministers
business investments in an office building in the downtown core area. The
allegations were that as Minister he had awarded a consulting contract
to a consultant and a tenant in his building. The Opposition had joined
in, and not surprisingly parroted demands for the ministers resignation.
On the Sunday the Minister and I discussed the crisis created by this vendetta.
Reports had reached us earlier about an editor saying in a half joking
fashion, assigning a reporter to the legislature, that he expected a cabinet
Ministers resignation by Christmas. Although, confident that there was
no conflict of interest we had to sweep aside any perception of one.
We agreed in the telephone conversation that the best approach was for
the Minister to announce his resignation from cabinet and then for me to
announce the establishment of a judicial inquiry by former Chief Justice
Samuel Freedman. Freedman was a jurist widely respected in all sectors
of the Manitoba community. Justice Freedman would finish his inquiry in
July and would entirely exonerate the Minister. Freedman fired some scathing
comments at the Winnipeg Free Press. For the newspaper to portray Minister
and tenant as partners without any qualifications was to make a mockery
out of the language. Freedman concluded that not only was the Minister
innocent of the alleged conflict of interest but there was not any case
to be made against him. The papers investigative team failed to speak
to any of the tenants directly and if they had they would have discovered
that the tenants with the largest contracts had moved into the building
before the NDP had been elected and prior to the Minister becoming an investor
in the building. Indeed it would have been revealed that some of the principal
tenants had Conservative connections and they had received government contracts
during the Conservative term in power. Justice Freedman summed it up best
when he asserted, there has been a lot of reaching done here all the way
into left field.
After the Freedman Report the newspaper acknowledged that it had messed
up unrelated facts to give them an ominous look. Unfortunately this admission
was late in coming, already the Minister had been publicly besmirched and
the editorial writers only spoke out when he was already exonerated; it
was ancient history. When this highly competent Minister returned to cabinet,
all welcomed him with wide-open arms and he successfully continued his
work for us on health and energy related matters.
You cannot spend a decade as Premier without learning a few lessons about
federal-provincial relations. In my view, every effort must be exhausted
to promote mechanisms for federal-provincial cooperation where greater
co-ordination and efficiency by governments is essential to combat the
deepening problems, currently confronting Canadians. Unilateral changes
as we have seen in federal-provincial arrangements like equalization and
other cost sharing programs must be prevented in the future. All governments
working together is essential to reverse the worsening trends apparent
in the list of critical issues facing Canada today. The post-war era witnessed
a high level of such co-operation. Partisan and jurisdictional bickering
between the levels of government can no longer be tolerated or afforded
in this new millennium.
In the past, there were serious mistakes made in constitutional negotiations.
Retrospectively, the process pursued in Meech Lake failed to engage the
public in the debate. More than governments must be involved in constitutional
discussions. As Allan Cairns points out, the elites of the groups with
Charter recognition have stakes in the constitution. They have left the
audience and are now on the playing field, as are the aboriginal peoples
for whom the constitution is a potential lever to a less marginalized future.2
It is not only governments that now have a stake in the constitutional
process. The public must be more actively consulted than they were in the
past. A different process in the patriation of the constitution in 1982
and subsequently with Meech Lake negotiations [1987-1990] could have contributed
to greater Canadian unity rather than less as, we have seen since. In 1981,
Hugh Winsor was correct in asserting that there was distrust among Canadians
about whether First Ministers speak for them when it comes to constitution-making;
today that remains the case.3
Several errors were made in the Meech Lake process including the following:
As Premiers, we should have arisen above the disappointments and bitterness
resulting from the Aboriginal Constitutional Conferences in the 1980s.
The Aboriginal Self-Government issue should have been included in the Meech
Before agreeing to the Accord, as Premiers we should have persisted in
eliciting details of the process that the federal government would use
to obtain public input. The path traveled was wholly inadequate and eventually
self-destructive. Clearly, regardless of the reasons given for it, the
process should have been more open and hearings should have taken place
nationally and been readily available to all who were interested in making
submissions as occurred in Manitoba. As Premiers, we should have refused
the 18 hours continuous negotiations session at the Langevin Building.
Not only was it the wrong process but it was also seen as eleven men in
suits assuming too much responsibility at the price of the democratic
It was an error to proceed on the basis that no changes could be undertaken
unless the mistakes were egregious in nature. This sentiment; prevailed
at the 1987 Premiers meeting in St. John's when Premiers Ghiz, Peterson
and I, without success, sought agreement from fellow Premiers about possible
clarification of the wording in the Accord in respect to protection of
equality rights in the Charter. Unfortunately, this same hard line position
was taken later when it was declared that additional negotiations were
Imposing a time period was wrong. Alternatively, the effort to resolve
the impasse should not have been awaiting final resolution when only a
few weeks remained in the three-year constitutional requirement. As was
discovered later with the Charlottetown Accord it is unwise to give or
appear to be giving time ultimatums in respect to the completion time.
On the Manitoba front, in the 1980s, another issue stands out my governments
delay in acquiescing to public hearings on the contentious French language
controversy was a miscalculation on our part. It was seen as the act of
an arrogant government, not concerned about public input. It was further
highlighted by what appeared to be our governments willingness to ignore
public opinion as it was being expressed in various civic plebiscites held
at the time.
The involvement of the federal government on this issue, including its
passage of two resolutions unanimously in the House of Commons, was counterproductive.
It created negative rather than positive reaction throughout the province.
Their actions were incorrectly seen as Québec inspired and they, at the
best had a neutral effect and at the worst a quite damaging effect on our
efforts to resolve this matter within the Manitoba political process. Mulroney
and Trudeau were seen as two federal politicians pursuing a Québec agenda
and as such, this was the equivalent of swallowing a poison pill in Manitoba
and throughout western Canada. There are valuable lessons that can be learned
from our errors in pursuing constitutional changes. These can be avoided
next time and let me add eventually another effort will be necessary, sooner
Another serious debacle occurred with the CF-18 affair. In 1986, Westerners
were angered when a Winnipeg firm submitted a better and cheaper bid than
a Montreal firm on the CF-18 contract. Special considerations were invoked
to locate the work in Central Canada. Unfair favouritism by government
for any region in Canada will cause severe conflict in other regions and
result in dire political consequences. This issue would trigger the birth
of the Western Reform Party resulting in a few years in the complete annihilation
of the western Tories. The lack of transparency in the decision-making
of the CF-18 contract had a major impact on public confidence in the decision-making
There are many other issues that deserve our attention. A reduction in
the power of the Prime Minister and the Office of the Prime Minister is
essential; the first Ministers power in Canada is perhaps unequalled in
any other developed democratic nation today. Canadian Prime Ministers make
all the major appointments including the Governor-General, members of the
Senate, Supreme Court and those appointed to major Boards and Commissions.
The same concern applies to provincial legislatures. As a result the media
tend to be fixated on the leaders. They decide which leaders receive their
attention. The media focus on the party leader is explained by the personal
power of the Prime Minister. But let me conclude with some thoughts on
Real democratic reform of our political institutions will probably require
constitutional change and that is a problem in Canada. Nevertheless I want
to point out a couple of areas where I think change is badly needed.
First I think Canada must join the vast majority of democracies, which
today operate with some form of proportional representation or a transferable
ballot. As we have witnessed in the last election, our current system rewards
those parties, which adopt regional rather than national identities. The
governing Liberals have traditionally enjoyed little and sometimes non-existent
representation in the western caucus. The Conservatives are usually under-represented
in Québec. The NDP historically enjoys a higher national vote than it receives
in its eventual representation in the House of Commons. Only running in
Québec, the Bloc Québécois is over represented. The first past the post
plurality electoral system has contributed to both regionalized parliament
and parties. To be successful, parties exercise a regionally focused appeal
to identify and target prospective supporters in their geographic strongholds.
The first past the post take all system contributes to this alienation.
Canada may be compelled if they are to reduce regional tension, look seriously
at some institutional changes. Some form of mixed proportional representation
system as occurred in New Zealand in 1990, deserves careful examination.
Proportional representation would be much more likely to ensure greater
regional participation and would result in the additional representation
of minorities that are now underrepresented in our institutions of government.
Fewer Canadians would likely respond as they do today with the remark at
election time: I am not voting because my vote doesnt count. Although
the chances for proportional representation are perhaps only marginally
better than that for a reformed Senate. Another alternative to proportional
representation would be a system of preferential voting where second and
third choice preferences as indicated on the ballot would be counted in
eventually computing the choice of the electorate. No longer would anyone
be elected with sometimes far less then 50% of the total votes cast.
A future minority government might yet refer this issue to the public to
vote in a referendum as happened in New Zealand. Regrettably, the mainline
parties are likely to hesitate about such a change. Only a referendum can
compel institutional reform. Some provinces are beginning to show leadership
on this issue. In the final analysis, at both the federal and provincial
levels, it is the public that must decide.
Second we must address the issue of the Senate. When it comes to the Upper
Chamber, my personal preference is for abolition. All the provinces have
long since abolished their upper chambers. None would argue that they made
a mistake. The support of the federal Progressive Conservative Government
by the fellow Conservative Premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the
CF-8 affair convinced me that a Senate would be ineffective in protecting
the interests of the region. They would also likely line up behind their
governing party. Senate reform, rather than abolition, will be difficult
but not impossible. What are some of the hurtles to overcome before Senate
reform can take place?
The equality of Senators from each province is a non-starter; however,
a representation formula based on equity may have the potential to succeed.
Generous concessions to Québec and Ontario to offset equal provincial Senate
representation are bound to generate a fatal reaction in the West.
Any proposed powers awarded to a Senate must relate to the exercise of
responsible government in a representative democracy. The current powers
of the Senate would likely have to be reshaped so it would not have the
right to deny the majority will in the House of Commons but would ensure
regional issues and concerns are given a full hearing.
The selection of Senators by any other method than by direct elections,
such as the option of choosing delegates by provincial governments, is
guaranteed to damage the credibility of any future second chamber.
Direct elections for Senators by proportional or transferable elections
may be a saleable and innovative alternative to the first past the post
The Chamber should have the power to review important appointments that
are now made by the Prime Minister, to ensure the selection process is
fair in its treatment of regional concerns. It must have the right to review
changes to crucial federal programs, which would have any impact on the
regions such as equalization.
In a letter to his wife, George Brown, one of the Fathers of Confederation
wrote, We were very near broken up on the question of the distribution
of members in the Upper Chamber of the Federal Legislature but fortunately
we have this morning got the matter amicably compromised after a loss of
three days discussing it. Co-operation was the answer for our Fathers
of Confederation. Co-operation is also essential to day.
Canadians must be prepared to demonstrate the same foresight, courage and
vision as that displayed by their Fathers of Confederation. Responding
to the political, economic and social imperatives of their time they created
the federal state called Canada. One hundred and forty years later, similar
vision and courage are essential to successfully meet the new economic
and social challenges. Improving the functioning of our parliamentary institutions
will not be easy. Sir Wilfred Laurier was right when he declared: My
object is to consolidate Confederation, and to bring our people, long estranged
from each other, gradually to become a nation. We must rise to the challenge
of Laurier and bring about changes that will breathe oxygen into our parliamentary
and democratic system. I am still optomistic that we can, one day, build
both the just society, envisioned by the late Prime Minister Trudeau and
the brave new world envisioned by my political mentor Tommy Douglas.
1. Paul Thomas, quoted in Francis Russell, Winnipeg Free Press, Its the
Roads Stupid July 8, 2006.
2. Alan C. Cairns editor Douglas E. Williams, Disruptions: Constitutional
Struggles, from the Charter to Meech Lake. McClelland & Stewart Inc, 1991
at page 261
3. Hugh Winsor, A pall on a style of politics. The Globe and Mail, November