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James Bowden

Open primaries in the Westminster system

Canada should consider bringing open primaries to our system of government. Open primaries allow all registered voters in a given constituency to vote in the selection of each party’s candidate, regardless of the voters’ party memberships, although the candidates must be members of their respective parties.Open primaries increase competition both among parties and within parties, generate free media coverage and create a base of committed voters for the general election. They also give all voters a choice, particularly important in safe seats where the ruling party’s riding nomination effectively determines the next Member of Parliament. More fundamentally, the adoption of open primaries would render electoral reform moot, and strengthen our current single-member plurality system.The issue was raised in the UK, where Conservative MP Douglas Carswell introduced a Private Members’ Bill on 13 October 2009 named the Parliamentary Elections (Recall and Primaries) Bill. As he explained to the House, “At 4 of the last 5 general elections, less than 1 in 10 parliamentary constituencies changed hands. The 5th was, of course, the Labour landslide of 1997, but even there, more than 70% of seats were held by the parties that already controlled them. In other words, most of us represent pocket boroughs. We have tenure. Our incentives are thus twisted: instead of answering outwards to the voters, MPs and safe seats are encouraged by the system to answer upwards to their whips.”Carswell’s suggestion was not novel, as an open primary had already occurred in the UK. The Conservative Party held an open primary in the constituency of Totnes in August 2009, but Carswell’s bill would have provided a formal framework for the experiment.The Independent described the primary: “After local Tories drew up a short-list of three potential candidates, ballot papers were sent to all 69,000 registered electors in Totnes.” 26% of registered electors of all parties… Read More

The ‘Maple Crown’ and the commonwealth realms

On 21 September the Macdonald-Laurier Institute hosted a presentation about a new book called Canada 1911: The Decisive Election that Shaped the Country, featuring one of the book’s co-authors, Patrice Dutil, Derek Burney, former diplomat and adviser to PM Mulroney, and Jack Granatstein, a Canadian political and military historian.As a Whig, I would have been a Clear Grit or Reformer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and would have wholeheartedly supported Laurier in every election that he contested as leader of the Liberal Party — including the free-trade election of 1911. At that time, the opposition contended that in order to retain its British identity, Canada needed to distance itself from the US. While I certainly treasure the institutions, traditions and values that we inherited from the United Kingdom, I refuse to accept the notion, still popular today, that upholding them means that Canada must be reflexively anti-American.We share the same fundamental historical origins and philosophic underpinnings as our Americans friends. Between 1854 and 1866, the crown colonies of British North America enjoyed free trade with the United States, until the United States Congress unilaterally abrogated the Reciprocity Treaty. During that time the British colonies did not, in fact, lose their British identity, which strongly suggests that the Laurier government’s agreement would not have enabled the US to annex Canada, economically or politically.After a member of the audience asked Patrice Dutil to clarify Conservative accusations that support of the free-trade agreement with the Americans amounted to treason against the Crown and annexation into the United States, the panellists and subsequent questioners veered toward a debate on constitutional monarchy versus republicanism.Author and journalist William Johnson commented that as a Canadian of Irish and French-Canadian heritage, he opposes the constitutional monarchy, and would prefer a Republic of Canada, implying an… Read More

More seats for Quebec? NDP stance is unconstitutional

In the last Parliament the Harper government introduced legislation to expand the House of Commons by about 30 seats in order to accommodate the growing populations of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario – all of which are currently under-represented. The New Democrats opposed giving these three provinces more seats, unless Quebec were to also receive additional seats. This argument is anti-constitutional. Yet neither the Harper government itself nor the Parliamentary Press Gallery has so far criticized the New Democrats’ anti-constitutional stance.Section 52 of the Constitution Act, 1867 sets out the fundamentals of our electoral system: “The Number of Members of the House of Commons may be from Time to Time increased by the Parliament of Canada, provided the proportionate Representation of the Provinces prescribed by this Act is not thereby disturbed.” Proportionate Representation means representation proportionate to population of each province in a single-member plurality (first-past-the-post) electoral system. Section 52 necessarily means that no province may receive additional seats that its population does not warrant. Clearly, the New Democrats’ suggestion that Quebec receive additional seats that its population does not warrant would “disturb” the principle of proportionate Representation and therefore violate this section of the Constitution Act, 1867.The Conservatives introduced Bill C-12, An Act to Amend the Constitution Act (Democratic Representation) in the last Parliament. It would amend Section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867 by changing the formula by which seats in the House of Commons are distributed and allocated amongst the provinces after each decennial census. Since this legislation would only change the formula, and not the principle, of representation by population, the Parliament of Canada alone can amend the Constitution Act, 1867 by passing this bill. The use of this new amending formula would set the number of persons per riding at 108,000, and therefore allocate 30… Read More