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Federal 'Tea Party' missing in action: How to find it

By Kevin Gaudet
web posted November 15, 2010

Barack Obama and Stephen Harper have something important in common – both have misunderstood what helped to get them elected. On the surface, they both seemed sincere. They both had a vision, albeit two very different visions, but each seemingly borne of conviction for change. Since being elected, both now have come to represent exactly that thing their supporters wanted them not to be – establishment politicians who, in effect, represent the status quo.

Unlike in the US, where the Tea Party movement is largely about opposing run-away spending and big government, in Canada the growing restlessness is also about citizens wanting to take back their governments. If it was only about taxes and spending in Canada, then BC's NDP wouldn't be leading in the polls.

A large element of frustration with the status quo has to do with voters feeling dis-empowered; feeling taken for granted; being lied to for too long by too many politicians; by having politicians hold themselves up to a lower standard than all others are held; by having politicians say one thing in a campaign and then doing another once elected.

Sadly, today Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff at the federal level both represent just that cynical kind of politician. Many voters don't want to accept this. If history is any indication at the federal level, without systemic reform of our democratic practices and powers, simply swapping a new group of politicians for the old will ensure a similar outcome.

What is needed is systemic democratic reform to ensure that there is accountability where, in the past, there has been none. These reforms would come in three areas; how MPs are selected, powers MPs have once elected and powers for voters as further checks on the power of government.

First, we need to change how MPs get selected. Currently most political parties protect any incumbent MP from any nomination challenge. Once an MP wins a seat he or she is rarely ever challenged. This means that in a safe seat an MP may serve for decades without ever having to compete for the nomination within his or her own party.

MPs will argue that they are held accountable during a general election. However, as most safe seats, are, well… safe, this amounts to a meaningless affirmation.

Relatedly, voting in the nomination in the first place is limited to a purchased membership in a political party. If anyone who chooses to were allowed to register to vote in an open primary, a local MP would be better motivated to represent the wide interests of the community, instead of the national party interests.

Second, give more powers to MPs and strip some from the Prime Minister. Give back to committees the powers and resources to review and approve all budgets. Open all votes to make them free for MPs to vote as they choose, including the budget. The only government-threatening motion should be a specific non-confidence motion. Set – and stick to – fixed election dates to avoid the constant threat of failed votes causing another election. Oh, and then there's the small matter of our Senate. It either needs to be elected or abolished outright.  

Third, citizens need to be empowered by having access to more democratic tools between elections. Just look at British Columbia where 700,000 citizens signed a petition forcing a vote on the Harmonized Sales Tax. While the legislation in BC isn't perfect, at least they have legislation. You could have seven million Canadians sign a petition at the federal level demanding a referendum on an issue and it wouldn't matter unless the government decided to act.

British Columbians again have the distinction of being the only jurisdiction in Canada of having legislation that gives citizens the ability to recall a politician.

In the US, the Tea Party movement isn't demanding these same democratic powers, mainly because many US states already have them in place. Twenty-nine US states have some form of recall legislation and 24 have some form of citizens' initiative referendum legislation. Further, US legislatures aren't always on election-watch because of majority-led-legislation being defeated.

While there is no anti-establishment Tea Party movement at the federal level in Canada yet, there could be unless voters are properly empowered. Politicians would be wise to get ahead of the curve and empower citizens now, rather than wait for the revolt.  

Kevin Gaudet is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. © 2010, Kevin GaudetESR

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