Weak parties or strong progressive government?

That’s the choice

Tom Perry was one of the worst cabinet ministers in the Harcourt government.

Following the 1991 election Premier Mike Harcourt handed Perry the post-secondary portfolio.  The Vander Zalm government had just left the new government an undisclosed deficit of over $1 billion and Perry’s job was to manage cuts while moving forward on promised reforms that included expanded access.   Perry was a complete failure and was booted from cabinet eighteen months later.

Here’s Perry’s problem in a nutshell.  He could articulate problems.  In fact he had a healthy dose of chicken-little complex.  But he was incapable of landing on a tough solution and sticking to it.  In other words he wasn’t cut out for government.

How is this relevant to politics today?

Perry has an op-ed in today’s Times Colonist.  In it he calls for a new kind of politics, where politicians are released from caucus discipline and can ask any question they want.  It sounds good.  After all who doesn’t want politicians to say what they think?

Perry provides an imaginary example of what can happen to a progressive government:

“The first cabinet meeting deals with an “emergency.” A decision must be taken today to close 20 small hospitals, including two in your riding. This acid test of “team playership” makes you queasy. You ask a feeble question about who will treat the sick that your party promised to protect. The answer is vaguely reassuring: The Centre has everything under control and inside a “message box.” Rely on the box and all will be well.

“A government caucus meeting follows. The backbenchers are restive, as your party promised the moon but can barely deliver the bacon.

“It seems appropriate to warn them of a coming storm in your area of ministerial responsibility. You plan, with The Centre, a short presentation. As the caucus chair calls the agenda item, the premier suddenly intervenes to end discussion: “This is not the place to be discussing that issue.”

Except Perry knows that’s bullshit.  Here’s what really happens:

You’re a cabinet minister.  You are supposed to scope the problems – all the problems – and provide solutions for your colleagues around the caucus and cabinet table.  You expect them to ask tough questions and raise their interests.  You’re prepared and you bring all the relevant information into the room.

They have a discussion and land on the best choice to meet all the issues identified.  It’s usually not perfect.  There are no perfect choices.  But you and your colleagues make the best choice they can.

And once you have made the choice you are expected to make the case for that choice.  That’s why you are in cabinet.  It’s how you get things done and move forward.

Perry was incapable of making tough choices.  He wanted people to like him.  He hated people yelling at him.

I remember walking into his office for a briefing on college cuts that impacted faculty.  They had to do more with less, but the alternative options were either tuition increases or no cost control a la the Rae government.  There was no perfect solution.  Perry was on the verge of a breakdown.  These were his colleagues who were impacted and he couldn’t deal with it.  He kept talking about how this was a decision he couldn’t make.

He wasn’t up to governing.  He left government the next election, declining to run again.

Government is not about easy solutions.  It’s never Sarah Palin simple.  Government that’s about making important changes is even tougher.  You battle entrenched and powerful interests.  You face a conservative media and oft-times you know the pay-off is not immediate.

The battle for medicare is the perfect example.  People forget that it cost Tommy Douglas his government.  It called for very strong willed politicians to get it done.

Perry’s model exists.  It’s called the US government, a weak party system full of checks and balances.  Everyone is free to state their own opinions.  Little is ever accomplished.

In the system Perry wants, there is no moving forward in the cacophony of opinions.  At the end of the day that only serves the status quo.  I want more from any government I help to elect.

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13 Responses to Weak parties or strong progressive government?

  1. Akat says:

    Well said Ian. The US system is in complete grid lock – with a Presidential agenda hamstrung out of the gate by Blue Dogs and now in complete tatters. Cowardice by a few conservative Democrats was all that was needed to put an end to the hope many had for better healthcare, human rights etc.

    Oh, and want a system that is completely vulnerable to money? Check out Washington DC. Those with the means [corporations, wealthy families and foundations, special interests] and the knowledge to game the system with money are eager to see more of the same here.

    Progressives beware.

  2. Norm Farrell says:

    You describe a theoretical style of cabinet operation that we have not seen much. In fact, over the last decade, the Premier’s office has taken on the role of policy creation while ministries are caretakers and facilitators, overseen by deputies appointed by and loyal to the Premier’s office. Messaging is controlled from the centre and Ministers with original thoughts are reined in quickly. Example: every scrum is recorded so Ministers dare not stray from talking points provided to them. The all powerful leader is not a model I care for.

    If I have an issue to discuss with government or want to lobby about policy, the last person I want to talk to is my MLA. If I already know the approved talking points, my elected representatives has nothing to add.

  3. Ian says:

    Norm, i’m familiar with the nineties and what I described wasn’t theoretical. It’s what I witnessed. When I talk about a strong party system that gets stuff done, I don’t mean with an absence of debate. But at some point agreement is reached and then members fall in behind the agreement. And in the best world there is room for nuance there.

    What I despair of is evident in the States, where progressives – a broad term – seem afraid of reaching agreement and falling in behind it. The right has no such problem. Even the few moderates left on the Republican side fell in behind the scorched earth approach chosen by the leadership. It’s no wonder this won out over the babble that comes from the progressive forces. They’re for and against just about everything. Where they stand is pretty much incomprehensible to the average voter. It’s one reason why they’re failing.

    Thanks for the wise comment, as always.

  4. Jim Black says:

    Good points Ian. The parliamentary party system just won’t work without caucus discipline. Some may feel this means MLAs are stuck following the party line too much, but the trade-off is a system where legislative change can be made quickly, meaning a government can be responsive to immediate issues. The congressional system leaves members of government at loggerheads too often, uncertain if bills will pass or fail, and far too vulnerable to individual lobbying from special interest groups.

  5. Warren White says:

    Hey you guys – the way I see it, the old sports idea of “team” applies here. Every team member has to buy in to the common goal, swallow their individual pride at times and play their role in order for the team to be successful. The quarterback or goal-scorer/goalie may get the glory, but the linemen and the fourth-liners are just as important to achieving the goal. However, all have to take direction from the coach and pull in the same direction. The NDP dissidents have decided they don’t like the quarterback because they think she won’t take them to the Cup or they have aspirations of being the quarterback themselves. They are selfishly putting themselves ahead of the team. They should have left after last season or not signed the new contract if they thought the quarterback didn’t have what it took. The fans demand an all-together effort – no room for Randy Mosses.

    Warren White
    Sports Fan in Gordon Head, Victoria

  6. Devinder says:

    I don’t know if what you wrote is the truth or if it is bullshit. At first glance it sounds like bullshit from a politcial insider trying to justify the crap that occurs in Victoria and elsewhere. But I also see that if you get every politician grandstanding and speaking out more often you are going to end with more bickering, more bullshit, and less getting done. Of course all voters want is people like Bob Simpson and more of them. even I liked what Bob had to say. Is the answer ? Even if you are right about this I don’t think voters are going to buy it. They want more Bob Simpsons and Bill Bennetts and less Carole James and Gordon Campbells. I am confused.

  7. David Black says:

    Devinder, let’s not forget that Bill Bennett stayed silent in the Liberal caucus for ten years, and it was only when he was tossed out that he “spoke up”. He certainly didn’t speak up when Paul Nettleton and Elayne Brenzinger were being savaged by that same Premier and caucus more than five years ago.

    Ian is quite right that the kind of system being proposed by Tom and others is one ruled by money. It takes money to get elected in those systems (without strong parties) and you have to vote the “right” way to get that money. I don’t want any part of it.


  8. Kevin says:

    Once again Ian you are not wrong.

    However you downplay the fact that the Premiers enjoy the single most powerful political position anywhere on the continent. Short of dictators there are no other political offices that are empowered with such a cross the board ability to rule.

    That dynamic is what drives both Cabinet and Caucus discipline more than any other contributing factor. The Premier’s office weilds more political power than that of the POTUS and most people are unaware of the fact that that much raw power exists in the west annex. That kind of power instills fear in any who oppose or cross it, hence it ends their career if they do.

    The problem the NDP has faced since before the last election is that their leadership is being challenged from within. Its not normal healthy dissonance which people use to leverage their issues and forward the agenda of their constituency. Its the kind of dissonance that will never go away nor will they become part of the team because it will never be in their interest or part of their agenda to be a team player. They simply oppose based on the fact that they believe there is a better leader out there whom they support instead of the current one.

    I think the current leadership would be best served to hear and meet the challenges laid before them by the healthy dissonance and simply call the other’s who want to lead the party what they are. Saboteurs.

    The fact is these people have put themselves ahead of the good of the party and more importantly ahead of all the people of BC by undermining the NDP and leaving governing to the crooked agenda of the Liberals. Which means they are unfit to govern. And certainly should not be awarded with leaders office or be allowed anywhere near the power placed in the confidence of the premiers office.

  9. RossK says:

    A heck of a comment thread with lots of considered opinion worth thinking about. Thanks all – as a non-insider I really enjoyed it.


  10. Norm Farrell says:

    Well stated, Kevin. And RossK is correct, this a worthwhile dialog.

    Thanks Ian.

  11. Tony Martinson says:

    I don’t entirely disagree, but I think that a lot of this could be avoided by:
    A) getting the big corporate money out of politics AND
    B) encouraging better media and political literacy among the populace.

  12. Devinder says:

    I had to come back and read this article again. I am still confiused by it. I don’t want it to be right or to make sense. But when I think about it, I think it probably is right and that does not sit well. We do not know much about our politics and hot it really works but it would seem we must leanr more of try to pretend it works differently. I just see no sense in what was written but it is hard to disagree as well. I still need to think more on this.

  13. Ian says:

    Don’t worry, we all do Devinder.

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