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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Canada Needs More Politicians

I've got a feeling that John Robson likes being heckled:

What we need isn't more cabinet members. It's more backbenchers, as in Britain, where the 650-member Commons contains hundreds of MPs who cannot aspire to climb the greasy pole and whose job satisfaction and ego gratification depend on annoying the executive as effective committee members. If you agree with James Madison (in "Federalist #51") that for the sake of good government and liberty "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," our system is clearly pernicious as well as petty.

Mr Robson is onto something. He's just going about it the wrong way. As the article rightly points out, the Canadian Cabinet is way too big. A country of 34 million does not need 38 cabinet ministers. Somehow the Americans get by with just 22 executive level seat warmers.

Even that's overmanning by my count. George Washington had only four members of his cabinet (State, Treasury, War and Attorney General) and did rather well. By the time of Abraham Lincoln, the American cabinet had ballooned to seven members. More than enough to run history's first industrial war. 

Let's use the sixteenth American President's cabinet as a baseline. The American population in 1860 was about 31 million, roughly the same size as modern Canada. Subtract our 38 from Lincoln's 7 and you're left wondering what the other 31 are doing. I know we live in the age of big government, but most of the actual governing is done by senior level bureaucrats. The real job of a modern minister of the crown is to play photo-op with members of the Press Gallery.

Robson's point is that with so much ministerial patronage at the PM's disposal, most loyal backbencher have a reasonable shot of becoming one of Her Majesty's ministers. This means that most MPs in the government caucus stay on their best behaviour, lest they miss the ministerial limo.

In Mother England, with some 650 members of their House of Commons, the chances of getting into cabinet, at least for the typical political non-entity, are close to zero. With little to lose, the backbenchers can become professional pains-in-the-ass to the party leadership. They even occasionally vote against government measures, a blue moon event among our trained seals in Ottawa.

Where I find fault with Robson's approach is that he doesn't go far enough. We might need more members in the House of Commons, and we certainly need fewer cabinet ministers, but above we need to pay our politicians less. The professional politico is a threat to representative democracy.

It's Wednesday, so indulge me in my nostalgia. In days of yore being a politician was a part-time job. Certainly Sir John A Macdonald spent almost all of his adult life in politics. He was, however, the exception that proved the rule.

One of our first Prime Minister's greatest challenges was getting quality people into his small cabinet. Whenever he would find a bright young star in the backbenches, they'd promptly quit and go back into the productive sector.  This wasn't always out of disgust with Sir John A's pragmatism or alcoholism - both were common enough in Victorian Canada - but out of financial necessity. 

Aside from die hards like John A, most early Canadian politicians were hobbyists, drawn from the pillar of the community class through out the Dominion's many small towns. The local banker, lawyer, doctor, newspaper editor and merchant who had achieved some success and was considered sound by the respectable elements in the community.

They attended church regularly, managed their private affairs prudently and were generally sober. After some years of plodding distinction, and no disagreeable scandals, they would be approached by a group of mutton chopped notables from either Tory or Grit clans. They would implore the prospective candidate to run, talking at length about his duty to the community, his skills and public spirit; all with a wink about influencing the flow of government constructions contracts into the riding.

With the backing of the mutton choppers, the prospective candidate would do the traditional  grip and grin in the run up to the writ-period. Come the actual election campaign, the candidate would - like his modern counterparts - run himself ragged giving speeches and dodging the rotten tomatoes. Canadian elections of Queen Victoria's time were part riot, part carnival and part booze-up. So long as you survived in one piece, it was probably a lot of fun.

The candidate often had to pay his own election expenses, or at least a considerable part thereof. Fundraising was sporadic and parsimonious. Being an MP was certainly prestigious. The flow of patronage and largesse sometimes profitable, the salary however was paltry. The whole thing was often an enormous pain. More work and comparatively little glory. Going back into private life was a constant temptation. When a member was faced with the choice of voting his conscience, or following the party whip, it was far easier to walk away from politics.

The modern member of the House of Commons faces different constraints. For quite a few an MPs six-figure salary is the best they've ever done, or will likely ever do. In contrast the job of being an MP in Victorian Canada was something of a sacrifice.  John P Robarts - Ontario's premier in the 1960s - advised young backbenchers, many of whom were lawyers, to keep their practices up. If they had to choose between the party whip, and their own beliefs, having a fall back financial position would make the choice easier. That advice would likely fall on many deaf ears today.

When politics becomes a profession, not just for a few die-hards but for most members of the House of Commons, it ceases to be about principles or public service (however defined) and instead about keeping the paycheque. Pay politicians less and you'll get better politicians. 

Take a successful modern day example of what I'm taking about, the state of New Hampshire's legislature. It goes by the gloriously colonial sounding name of the General Court of New Hampshire. It has 424 members, 400 in the lower House of Representatives, 24 in the Senate. They legislate for a population of 1.3 million. That's one member of the legislature for every three thousand residents. Salary? A whopping $100.00 a year plus very moderate expenses. That puts the total salary expense of the General Court at $42,400 per year, or about 27% of the $157,731 each Canadian MP receives.

New Hampshire is one of the nicer - and less taxed - jurisdictions in the world. The Steyn himself lives in the Granite State, a bastion for many ornery libertarian types. Is Canada better governed than New Hampshire? Is the value for dollar of a typical Canadian federal politician really four times greater than that of a whole American state legislature? 


Posted by Richard Anderson on January 12, 2011 | Permalink


I agree with him in that we need far fewer cabinet ministers just as we need far fewer ministries. We do not however need more politicians. What we need is a better distribution of politicians to reflect the populations. No need to add more, just reduce the numbers where needed, and we all know where that is.

Posted by: Alain | 2011-01-12 11:40:26 AM

Since PET ruined the Country changing the make-up of parliament is just about impossible without an armed rebellion and who has a gun anymore?

Posted by: Goff Tayler | 2011-01-12 2:35:53 PM

Actually, I remember some libertarian politician suggesting that we need 1000 senators and representatives at federal level, so that they can't get anything done whatsoever.

Posted by: Jason | 2011-01-12 10:35:19 PM

Hear hear!

Posted by: Dallas Paquette | 2011-01-13 8:20:57 AM


It is no longer about service since there is a party whip to make sure you toe the party line. The large number of cabinet ministers is the reward system as the pay/perks is substantialy higher than that of a back bencher. The old carrot on a stick. Shut up and do as told and you will be rewarded. We may even throw your constituants a few bones.
Speak your own mind and you will sit in the nose bleed section with little chance of promotion.
It is truly a external Democracy with a internal Dictatorship. All parties. Count the independents that had the nerve to go against the grain.

Posted by: peterj | 2011-01-13 7:14:47 PM

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