Saturday, March 7, 2009

Imported Discussion from TPB about the Responsibilities of Elected Members

Tiny Perfect Blog raised an interesting question on her blog in light of comments by the Premier about Tories asking pointed question of other Tories in the Legislature:

"Is Stelmach suggesting that most of the time they don’t reflect the views of their constituents?"

I thought I'd take her up on her question, and there have been good anonymous comments as well. Rather than highjack someone else's blog to post my own, long diatribes, I thought I'd re-post the discussion here.

Anonymous said (@9:15 am)...
I think he might be revealing the fact that most of the questions are written by Ministers staff. Alberta should end the ridiculous charade of PC backbenchers claiming to hold the Cabinet colleagues accountable in the Assembly.
Enlightened Savage said (@10:48 am)...
Good question, TPB. Let me ask another one...

When was the last time an NDP MLA tabled a letter from a constituent applauding the PC Government for something? Or are we expected to believe that none of the thousands of PC voters in the NDP ridings has EVER written a letter to their MLA?

Blind devotion to the mighty Party Line is not the exclusive domain of the Tories.

Anonymous said (@12:36 pm)...
ES: Decent point, though that's not really the opposition's job. The government has dozens of dutiful Tory backbenchers to pat them on the back. So it is surprising when, occasionally, a Tory backbencher asks a real question (even if the Minister still knows it's coming). This practice of Tories asking "questions" of Tories really should end.

The only party that doesn't seem to have a party-line these days is the Libs. Anybody know when a real shot will be fired in the so-called "revolution"?

The 2 highlighted portions really stirred up my blogging muscles. Which led to this, below...

Enlightened Savage said (@1:21 pm, but not on TPB)...
Anon@12:36 - It's not really ANYONE'S job to represent their party - an artifical construct within the political system - or its views, policies or aspirations ahead of those of their constituents.

Every single Member is obliged to ask questions and make statements on behalf of the citizens within their constituency - the same citizens who pay them, and hire them (through election) to represent them (even the ones who voted for someone else). Opposition MLA's are supposed to offer alternative solutions and hold the government to account - but they're also supposed to represent the people in their riding ahead of their own party, and when the people of Edmonton-Riverview support a government program or initiative, I want to hear Kevin Taft SAY so. Likewise, when they're opposed to a government program in Fort Mac, I want to hear Guy Boutilier stand up and say so (fat chance, in both cases).

PC MLA's have to ask questions of cabinet ministers in QP because the citizens of the constituency want and deserve answers, on the record, about their concerns (as opposed to "puffball questions", which are unfortunately present in EVERY parliament from the government back-benches). Our system doesn't recognize "this member is affiliated with the same party as the government, and therefore should already have the answer" - that's why the Speaker identifies members by constituency, rather than by name or party. When, for example, Dave Rodney asks a question, it is (in theory) the people of Calgary-Lougheed that want an answer, hence the Speaker's recognition of "The Honourable Member from Calgary-Lougheed".
Of course, the drawback to this is that the people of, for example, Calgary West seem NEVER to have a question of their provincial government - or at least, I can't find one in Hansard. Because ministers typically don't ask questions of other ministers - even if the people in their riding are clamouring for answers.

The fact that virtually all parliaments abuse this function to toss out "puffball questions" for ministers to promote various programs during time that should be spent earnestly asking - and thoroughly answering - important questions of the day is unfortunate - but is a sad reality of the hyper-partisan party system under which our political apparatus operates - it's ALWAYS time to get ready for the next election. :(

I've got no compunctions about highjacking MY blog for this discussion (I've already cleared it with myself, and myself is fine with it), so... discuss. :)


Tiny Perfect Blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Talk about a slow news day.

Anonymous said...

Okay, are we looking for MLAs (regardless of stripe) to truly ask tough questions in the legislature that they are getting from their constituents or are we looking for them to really assist their constituents in dealing with the Provincial government?

My personal answer would be both.
I have a Liberal MLA who won't answer questions that I have regarding passed legislation. I have an MLA who has shown that he would rather ramble and rant in the legislature than get to the point and ask and pursue a relevent question.

My point is that we elect MLAs, some of whom forget as soon as they are elected who put them there and to whom they are supposed to be accountable.

Collectively, we elect a government, that government is made up of not just the party with the most seats, but the entire 83 that sit in the leg.

The floor of the legislature is a public venue and it would be a stretch to have the party in power flog its own without a positive outcome being evident. But its imperative that the 'difficult' questions do get asked, that constituents push for the answers, even if they are outside the leg floor.

For example, if, such as my experience noted, you don't get an answer, go to another MLA who would be happy to explain the impact of passed legislation or assist you in your pursuit of an answer. Its been my experience that you will find them, be they a Conservative, a Liberal or an NDP.

Oh, and I would disagree with TPB. The fact that there are fewer opposition MLAs gives them a disproportionate greater opportunity to ask questions and to take up QP time.

Enlightened Savage said...

Anon@1:11 - Good point. We're only talking about the role of our elected representatives in a representative democracy. What could be less important than THAT?

Let's get back to mud-slinging and partisan hack-jobs. Because those are so CLEARLY keeping the voters engaged, as evidenced by our GREAT voter turn-out in this province.

Anonymous said...

ES, Interesting discussion indeed.

I get the parliamentary tradition of not referring to members by party affiliation....

More to the point, a political party is no more artificial a construct than the geographic boundaries of a riding. Why is geographically defined representation democratically superior to "programmatic" (even where the geographic is traditionally built into the system as in ours). So the idea that the real/first/more important job of MLAs is always to represent their "riding" over their party is at least debatable. My view is that there are legitimate, competing concepts of representation that could well justify, on solid democratic grounds, ignoring or at least not promoting even the majority views of ones constituents on a particular issue. Democracy itself is such a difficult, contested concept that we shouldn't expect the representative function to be simple or unconflicted. Any attempt to make it so is likely to weaken democracy.
The underlying concept of "representation" in your post seems to be (to oversimplify): finger to the wind, merely reflect what your geographically defined constituents say. There's been lots of scholarship on this issue that, to my mind at least, shows this idea to be deficient.
If these constituents' views don't reflect the views of you and your party/caucus, and your views were public and well-known before the election, it's pretty easy to make the case that orderly representation and good electoral accountability (i.e. clear choices based on clear predictions about the post-electoral behaviour) are served by "sticking to one's guns". I'm not opposed to constituency representation, but it has real limits - maybe even some democratic downsides.

Aside from that, my understanding is that opposition members often do table such constituent correspondence, out of a sense of representative duty, though they downplay the political significance of it. One can argue that they "owe" that to those who sent them to the Assembly to represent the party's position on the issue. Which many do.

TPB raises a good point about opposition support for government legislation (the majority I'd say) and government members' support for opposition initiatives (virtually never, except when the initiative itself is either inconsequential or panders to the PC base. Or both, as in, Taft's absurd motion about making rodeo Alberta's official sport).

I'd also venture a guess that QP involving government members is rarer in parliamentary democracies that even TPB suggests, though I stand to be corrected on that. And if that member of the government's caucus really wants a question answered and really wants an answer on the record, they should at least write it themselves, rather than having it written by ministry staff and then having them doled out at caucus meetings. That's all too common. Lots of ways outside of QP for PC members to get a Minister on record for a constituency issue.

Anonymous said...

well- guy b did stand up- and got fired, as did tpb and now she has shut herself down. what is the point of standing up to anyone powerful anymore??