Politics of Canada
3 min

The problem with that term limit proposal

I don’t really mean to add to the pile-on
over Belinda Stronach’s editorial in The Globe
and Mail
that proposes term limits for MPs, and Paul Wells does a really good
job in taking apart most of her arguments, but I thought a few things
should probably be mentioned about the underlying ideas that haven’t yet been
touched on.

As with most reform proposals, most of the
ideas haven’t been thought through, and most have not been
placed properly in the context of the way our political system operates. Nor does it
necessarily look at what the very same proposal has achieved in places abroad
where such a system has been implemented. Case in point: Stronach proposes that MPs be limited to two consecutive terms, with some 50 percent turnaround in the Commons every election (which we currently have
set at four-year “fixed elections,” but that particular issue is better
discussed elsewhere. I’d recommend picking up John Pepall’s Against Reform if you haven't
already). Other jurisdictions with two-term limits operate with varying degrees
of success for political leadership – consider the “lame duck” syndrome in American
presidents – and are abused in other countries, such as with the Putin/Medvedev
seat-warming exercises in Russian, or those South American husband-and-wife
rotating presidencies. It's not inconceivable that something similar would happen under the
system Stronach proposes.

The balance of power in such a system would
also start to shift away from the House of Commons, simply because the
constantly rotating crop of MPs will not have the expertise or capacity
to keep things in check. University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagassé notes that under Stronach’s proposal, the permanent civil service is likely to start
dominating policy-making, turning Canada into a pseudo-technocracy. Given that
we are supposed to elect our MPs in part for their policy ideas, there is far
less time or ability for them to generate policy ideas through the established
process.

It strikes me that the party apparatus
itself would become more powerful as well, with power shifting to those
backrooms. Because MPs will have less time to establish a presence within the
party before their eight years are up, it will be the parties that take on even
more importance in order to support the constant churn of
MPs through the system. This is hardly a means of keeping things
“post-partisan” as Stronach hopes. Also, one wonders how leadership will
actually work under such a system, unless all party leaders begin a pattern of
two terms in, one term out, with a “caretaker” in place in the Commons until
they can make their glorious return for another two terms in four years.

But more than anything else, Stronach’s
proposal doesn’t place any value in incumbency or institutional memory. Sure,
she proposes enhanced training and mentorship, but mentorship from whom? Two-term MPs who have been forced into retirement at the time when they’ve finally
figured out the system? If anyone has any doubts about the value of parliamentary experience, they really need look no further than the current
Parliament, which faced a one-third turnover in the most recent election. It
can be pretty painful.

More than a third of current parliamentarians don’t have adequate experience in policy areas to debate
policy, let alone ask questions. They don’t know procedures, which takes time
to learn (assuming that they haven
t come in with a disdainful attitude for them, as some MPs have). They blindly follow party orders because they don’t have enough of a
feel for the way their own jobs work and what their own powers and
responsibilities are. They read from scripts because they don’t have
depth of experience in the issues they’re debating, let alone the
manner in which debate happens. Experience in Parliament takes time, and
effective MPs have experience. Incumbency can also breed a certain amount of
independence. It’s not simply that MPs are looking for lengthy careers, because
it’s a job with zero job security, no matter how much of their lives or outside
careers they’ve put on hold. And if an incumbent is getting too long in the tooth? Well, his or her riding association can make that feeling known in a nomination race 
– like they're supposed to. Meanwhile, this proposal asks us to willingly accept a
permanent system of rookies reading from scripts and doing what the party
tells them. Seriously?

I do realize that this is supposed to be a
period of renewal and for generating fresh ideas within the Liberal Party, and
to a certain extent the NDP, as part of its leadership process. But one
should also keep a certain amount of realism in these reform proposals and
look not only at the supposed benefits of such proposals, but what some of the
actual, if unintended, consequences are likely to be. Above all, one should understand the way the system operates and why before one feels the need
to tinker with it needlessly, because the unintended consequences of the solution can be worse
than the original problem.

Bookmark and Share