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Canada Needs Recall Legislation

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One of the major differences between the American political system and the Canadian is the ability that American voters have to hold their elected officials accountable during their term in office. In Canada, our only recourse is to await the next election to express our displeasure with an incumbent, but in the US, you are able to not only impeach, but also have recalls, which force a politician to run again.

I have only heard of one instance when someone tried a recall in Canada, and that was for a government, not a specific politician. That occasion was so fraught with difficulties (I think it included making sure that you had twenty five left-handed albino pipe fitters sign the petition) that I doubt anybody will try the process again.

Of course, as everybody on the receiving end of a recall petition or impeachment proceeding will tell you, the process can be highly partisan. But than again, it’s not very likely that anybody from within one’s own political party is going to initiate impeachment proceedings against them. For that to happen you’d have to be caught in bed with either a dead person or a live animal, and in some states, even that might not be enough.

Now what you do with wildlife in the privacy of your own home is nobody’s business but you own, but if you’re going to run for public office, there are certain rules of conduct that the people you voted for expect you to adhere to. One of the things most voters expect from you is an iota of partisanship. They voted for you because you claimed to represent a certain party and you believed in that party’s platform.

Now in some elections one could safely say that there isn’t much to choose from when it comes to the two major political parties in Canada. In times past, on the federal level anyway, the Conservative and Liberal parties were pretty much interchangeable. While it’s true that the Liberals have moved slightly to the right of the political spectrum economically, they have stilled stayed socially progressive.

The Conservative Party of Canada has metamorphosed into something new in Canadian politics. They have distinguished themselves from the rest of the field by being socially conservative and seemingly intent on rolling back the socio–political changes of the last twenty years.

(A quick background note. In Canadian politics, the federal party has little or nothing to do with the provincial party of the same name. The nature of the provincial parties is such that their policies and platforms change from province to province. Probably only the NDP has some sort of cohesion between the federal and provincial levels. In the last federal election, the Conservative Party in Ontario was remarkably quiet and never, to my knowledge, endorsed their federal counterparts.)

For some voters this meant the recent election was about preventing those changes from occurring. Politicians aware of those feelings played upon those fears in order to assure their re-election. Some Liberal party candidates even wooed potential New Democratic Party (NDP) voters by claiming they were the best chance of stopping the Conservative candidate in that riding.

Now I’m sure some of you have picked up on where I’m heading with all of this, but for those who (the majority of the world) don’t pay attention to Canadian politics I’ll fill you in. In the Federal election of January 23, 2006, the Conservative party won the most seats in our House of Commons. Although they did not win an outright majority, they still won sufficient seats to form the government.

As the new Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party, Stephen Harper’s first task was to select members of his caucus to become government Ministers. These would be the people who would take responsibility for implementing the party’s agenda within the various departments of the government.

Naturally, he was going to want people who were in agreement with the philosophies espoused by his party during the last election. You’d think the last person he’d want would be someone who had campaigned so vigorously against him that he actively solicited NDP voters to vote for him to help stop the Conservatives.

You’d also think that a person who stood up and gave an acceptance speech talking about how he looked forward to thwarting the Conservatives at every step along the way while serving in opposition, would be a bad choice for as a Cabinet Minister. Well the world of politics is a funny old thing that way, because Mr. Harper selected someone fitting just that description for his cabinet.

David Emerson was elected in the riding of Vancouver-Kingsway as a member of the Liberal Party. He had served as Minister of Industry and Trade in the previous Liberal government and had campaigned as a loyal party member and a staunch supporter of previous Prime Minister Paul Martin.

As the Liberal candidate in his riding, he received 44% of the vote, the NDP candidate came second with 33%, and the Conservative trailed badly with 18%. This was a riding that was strongly against the message the Conservative party was selling. Even if some of Mr. Emerson’s support came from people who were voting for him as the man, and not for the party he represented, the fact that 82% of the eligible voters in the riding, who cast a ballot, voted for someone other than the Conservatives lends credibility to the belief they did not support the Conservatives.

Two weeks after standing up and declaring that he would be “Stephen Harper’s worst nightmare,” David Emerson accepted the same position in the Conservative Cabinet that he had held under Paul Martin. He claimed that after having had lunch with Mr. Harper, he realized he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. It wouldn’t have anything to do with the increase in salary and perks that go along with being a Cabinet Minister would it?

I think the most surprising thing about this whole situation is the fact that nobody on the Conservative side of things seems to have been prepared for the firestorm of protest that this has caused. What’s even worse is the rather blasé manner in which they seem to be taking to the reactions of the constituents in the riding of Vancouver-Kingsway.

Instead of taking a conciliatory tone in their statements, they appear to be going out of their way to antagonize the voters. Saying things like “you should be grateful that you’ve got a Cabinet Minister out of the deal” doesn’t do much to ease the feelings of betrayal that have been generated by this manoeuvre.

Saturday afternoon hundreds of people gathered in a Vancouver high school to demand that Mr. Emerson resign his seat. They want Mr. Harper to call a by-election and have Mr. Emerson run again, but this time as a Conservative candidate.

With no recall legislation on the books the people of Vancouver-Kingsway have no means of forcing the government to take action. The NDP have formally asked the federal ethics commissioner to investigate Mr. Emerson’s defection. They think that Mr. Harper could be in violation of Parliaments conflict of interest guidelines, which prohibits members from acting to advance their own or other Member of Parliaments’ (MP) personal interests.

I can’t see there being much hope in that one, since both Mr. Emerson and Mr. Harper have already covered that one by claiming it was in the best interests of the country to have continuity in such a key portfolio. Anyway, when hasn’t an MP acted in their own best interest? You investigate one for that, you’re going to have to put the lot of them under a microscope.

So, what it comes down to is whether the people of Vancouver-Kingsway can shame the government into actually doing something. As it stands now, the chances of that happening look slim to non-existent.

While a couple of Conservative MPs are saying that they are going to propose legislation that would prohibit members from switching parties in mid-stream, I’ve noticed that there has been a conspicuous lack of talk about recall legislation. It seems that although everyone is willing to protest loudly about Mr. Emerson crossing the floor and what a betrayal that act is, nobody is willing to open that particular can of worms.

None of them seem to be too interested in handing voters the power to chuck them out of office before their terms are up. I can’t say that surprises me, but it does disappoint me. I’m sure that most of them would reply if asked, that what they most fear would be the ease in which partisan attacks could be formulated by such legislation.

Take the case of a riding where the final margin of victory was decided by a recount. If the loser decides he doesn’t like it, he could organize a recall petition in the hopes of getting a new election, and this time making sure all the people who were supposed to vote for him do so.

Out of necessity, any legislation regarding recalls would have to be written in such a manner that abuses could not happen. All that means is that it would take some thought to prepare a bill that would ensure that things like what Mr. Emerson did are covered, while partisanship is curtailed as much as possible.

Simply making those behind the recall legislation supply sufficient proof of misdeeds, like they would in a civil case, ought to provide enough of a deterrent to prevent abuse of the legislation. Create a list of behaviours that would be considered unacceptable, and than leave it to the accusers to prove that the person or party are guilty of such misdeeds prior to them being able to begin the process of petitioning for removal and I don’t think anyone could complain about the process being partisan.

It is high time that Canada ensures its elected representatives are held accountable for their actions beyond just risking re-election. Why should voters be stuck with someone who has betrayed their confidence in the manner that David Emerson has betrayed the people of Vancouver-Kingsway?

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Nancy

    We’ve had a couple of guys do that: run under one party, then as soon as they’re in, change parties, which IMO is a fraud on those who voted for them. I thought you Canadians operated on the British parlementary system, where any time govt got a vote of ‘no confidence’ you had to change it, kind of like musical chairs?

    We WISH it were easier to get rid of errant politicians; if that were the case, there’d be a lot of them out on their cans right now – OR lounging in jail, where they belong! It seems whichever country is in question, politicians of all stripes make sure one way or another that they are hard to dislodge. Kind of like lice.

  • We do opperate under a British system, but we can’t recall individual members like you can impeach or have a recall like you did in California.

    We’re probably stuck with these guy for two years or so, because the Liberal party doesn’t have a leader, and doesn’t seem in any hurry, at least a year, to get a replacement. They’ll probablly wait a year after that before wanting to bring down the government.

    So that means the people of that district, riding as they’re known here, are stuck with this guy who switched parties on them, for that time without a way of holding him accountable.


  • Albertain

    While I don’t endorse party switiching I think that the move to accept and promote Emerson a solid political move. Harper needs to work on moving as much legislation quickly through parlement and demonstrate his commitment or lack of it to Canadians so that when an election is called (whithin two years at most)a majority can be obtained. Until that time Reform notions such as recall (which I heartily agree with) are not likely to be viable bills to pass into legislation. Ideally we all vote for the best person irregardless of party affilation. (how I wish this was true). I would like to see all MP’s actually represent their constituants and not just tow the party line. Until that can occure we will be stuck with less than ideal politics in Canada.

  • Steve

    Recall legislation was a key platform in the precursor party (Reform Party) to our new govt. but they could never get elected on it.

    An MP recall bill was presented in the last Parliament, but only got the support of half of Harper’s caucus plus all the NDPers (about 60-65 MP’s total out of 308).

    It appears unpopular only in the federalist party that has traditionally favored a centrist govt. ironically (the Liberals) and our separatist party (the Bloc).

    I can’t help wondering if Harper is trying (in a very subtle way) to show the Canadian people that they really don’t want a centrist govt. at all because what he is doing is typical of all centrist govts.

  • Good article , but I believe the idea that America can recall or impeach is a little exagerated. It happens rarely and can only happen if the powers that be are in alignment. Another words if the party in power has enough power to pull it off and the legal muscle. In the case of California Gov. they realise their mistake and got a real loser. Impeachment can only work if you have some control on the hill. I am sure that many would like Bush impeached yet Democrats do not control anything, as a result our country is at a standstill. We are now in the longest lame duck presidency ever, probably the worse presidency in Americas history. In the case of the Ca govenor it was more a power play orchestrated by the right that worked much like the redistricting in Texas etc etc. America contrary to common thought is not a true democracy , but a capitalist country. Here you follow the money and that determines what the legislation will be. al Gore won the 2002 election- most votes from Americans, yet through some legal twisting the vote was thrown out and Bush came out the winner. This seems to be the tactic used by the right over and over, do something wrong then figure out how to use the law to manipulate it. I think Canada has a great progressive system, you have more freedoms than America and except for some small ethic stuff, are a solid country and a beacon to the world for true democracy. I understand that because of your last party you may want to quickly boot out people. But on the other hand, because of the last party you have a strong economy, realistic legislation and are one of the best places to live on the planet. If I was Canadian I would be very proud of the results and status of Canada as a whole.

  • Canada’s system of government is already sufficiently weak that if you added in the recall option you’d probably get a new government every month. IMO it would be a disaster.


  • Mcibrows

    Would it not be more appropriate to charge him with “false representation”

  • The province of British Columbia has recall legislation, though with a considerably higher threshold than California.

    A recall intiative did force one MLA from office — but he actually resigned when it became apparent the recall would be succesful, thus avoiding the “first Canadian to be recalled” tag.

  • Frank

    Seems to us,
    during the last 30 years Canada started the way to became communist state without any responsibility. It is not any more an open society. Try something very legitimate, very urgent action. You will hit a wall of silence.
    The government has zero responsibility. A state inside a state. I can tell about Ontario. The government has built guinea-pig websites for requests and feedback. In the reality nobody cares. Canada needs ombudsman, Canada needs recall of the government, Canada needs Recall Legislation, Canada needs to have the politicians personally responsible.