Monday, November 23, 2009

Is the Canadian Parliamentary System blissfully perfect?

Over at Worthwhile, there is an interesting comment thread on the PBO following the Fraser Institute piece published last week. The Fraser Institute authors posted a comment here.
Even assuming the PBO is a more reliable source of policy analysis than other organizations, its efforts are of little practical value in the Canadian political context given the institutional environment. Unlike the US where the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is more influential, Canada’s government operates in a parliamentary system. As in many parliamentary systems, the Canadian legislature has limited powers to change the submitted budget (see IMF study). Generally, parliamentarians can only approve or reject the incumbent government’s spending proposal, while the legislatures in the US government are free to change every aspect of the budget proposal. Policy analysis performed by the CBO is more likely to be used effectively by individual members of congress to adjust proposals accordingly.
This is the old 'accountability is foreign to Westminster Parliamentary Democracy' argument that I discussed previously here.

Let me extract two points of their argument:

1. The PBO would not be exactly like the CBO therefore no parallels to the CBO may be drawn.

2. Canada's Parliamentary system has the advantage that the executive is directly accountable in Parliament--The Finance Minister has to stand up and defend his/her policies.

Point #1 is an all or nothing argument. If not exactly like the CBO, then the PBO is not worthwhile. I see the PBO as adding tremendous value by pricing both government and opposition policies. The use of this information is different in Canada than the US, it is true. In the US this information might be directly incorporated in the bill through the legislative process. This wouldn't likely happen in Canada, since policies are more or less presented as done deals.
However, would pricing information influence debate in the Commons or in the public about a policy initiative? Would it improve the value of that debate? I argue yes. Parliamentary democracy does not mean that there must be no debate once the Finance Minister speaks. Having a well-informed debate in Parliament and in public is, in my view MORE important in Canada's parliamentary system since bad policy proposals can ONLY be influenced by debate rather than legislative horse-trading.

Point #2 is a non-sequitur. Yes, it is a good thing that we have direct accountability of the executive. But we're not canceling Question Period here. We can have executive accountability as well as other channels of accountability. Yes, under the current system we can vote against a government that offers bad policies, once every five years (less for minorities of course). But I like a system that has a little more democratic responsiveness than that; where there are more channels for accountability than quinquennial elections.

But introducing another channel of accountability must surely diminish the power of the direct channel through Parliament, right? Perhaps. So what? I'm willing to make that trade if it makes our democracy function better. As I said previously:
Is the point that our system is currently in a state of perfection? Really? Or that our system is so fragile that a small itsy-bitsy movement toward transparency would cause it to wither? Which is it--we're perfect as is, or fragile as glass?
My argument is that we can add some extra channels of accountability to our system without wrecking it. Our system has evolved substantially since 1867. Let's evolve some more with an effective PBO.