Canada is supposed to be a representative democracy, not a democratic oligarchy. “Oligo” is a prefix that means “few”, from the Greek word ολιγος, which means “few”. In an oligarchy, a small number of people–we’ll call them “party leaders” for both convenience and verisimilitude–dictate policy. In a “democratic oligarchy” the various oligarchs are apportioned votes or influence in a manner roughly (sometimes very roughly) in proportion to the support they have amongst the populace.
The important difference is that in a democratic oligarchy, when the party leaders gather together it is only their views and interests that are represented. The views and interests of the people are at best secondary to the views and interests of the party leaders.
In a democratic oligarchy the hierarchy of interests looks like this:
- Party Leadership
- Senior Party Members
- General Party Membership
In a representative democracy, the hierarchy of interests is quite different:
- Members of Parliament
- Party Leadership
- Senior Party Members
- General Party Membership
One could argue with the precise ordering, but the important difference is that there is simply no role for Members of Parliament (MPs) in a democratic oligarchy. They are simply variously-coloured counters used by the party leaderships to keep track of votes. For this reason, in a democratic oligarchy, I refer to MPs as “tiddlywinks”, for the worthless plastic disks that children play with.
In Canada today, are MPs tiddlywinks?
There is a simple and objective way to measure this, based on information theory. To understand it requires a bit of history.
The quantification of information was pioneered by American mathematician Claude Shannon in 1950’s, and we typically talk about “Shannon information” (and its opposite, “Shannon entropy”). The idea is disarmingly simple. Consider a string of characters like:
Now try to guess the next letter in each string. In the first, the odds are really high that it is “E”. In the second, who knows? In the third, the odds favour “A” (as in “THOMAS”) “P” (as in THOMPSON”) and “S” (as in “THOMSON”). That’s assuming the string is in English.
The more information a string contains, the greater confidence we can have in predicting the next letter. If we can predict the next letter with certainty, there is no more information left over from external sources.
In the example above, I’ve used letters in the Western European alphabet, but in the formal mathematics of information theory we generally use binary numbers (0’s and 1′) and talk about information in terms of bits. If we can predict with certainty what the next value will be in a string of 0’s and 1’s, we have one bit of information. If we can predict a long sequence of following bits, we have that many bits of information. And if we can only get a so-so probability about what the next bit is going to be we only have some fraction of a bit of information.
On this basis, we can ask: how many bits of information does your MP contain? Obviously, if we can predict with near-certainty how they are going to vote by only knowing one fact about them, then everything else is irrelevant, where “everything else” includes their personal background, character, integrity, accomplishments, awards, etc. Also irrelevant is who they represent, the geographic locale of their riding, and so on. All that matters is that one fact that lets us predict how they will vote.
We have a good deal of information available to us that lets us answer this question. In particular, the Globe and Mail teamed up with Samara to look at MP voting records. I have pulled the data out of the web page and done some analysis on it to answer the question, “How much information does your MP contain?”
The answer, which I’m sure members of the oligarchy will be “shocked, shocked” to discover, is: almost none.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is to simply plot the number times each individual breaks ranks, ever:
As can be seen in the image, there are literally only 6 MPs who break ranks more than 1% of the time. The largest outlier, at just over 2%, also cast a relatively small number of votes overall–138 vs a median of 542 in the sample.
All told, of the 311 MPs in the sample (higher than 308 because of by-elections), 259 of them–83%–never broke ranks at all.
Our political parties are getting an “A” grade in controlling “their” MP’s behaviour.
But what does it mean for a party to control “their” MPs? They aren’t the party’s MPs: they are our MPs. They’re supposed to be representing us.
An enemy of democracy would at this point be rolling their eyes and saying, “How naive!” because they know that it’s difficult to refute a sneer.
This means, in very simple terms: 83% of the time, your MP contains no information. Once you know their party, you can predict with certainty what their vote is going to be. Who they are and who they represent are irrelevant.
In the remaining 17% of cases, your MP contains almost no information, about 1% of a single bit. Which for all the practical difference it makes to our government, may as well be no information at all: of the 161,000 votes counted in this dataset, 99.87% were along party lines.
Stop and think about that: this dataset over a few years counted over a hundred and sixty thousand individual votes cast in Parliament, and in just two hundred cases out of that one hundred sixty thousand did an MP break party ranks.
Read that and tell me your MP is more than a counter in the tallying of votes that represent nothing but party interests.
Once upon a time Parliament in Britain represented property. After 1837 or so it came to represent–imperfectly but genuinely–people. Today in Canada it represents parties. There is no other conclusion to draw from these data.
We do not live in a representative democracy, but in a democratic oligarchy. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or doesn’t understand the data.
One question this raises is: how did this happen? For example, it is illegal to offer any Member of Parliament any material inducement to change their vote. If I were to offer a sitting MP $90,000 to change their vote on some bill before the house I would go to jail. Well, someone would, anyway.
So how is it that private political organizations routinely and as a matter of course suborn our democratic representatives to vote against the best interests of their constituents, day in and day out, and no one raises their voice against it? I’m not familiar with any section of the Parliament Act that exempts political parties from section 41:
41. (1) No member of the House of Commons shall receive or agree to receive any compensation, directly or indirectly, for services rendered or to be rendered to any person, either by the member or another person,
(a) in relation to any bill, proceeding, contract, claim, controversy, charge, accusation, arrest or other matter before the Senate or the House of Commons or a committee of either House; or
(b) for the purpose of influencing or attempting to influence any member of either House.
And yet we routinely read that “often MPs are pressured to represent someone else–their party” (“often” in this context means “99.87% of the time”, as seen above… in normal parlance this would be referred to as “always”.)
I know this is tradition, but how is this even legal? MPs are not voting with their party out of the goodness of their hearts or the thoughtfulness of their brains, they are voting because they “receive compensation” and avoid punishment for doing so. They are being suborned by the private interests of their political party.
Political parties in Canada typically have a few tens of thousands to a hundred thousand members, each one constituting less than 1% of the population. I would say that less than 1% of the population counts as “few”, and it is certainly the case that the votes each of these tiny, privileged, private organizations has in Parliament is dependent on how many people votes for them, so as I’ve said, we’re a democratic oligarchy.
And more to the point: we are a criminal democratic oligarchy. As near as I can tell, the bread and butter business of political parties is to contravene section 41 of the Parliament Act, as well as to offend against every basic principle of representative democracy.
We are being governed by a criminal class of less than 1% of the population.
It’s time we started to fix that. I’ll leave thoughts about how to another time. This isn’t an issue that happened overnight, and it won’t be fixed overnight, but there are things we can start doing next year that will help: for one, vote for an independent. I’d far rather have an independent oddball in Parliament who made a sincere effort to represent me than a conventional party member of any party who I know is going to vote with their party 99.87% of the time.