Increasing the number of MPs won’t lead to a more democratic country.
In a recent article for The Mark, Alan Broadbent pleads for our 308 MPs to “reclaim the House [of Commons] for Canadians” and “rebuild our democracy by reclaiming the national discourse.”
His concerns represent a good summary of the usual gripes over federal politics these days. They include: everything is governed by the “centre” (i.e., the prime minister and a few others); MPs do little besides follow the party line; question period is a disaster, and the House fails to effectively bring forward and debate the issues of the day.
Broadbent is a man involved in [numerous](http://www.maytree.com/) [important](http://www.caledoninst.org/) [public](http://tamarackcommunity.ca/) [initiatives](http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/1554684056/ref=pd_lpo_k2_dp_sr_2?pf_rd_p=485327511&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=0002008831&pf_rd_m=A3DWYIK6Y9EEQB&pf_rd_r=1QT0ZY93R0N3VPRR7JDV), so it’s not a surprise that his piece offers a number of suggestions on how to make things better. These have merit and are worthy of greater discussion.
Among them is the idea to increase the number of MPs, which would increase the size of party caucuses. Broadbent reasons that this could loosen the leader’s grip (i.e., more people are tougher to control) and reduce electoral turnover, lengthening MPs’ tenures and giving them greater opportunity to develop and assert their expertise.
I’m not convinced a larger caucus will lead to more decentralized management. Jean Chrétien, who at least one prominent Ottawa-watcher accused of running a [Friendly Dictatorship](http://www.amazon.ca/Friendly-Dictatorship-Jeffrey-Simpson/dp/0771080786), had 177 people in his caucus in 1993 compared to the 143 Harper has today. Allowing more free votes and reducing the number that are confidence motions would be more effective.
Nor, for the record, am I convinced that “governing from the centre” is as much a reality as it is a perception resulting from the fact that most academics and journalists focus only on leaders and a handful of cabinet ministers versus the work of the other 300 elected representatives.
Those points aside, it’s worth further examining the second part of Broadbent’s suggestion: that more MPs will reduce electoral turnover and help create a more “professional” political class in Canada. There are strong merits to this argument, although there is also a downside.
It’s true that we [have a lot of MP turnover](http://www.samaracanada.com/blog/post/is-canadas-amateur-political-class.aspx). On average, over 35 per cent of MPs after any election are new (although it depends a lot on the election; after the 2008 contest, just under 22 per cent were rookies). Reducing turnover ultimately requires one of two things to happen: less voluntary retirement or less electoral defeat.
On average, retirement accounts for about one-third of turnover. [Two](http://www.mun.ca/posc/people/Blidook.php) [professors](http://www.mun.ca/posc/people/Kerby.php) at Memorial University looked into this and found out a few things about its causes. MPs with narrow victories are less likely to run again, as are those who live far from Ottawa. Quebec MPs are also more prone to retire, perhaps because the call to provincial politics is stronger there. Most importantly though, their research suggests that those who come to Ottawa wanting to impact public policies tend to be twice as likely to leave as those who primarily want to serve their constituents or view themselves as members of their party.
To discourage retirement, therefore, there are a few things we could do. First, we could reduce the physical size of the country (good luck!). Second, we could give more power to individual MPs (which was already the focus of previous [Parliamentary reform efforts](http://www2.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublications/prb0743-e.htm#themes), and it’s not clear that more would make a difference. In fact, more MPs would insert greater competition for the much-coveted positions of influence, such as a committee chair or cabinet member, which may frustrate those policy-oriented or power-seeking MPs even further. Finally, we could somehow change the way political parties manage their teams. The latter is a tough slog, but probably what is really needed.
The fact that MPs only qualify for pensions after six years of service probably doesn’t help either if one aspires to get people to stick around for longer.
Reducing electoral defeat, the source of two-thirds of the turnover, would probably be easier to do. Ultimately, this requires either holding fewer elections or gerrymandering ridings (closer to what Broadbent proposes). The U.S. famously does this, which leads to some [pretty funky-looking electoral districts](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_Congressional_Districts_color.svg), but also a [94 per cent incumbency rate](http://www.samaracanada.com/blog/post/canadas-amateur-political-class-ii.aspx). Next thing you know, we’ll be complaining that we can’t get rid of the scoundrels!
On the other hand, there are merits to a system with more turnover, such as encouraging a [wider spectrum](http://www.samaracanada.com/blog/post/law-apparently-not-only-path-to.aspx) of voices and experiences in Parliament.
This is a timely discussion given [recent indications](http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/04/01/the-problem-with-our-mps-is-that-we-need-more-of-them-ii/) that the government will go forward with legislation to increase the number of federal ridings, albeit for reasons of regional population shifts rather than the desires Broadbent expresses. Soon enough, we may see what additional MPs will mean for democracy in this country.