Updates from Canada: don’t call it constitutional reform

andrew-cookIn October 2015 a Liberal government took office in Canada with commitments to both electoral and second chamber reform. In this post Andrew Cook provides an update. He reports that so far Senate reform has made the greater progress: following the introduction of a new appointments process, a plurality of Senators are now independents. Although a special parliamentary committee has considered options for electoral reform it remains unclear whether the government will be able to make good on its pledge that future federal elections will be conducted under a system other than first-past-the-post.

The government of Justin Trudeau came to power in October 2015 with a wide-ranging platform that included several propositions touching on the operations of the Canadian constitution. As was outlined on this blog at the time, the proposals range from introducing a dedicated Prime Minister’s Question Period in parliament, to reforms of the electoral process that would increase the autonomy of the Chief Electoral Officer and create an independent commission to organise leaders’ debates during election campaigns. The two most significant, and politically challenging, reforms proposed by the Liberal government were a focus of its agenda in 2016. Both electoral reform and reform of Canada’s second chamber, the Senate, have advanced since October 2015 but in different ways. It is worth reviewing the current state of reform in light of the recent developments on both these files.

Senate reform

Reform of Canada’s appointed Senate has long been discussed, and re-emerged as a key issue in the last federal election as a result of a Senate expenses scandal that eventually led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.

Harper’s own relatively modest proposals for reform were previously deemed fundamental to the country’s constitutional framework, and therefore requiring substantial provincial consent, so he abandoned them and simply stopped appointing Senators.

The recent return to constitutional debate, which dominated almost two decades of Canadian political life, has not brought with it a renewed interest in reforming the written constitution. Justin Trudeau has repeatedly stated that he does not want to re-open the constitution, which he rightly fears ‘would require protracted constitutional discussions with the provinces.’ Hence rather than considering large-scale Senate reform, such as introduction of elections, Trudeau has created an Independent Advisory Board on Senate Appointments – an attempt to move towards a non-partisan and merit based appointment process. The board selects five candidates for each Senate vacancy, with the Prime Minister making the final decision on who is appointed.

Because there were so many vacancies left by Harper (22 out of the total 105 Senate seats), new appointments by Trudeau resulted in a plurality of Senators being independents by November 2016. They will work together on matters of Senate rules and logistics but will otherwise vote independently. This new reality will have major impacts on both the operation, and role, of the Senate.

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Northern Ireland: where now?

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The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has called a fresh Assembly election for March 2, following the spectacular and unexpected collapse of the devolved Executive. The campaign seems likely to be divisive. Reviving devolved partnership government at the end, in a sustainable form, will be difficult, argues Alan Whysall, but is still the only way forward.

The deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness resigned last Monday, following the refusal of the First Minister, Arlene Foster, to step down pending investigation of her role several years ago, when Minister for Enterprise, in establishing the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The scheme (described in detail in Foster’s statement to the Assembly) was based on one in Great Britain with similar objectives, of encouraging burning of renewable fuels over traditional ones. But unlike that scheme, it provided for a subsidy that turned out to be greater than the market price of the fuel – so the more you burned, the more you earned – and did not taper with increasing use, nor reduce in rate if overall demand increased. The Northern Ireland system is left committed to making payments above its budget that may amount to £500 million over 20 years.

Everyone acknowledges that there have been, as the Audit Office concluded, ‘serious systemic failings’. But this is the latest of a string of affairs, involving DUP ministers as well as others, where rumours abound, though with no real evidence so far, of more serious malpractice. Foster’s DUP successor as Enterprise Minister fanned the flames in a TV interview: following prayers for divine support in telling the truth, offered on camera and with the assistance of a clergyman, he alleged that when the extent of the problems with the scheme emerged advisers to Foster, then Finance Minister, and to Peter Robinson, then First Minister, had sought to delay its closure.

Parts of the media have pursued this story energetically. The parties that had chosen to go into opposition in this Assembly following the May 2016 elections called loudly for Foster’s ejection from office, at least pending an enquiry. Sinn Féin, elected with the DUP on the Fresh Start agenda and pursuing a tacit non-aggression pact, were at first more measured. But as the clamour grew and the story developed, amid suggestions that they were DUP patsies, they asked that she should step aside pending inquiry. She declined.

The DFM’s resignation letter, however, lays out many other grievances bottled up in private by Sinn Féin over the preceding months. They have made clear that resumed devolved government depends on resolving them.

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The US presidential transition will occupy the Trump administration for months to come

Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th US President next week, but the vast task of assembling the new administration will continue for months to come. In this post Donald F. Kettl explains what America’s unique transition process involves and outlines what progress Trump has made so far.

There is nothing in the world quite like the American presidential transition. In the foreground is the mega-debate about how the new president will shape policy (see our previous blog posts, here and here). But in the critical background, there is the incredible job of actually putting the new administration together, a challenge unlike that facing any other major democracy in the world.

It is an unusually long stretch between the election and the start of the new administration –10 weeks, compared with the virtually instantaneous transition in the United Kingdom.

In the US, the transition involves far more people – nearly 700 top officials, who head government agencies, nearly all of whom require confirmation by the Senate. There are another 4,000 appointees across the government, including policy assistants and political staffers, that the president appoints and who do not require Senate confirmation.

In the US, many of the appointees come into government with relatively little preparation. Despite constant warnings from experts about the need to plan months before the election for the complexity of the transition, the search for cabinet ministers often doesn’t begin in earnest until after the election. British transitions are much easier, with shadow ministers in the opposition bird-dogging the government, with fewer positions to fill, and with no separate legislative confirmation process.

For better or worse, there are reasons why the American system has evolved in this way. The transition period is actually shorter than it used to be – until 1937, the inauguration was in March, because it often took months in an agrarian society for newly elected officials to put aside their work and make their way to Washington. Having so many political appointments has long been thought to be a good thing, at least by some people, because it provides a way for new presidents to put their stamp on the workings of government. Senate confirmation has provided a reinforcement of the checks-and-balances system on which the US Constitution builds.

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The latest special adviser data release: political control trumps technocratic measures of effectiveness

benjamin_yonghamish In December the government published its latest list of special advisers, revealing a small reduction in numbers under Theresa May compared to David Cameron’s 2015 government, with the reduction falling mostly on departments rather than the centre. In this post Ben Yong and Harmish Mehta examine the new list. They argue that by reducing the number of special advisers in departments Prime Minister May has prioritised political control over technocratic measures of effectiveness.

When Theresa May first became Prime Minister there were a number of reports (including in The Times, The Telegraph and Civil Service World) that she had insisted on a cap on the salaries of special advisers (spads) – which in effect would limit both the number and quality of spads appointed. This cap, the reports said, would deter good people from entering government. How true are these claims?

Just before Christmas, the government made its annual data release, setting out the number of spads and how they are distributed across government. There are now 83 spads in government; down from 95 under Cameron’s 2015 government, according to the data release. The centre (broadly defined as No. 10 and the Cabinet Office) has ‘lost’ just one spad; the key Whitehall departments have lost eleven (most significantly from the merging of BIS and DECC into BEIS; and in the Treasury). So there has been a drop in numbers, but this has fallen mostly on departments, not the centre. There has been the usual grumble about salaries and cost, but that is standard fare.

The bigger question is what all this says about May’s government, and more generally, British government. In popular parlance, spads are regarded as a waste of money and at worst, a pernicious breed of quasi-politicians. Within Westminster and Whitehall, however, they have long been accepted as part of British government. Spads are people the minister can completely trust, in a lonely and difficult role; they provide political advice of a kind that career civil servants often cannot; they can help coordinate government. It is this latter view of spads which informs some criticisms of May’s policy on spads (see The Spectator and The Telegraph). Limiting the number of spads and the kind of spads via a salary cap means limiting government effectiveness.

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Malign influence, lame duck or honest broker? The UK’s role in Europe during the Brexit negotiations

Nick-Wright

The UK will remain a full member of the EU until withdrawal negotiations are completed. In this post Nick Wright explores the roles that Britain might play in EU decision making once Article 50 has been triggered. He considers three possibilities – malign influence, lame duck and honest broker – and concludes that at the moment the second seems most likely, although elements of the other two may also be seen along the way.

Britain remains a full member of the EU until the completion of withdrawal negotiations. It is important to re-state this obvious point because, regardless of the Brexit process, the EU continues to function and therefore the UK continues to have a say (and a vote) on all EU decision-making via the Council of Ministers. The question then is how that will work: how will the dynamics of ‘normal life’ in the Council interact with the Brexit process?

The Council, which agrees all EU legislation in conjunction with the European Parliament, is not a single, unitary body. It exists in a number of ministerial formations covering the range of policy areas dealt with at EU level and is dependent on a complex sub-structure: most policy is decided at the ambassadorial level in the two committees of the Permanent Representatives (Corepers I & II) and the Political and Security Committee. Supporting these are dozens of working parties and technical groups which deal with specific policy questions, ranging from highly technical regulations relating to the Single Market to the implementation of sanctions against Russia.

All member states are represented and involved in continuous negotiations and decision-making across all issues and at every level, and the UK is no exception.

So what happens once Article 50 is triggered? Will the UK still try to influence Council decision-making at all levels? Will it be able to, given the pressure the Brexit negotiations will place on its administrative and diplomatic resources? And how will the EU-27 respond to British efforts to continue to play a role? To help us think about these questions, three simple scenarios are mapped out below.

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The Scottish government’s Brexit paper suggests that the last thing Nicola Sturgeon wants is an independence referendum

Jim-Gallagher

Yesterday the Scottish government published a detailed policy paper, setting out options for how Scotland could remain in the EU single market following Brexit. In this post Jim Gallagher argues that the paper, which focuses on options that would involve Scotland remaining part of the UK, suggests that Nicola Sturgeon would rather avoid a second independence referendum. The First Minister may instead be edging towards a confederal solution that the majority of Scots might sign up for.

The publication of the Scottish government’s policy paper on Brexit, Scotland’s Place in Europe, may signal something of a change in tone from the SNP leadership. Reading it, one can only conclude that last thing Nicola Sturgeon wants is an independence referendum.

Certainly Sturgeon’s tone contrasts with the noises off from Alex Salmond, who has been energetically laying the groundwork for a rerun of 2014, or some of Scottish government Brexit minister Mike Russell’s earlier rhetoric. It is still possible to conclude from the paper and the logic of the SNP’s argument that, if they don’t get the concessions they hope, then they will be demanding another independence referendum. But the big message from the paper and its presentation is not bullying language about when a referendum might be called: it is that the SNP don’t think leaving the EU justifies repeating the independence poll at all. Instead they are setting out ways the UK can leave the EU without one. Can the UK stay in or near the single market, or at least can Scotland? If it can the UK leaves the EU, but the SNP won’t find themselves demanding ‘indyref2’.

Responses from Unionists

Opponents of independence can respond in different ways. It’s easy enough to mock. Many, supporters and opponents alike, will say it’s fear. Maybe fear of losing – two-thirds of voters don’t want yet another poll, and independence support is where it was in 2014. Around 400,000 nationalists seem to dislike the EU as much as the UK  and might not vote to leave the UK just to join the EU again. So despite what Alex Salmond says, the prospects of another referendum are not hopeful for the SNP and a second defeat would surely be fatal to the cause.

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The Grimstone proposals to reform the public appointments process are a step in the wrong direction

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Earlier this year the government published Sir Gerry Grimstone’s report on public appointments, proposing a dismantling of the Nolan system of regulation that has been in place since 1995. Sir David Normington, whose term as Commissioner for Public Appointments ended shortly after the publication of the Grimstone report, has been an outspoken critic of the proposals. At a Constitution Unit seminar on 8 December he explained why he believes they represent a step in the wrong direction. This post is adapted from his speech.

Ministers make on average over 2,000 appointments each year to boards of about 300 public bodies and statutory offices. The bodies touch every aspect of our lives. They include regulators like the boards of Ofcom and Ofwat; inspectors, like the Chief Inspectors of Schools, Police, Probation and Prisons; funders like the Arts Council and the Big Lottery Fund; advisory bodies like the Committee on Climate Change; and a multitude of executive bodies, like NHS trusts, national parks, museums and galleries.

It matters who fills these roles. The boards themselves need to comprise well-functioning teams of skilled people from diverse backgrounds who can command public confidence. At the same time these are ministerial appointments and it is essential that those appointed are willing to work within, and not against, the framework of the policy that the government of the day has set down.

There is, however, a balance to be struck between ministers’ right to appoint and independent oversight and regulation. Think of it as a spectrum. At one end ministers have almost complete freedom to make appointments as they think fit. At the other, appointments are handed over to an independent body and ministers forego their powers to appoint altogether. Over nearly 30 years policy and practice has flowed to and fro across this spectrum; and so have the arguments about where to draw the line.

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