Do we in British Columbia or, indeed Canada, live in a democracy?
Certainly not if we mean that backbench MLAs have meaningful input into policies, legislation proposed or to be amended or repealed or in what should be on the legislative agenda.
Under our voting system of "first past the post," ironclad power is given to the premier. (I'll speak in terms of provincial government but what I say is the same or, indeed, worse, for the federal government.)
The theory – indeed, this nonsense, is taught in schools – is that we have "responsible" government meaning that the government (that is to say the premier and cabinet) are "responsible" to the legislature such that if they misbehave the legislature tosses them out and either a new government is formed or an election is called.
The only occasion I can find where a majority government was defeated in the House was the "Pacific Scandal" in 1872 where Sir John A. Macdonald handed out a huge contract to men who had financed his recent election victory. So far as I'm able to determine, that's a one-off in Canadian history.
You may well ask why? God knows there have been scandals a-plenty over the years so why didn't the House throw the rascals, who were responsible to the legislature, out on their duffs?
The answer is twofold: MLAs don't want to put their seats at risk and would prefer that it all blow over, and the premier has very effective tools of persuasion.
To start with, no candidate gets nominated unless the premier approves and, if elected, he displeases the premier, he gets tossed out of the caucus never to represent that party again. That is the "big stick" and it is, indeed, effective.
But there are carrots with the stick.
The premier decides on who will be in cabinet and who, once in, will stay there. This is a very tempting carrot – I know that from personal experience. There are the perks, the extra money and prestige involved plus the fact you're in a position to make a difference. There is the "honourable" attached to your name and the recognition that brings.
Napoleon once said that "every soldier carries a marshal's baton in his pack" which applies to every MLA on the government side. To them, and their supporters, they are much better able to govern than those turkeys in cabinet.
Because of this, there are rewards for good behaviour: they may become a parliamentary secretary, sort of a better paid step up the ladder; they might be made deputy speaker or whip, bringing better pay. (When the Liberals won that massive 77-2 majority, would you believe there was a government whip to make sure the government had a majority for each bill being voted on?); they may get on a committee that travels to neat places.
What then, Rafe, do you say about this when you were in Cabinet?
Not a damned thing.
Although there were one or two tense moments such as when I stormed out of an annual caucus retreat in expletive-laced anger and refused to return, mostly I went along. I liked being in Cabinet and wanted to stay. Not very courageous.
What did not happen in my day or any other day was an MLA who would risk his job for speaking out against his government. He might raise the issue in a caucus meeting but that's scarcely helpful when these meetings are strictly confidential and an MLA risks expulsion if he blabs.
There is only one solution to this problem and it's a change in the voting system such as was proposed by referenda attached to the 2005 and 2009 elections.
If we choose to accept those votes as incapable of being re-visited we will always have government by an autocracy given four years of absolute power.
Rafe Mair is a former Kamloops lawyer, MLA and provincial cabinet minister, and current political commentator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.