Crawl Across the Ocean

Monday, October 24, 2005

Making Sausages

Maybe it's a sign that not much interesting has happened lately, or maybe it's just my INTP Myers-Briggs profile asserting itself, but I've found myself thinking broadly about the idea of policy lately, and everything that goes into the formation of policy in Canada.

So this is going to be a dry poli-sci-textbook type post which sort of re-invents the wheel of how ideas become policy which becomes law in Canada, but I find that I only really understand wheels that I've personally re-invented so I'm going to slog through it anyway. I'm guessing this will have marginal usefulness for myself and even less for the average reader.

You've been warned.

Starting at the end of he process, policy is turned into law in Canada when it is passed by the government of the day. For example, today (Oct 24, 2005) the government is debating C-50, 'An Act to amend the Criminal Code in respect of cruelty to animals'. As an aside (reader: asides already? He just started, we're doomed!) you can tell that a potential piece of new law (known as a bill) was introduced by the government (i.e. by the party in power) because it is denoted C-##, where C tells you it was introduced in the House of Commons, and ## is a number less than or equal to 200.

Generally, the decision of which bills to introduce is made by 'the cabinet' which is in turn selected (and de-selected) at the whim of the Prime Minister who can (within the fairly slack bounds of tradition - for example, tradition suggests that you usually have one Minister of Finance, but it places no limits on how many Ministers responsible for Democratic Renewal you can have) create whichever cabinet posts they like, and then appoint whoever they like, whenever they like to fill those posts. The one limitation is that ministers have to be chosen from the ranks of either the House of Commons or the Senate - generally the Prime Minister picks people from their own party, from the House of Commons to be ministers.

Most of the bills which become law are those introduced by the government, but on occasion a private member's bill gets passed into law. From the Wikipedia article on the Prime Minister of Canada
"Although any elected member of the House of Commons may introduce new legislation of their own, referred to as a "Private Members' Bill," it is an infrequent occurrence that one is ever enacted. In the 37th Parliament 2nd Session, of the 471 Private Members' bills tabled, only four received royal assent (although some others were passed by the House of Commons). None of these were significant changes to socio/economic matters affecting the country and each of these were dramatically modified in the process. Private Member's Bills require considerable amount of time, energy, research and other resources needed just to prepare a bill for introduction into Parliament. However, few of these receive the time and Government support needed to pass them. Often, though, popular private members' bills are adopted by the government and become part of a government bill."

As you may have guessed, you can tell that a bill is a private members bill because it will be labelled C-### (where ### is a number greater than 200). For more details on the Kafkaesque process of getting a private member's bill passed, see this excellent guide (especially this flow-chart which doesn't really do the full process justice).

In addition, both the government and private member's can introduce bills into the Senate. These bills are labelled S-#, where the S stands for Senate, but there is no particular numbering scheme and private members' and government bills are all mixed together (consistency is overrated, I guess). In order for a bill to become law it has to be passed by both houses so even if a bill is introduced in the Senate someone has to introduce it in the House of Commons as well.

Because it is appointed, not elected, and is thus lacking in legitimacy, the Senate is generally a rubber stamp of government legislation but it can be a bit of a roadblock on occasion, and has forced the sitting Prime Minister to appoint more senators to tip the balance of power in the house in their favour a couple of times (most notably with Brian Mulroney appointing more Senators to get the Free Trade agreement with the U.S. passed). More prosaically, the Senate can refer a bill back to the House of Commons for amendment, which can have the effect of delaying a bill.

Delaying can be an effective tactic because when an election is called all bills in progress are scrapped. If there is still a desire for this legislation to be passed after the election it has to be reintroduced (getting a new number) and start back at the beginning of the process. The history of legislation to increase the penalties for cruelty to animals illustrates all this nicely.

While the Senators are appointed by the prime minister, the (House of) Commoners (generally known as Members of Parliament (or MP's for short)) are elected using our outdated and archaic first past the post electoral system (but that's a topic for another day).

So that pretty much sums up the mechanics of law creation in Canada, but it leaves open the question of how the government of the day decides which bills to introduce into parliament (and also the less important question of how the private members decide which bills they want to introduce).

At the most naive level, parties have conventions where they decide on their policies ('their platform') and on their leader, and these choices then guide their message in an election, and if they are elected as the government then they implement what they have put in their 'platform'. In this sense, policy is decided by the members of the various political parties. In most jurisdictions, party platforms will also be influenced by those who make significant financial contributions to the party, although in Canada, this effect is likely to be mitigated by campaign finance reform which limits individual and corporate contributions and provides for public funding to political parties (based on the # of votes received in the previous general election).

More broadly, parties try to adopt policies which they feel will get them elected (and implement policies which will get them re-elected). This means that policy formation is actually driven by what is perceived to be the generally held preferences of the population.

Of course, to the extent that the public is perceived to vote for candidates with pretty/popular faces as opposed to voting for policies they think are preferable, parties will also choose pretty faces to lead and represent their party. In this instance, policy can be set with little regard for the public interest as long as the face representing that policy is pretty enough.

Leaving aside the politics of 'leadership' there is still a generally held belief that many Canadians cast their vote on the basis of policy and it is therefore important for a party to propose and implement policies which will be popular. For this reason, those who seek to influence policy will often attempt to convince the public that what they advocate is the right course. For example, they might start a blog and post cute cat pictures to influence people into thinking that anyone who abuses such a creature should be subject to serious penalties, not a 'slap on the wrist'. Alternatively, someone might write a letter to the editor of a paper, or call in to a radio talk show to express their opinion.

In politics, there generally seems to be more power in the group than in the individual. So like minded people might form a group dedicated to ending cruelty to animals (SPCA). Similarly, pre-existing groups involved with animals might make their views known by issuing press releases, doing interviews or buying advertisements. For example, humane societies, hunting associations, etc.

In addition to trying to influence the public itself, either by addressing it directly or (more commonly) through the media, people and/or groups will take their message directly to the legislators. This can take the form of writing letters to members of parliament, making political contributions (within the limits of the new legislation), making submissions to any forums for public input in the process (hearings, requests for submissions, town hall discussions, etc.), and in the form of more organized/funded groups, hiring lobbyists to work the issue on their behalf on parliament hill.

Again, legislation on animal cruelty provides a good example as lobbyists opposed to the bill have managed to first convince Senators that the original legislation needed amendments (causing them to delay and thus prevent it's passage) and more recently Senator John Bryden to introduce a private member's bill which is a watered down version of the government legislation.

More remotely, many people/groups will work on doing research into various areas to determine what the best policy is. This work may be done simply out of academic interest, or with a view towards influencing the public directly or indirectly (through the media) and is generally either done through universities, through public agencies (such as the OECD, world bank, civil service, etc.) or through private organizations set up for this purpose (generally referred to as think-tanks by outsiders as 'institutes' by members).

For example, The Observatory on Media and Public Policy, based out of McGill University did a study (note: I linked to my own post on the topic since they seem to have pulled down their data from their website) of media bias in the leadup to the last federal election. In addition to open-minded research, partisan groups will fund similar looking agencies which do research for the purpose of providing politically effective ammunition to support already held positions. As an example, the Fraser Institute, a zero credibility right wing 'institute', might decide that they think the media is biased against the Conservative Party (or that it is politically advantageous to make this claim) and commission a study designed to 'prove' this.

There is a similar duality of intent with respect to polling. Parties generally seek to implement policies that the public supports but it is not always clear what exactly it is that the public supports. For this reason, many parties and media outlets commission polls which ask a question to a number of (randomly selected) members of the public in order to ascertain just what the public wants. Of course, most people want their favourite policy to seem popular, so polls (especially when not conducted by a reputable company) are often constructed in such a manner as to artificially inflate the stated (and thus perceived) support for a policy. These are generally known as 'push' polls.

So that's about it. No dry 'systems' post is really complete without a flowchart, so I'll try to come up with one and post it, maybe tomorrow (Tuesday).

A final note, the achilles heel of any true 'INTP' is overlooking details, so if you see any details of the policy making process that I overlooked, let me know. If it's good enough it might even make it into the flowchart (no promises).


  • I like sausages, as long as they aren't too 'gamey'.

    By Blogger Simon, at 11:03 PM  

  • But would you still like them if you knew how they were made? - that is the question.

    By Blogger Declan, at 8:41 AM  

  • Yes. My stomach oversees my brain funtion.

    By Blogger Simon, at 9:26 AM  

  • Hmm, 'oversees', interesting choice of words. I'm imaging this eye on a long stalk extending up from the stomach and up the back of the throat so it can oversee what is going on in the brain.

    Well, I'm not hungry anymore.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:21 AM  

  • No, don't be silly.

    My brain operates on the 'honour system'. Through traditional means (brain signals) it informs my stomach about what it's thinking (e.g. sausages are made from nasty elements), and allows the stomach to overrule any decisions that adversely affect my enjoyment of food (e.g. eat the sausage anyway).

    Admittedly, my stomach communicates with rudimentary and somewhat crude noises, but my brain is usually able to figure out what he means.

    By Blogger Simon, at 4:50 PM  

  • Yes, I wouldn't want to be silly. Heaven forbid.

    Speaking of which, I see that you are a suppporter of the traditional definition of brain signalling. I guess you are just stuck in the past, unwilling to embrace the modern world of stomach-eyes on stalks overseeing brain function. Shame on you.

    By Blogger Declan, at 5:14 PM  

  • I'm old-school, although this whole "Intelligent Stomach Design" debate has piqued my interest.

    By Blogger Simon, at 6:42 PM  

  • Yes, I was originally convinced by 'The Origin of Stomachs' and 'The Descent of Food' but the Intelligent Stomach design theory raises some valid points. One day no stomach, the next day stomach - just by chance - poof, there's stomach out of the blue? Likely story. On the other hand, if stomachs were designed intelligently then why do they stick out so much (or is it just me)?

    In situations like this, I figure the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:34 PM  

  • The important thing is that both alternatives be taught to our children.

    I'm going to head over to and order my copy of "Of Pandas and Perogies: The Central Question of Gastrointestinal Origins" immediately!

    By Blogger Simon, at 11:22 PM  

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