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Term Limits

The discussion of term limits is a topic that is frequently popular in political and civic discourse. There are two types of term limits, the type that require regular elections to determine who will represent the populace in government and limits to the number of times individuals can be representatives in government. The second type is an idea that is extremely popular in the United States and because of Canada’s proximity to the US, it is often brought up in this nation.

The historical importance of term limits in the United States, like gun culture as well as tax and defense policy in that nation, has a lot to do with the way in which the United States was born. Canada’s own position on these issues reflects our own birth as a nation.

The US came into being rejecting taxation without representation and a head of state that could not be removed from office. The people of the thirteen colonies rejected these issues in a violent revolution which kept the nation afraid of later invasion as pay back for that revolution. This fear of reprisal also, amongst other things, led to the militia nation entrenching in its constitution the right to bear arms.

Term limits date back in the United States to the Revolution and the Continental Congress in concert with the idea of fair elections that allowed the populace to decide who would represent them in government, a direct response to the removal of the British Throne from power in America. Franklin Roosevelt served four terms in the Office of the President (where he died while in office) but this was not the norm in American politics. Shortly after Roosevelt, the 22nd Amendment to the American Constitution was passed in 1951 and required that no person serve that office for more than two terms. This was done during the administration of a Republican president after a long string of Democratic rule and in the wake of the disaster in Germany where Adolph Hitler had been elected democratically. In America, political leadership is not for life, as it would be if led by a monarch, but instead for a specified amount of time.

Canadian history led to the use of a much different system, a Constitutional Monarchy executed through parliament, instead of the republic used in America. Canada did not have a violent separation from Britain and did not have to rise up with guns against the mother country. Instead, in 1867 after years of negotiations, Canada asked and was granted sovereignty. There is no right to bear arms in our constitution, no great aversion to taxation (at least not to the scale in America with the original and modern Tea Parties) and no implementation of term limits other than the requirement that elections be held regularly.

Which country has the best approach to representation? Should Canada become more republican in nature and continue with proposed ideas such as term limits for senators (whose terms are currently limited from appointment to the age of 75, an extremely long term limit)? Should Canada begin instituting limits to how many times a Prime Minister or Premier can lead a government? How many times an MP, MPP, or MLA can run and attain office?

There are many arguments for and against term limits. Reasonable arguments for term limits include:

  • They end seniority and increase meritocracy
  • They increase political competition and encourage new challengers to run as candidates
  • They allow fresh people to bring new ideas to the process
  • They increase voter participation

Arguments against term limits include:

  • Good politicians are barred from running again
  • Political choice can be limited, the opposite of what is desired in a democracy
  • The public loses the experience and expertise of candidates who have already served
  • Regulations can be implemented instead of barring candidates all together

Many other arguments are made for both sides but when it comes down to it, these are the best arguments for either side.

The arguments for term limits leave something to be desired but are not without value. Governance based on seniority instead of talent and vision is not preferable and curbing the use of this style of government is best. However there are other ways to achieve this than term limits.

Fresh ideas and candidates as well as greater competition are important in a democracy but just because a candidate has been reelected does not mean they cannot have fresh ideas or that someone else who does won’t defeat them. If an idea is truly great, it will win, at least eventually. Increased competition is great but this can be achieved by not barring candidates, regardless of whether they hold office or not. In a democracy, choice is the foundation and term limits limit choice. Instead of imposing term limits, regulations can be implemented that even the playing field between all candidates such as moderated debates, equal access to media, campaign expenditure limits, and donation regulations. Term limits ignore these other options.

I’ve not seen any data that term limits increase voter participation though there may be some. However, I know that in Canada we have regularly had higher turnouts than in the United States despite our lack of term limits and their widespread use of them. Additionally I would suggest that better candidates tend to cause higher turnouts and tossing out good candidates who have been reelected works against this effort.

There are very valuable arguments made by the side against term limits. As it may be becoming clear, any time there is the option to change rules instead of changing the Constitution (which requires a referendum) I will usually suggest changing the system through regulation and not referendum. I have already covered most of the reasons for opposition to term limits except for the loss of experience and expertise in multi-term candidates. If you have ever looked at the guides given to new parliamentarians at the federal level in Canada, you would have seen just how complicated entry into the job can be and how much there is to absorb. It’s almost worth having a term just to get used to the ins and outs of the system before one can even start to implement an agenda. Those who already know this can be valuable and worry about governing instead of learning the ropes every election cycle.

Term limits are usually capped at two election cycles, as is done in the US Presidential system. If term limits are implemented to prevent politicians from being overly influenced by financial supporters why not only allow candidates to run and win only once? Any subsequent electoral wins would carry this problem. Their incumbency after the first election would give them the advantage over the other candidates in the second election, so there would still always be an incumbent advantage. Seniority over meritocracy can still exist as two-term politicians would arguably have seniority over single-term politicians. The ideas of politicians running for a second term could be considered out of touch since they are already in government and only those who have never run before would be truly fresh faces. And as I said previously, I see no reason why term limits would increase voter participation.

Term limits, like many other reforms to the democratic process, ignore several existing issues, causes several additional new ones, and ignore the fact that there is usually an easier way to solve the problem in the first place. Beyond all this, democracy is about allowing the people to chose their representatives in government. Another major tenet of democracy is that all who wish to run for office can. Term limits go against both these basic principles and are anti-democracy.

In Canada it is hard to argue for a measure that would have limited the durations that John Macdonald or Wilfrid Laurier were in office. Our democracy is strong enough that voters can remove bad apples from office. What it cannot do is fulfill the promise of a truly inspirational leader whose tenure was cut short by an obsession with term limits. This has not yet happened in Canada. Do we really want to see that it does?

Quebec Conference 1943: Mackenzie King, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill, and Canada's Governor General the Earl of Athlone

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