Thoughts on “Saving the House of Commons”

Aaron Wherry of Canada’s Maclean’s magazine recently wrote a blog post proposing a series of reforms to “save” the House of Commons. Some I have previously discussed on this blog, such as changes to Question Period. Readers proposed other reforms and ideas the comments. I thought I would offer my own thoughts on some of what was proposed.

1. Wherry proposed amending section 67 of the Elections Act “to remove the requirement that any candidate wishing to run for a party must have the signature of that party’s leader to do so”.

This is not something I have looked at or considered to any extensive degree, but on the surface, I don’t have any issues with it. I think it would complement open primaries very nicely.

2. Reform of Question Period as per the changes suggested by MP Michael Chong (fortify the use of discipline by the Speaker; lengthen the amount of time given for each question and answer; allocate half the questions each day for Members, whose names and order of recognition would be randomly selected; dedicate Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister; dedicate Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for questions to other ministers).

I have written many posts about Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons and in favour of adopting a format more akin to that used in the UK House of Commons (see this one, for example). Chong’s proposals are based on the UK model, but don’t go far enough. Rather than simply lengthening the amount of time for each question and answer, do away with time limits completely. The UK House of Commons had a target quota for questions – if a ministry gets the full one-hour of questions to itself, the target is 25 questions and answers (note, that’s a minimum). Rather than allocate “half the questions each day for Members … randomly selected”, make it completely open to all MPs. If only one ministry is up for questioning at a time (rather than the whole cabinet as is currently the case), of course each opposition party’s critic for that portfolio will be present, but they certainly shouldn’t be entitled to half of the questions. Any MP should be free to ask questions (non-scripted), including MPs from the government party. There could certainly be a dedicated PMQs on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean that there couldn’t also be questions to a ministry that day as well. In the UK, one of the smaller departments gets a half hour of questions before the half hour dedicated to PMQs. The same could be done in Ottawa.

Side note to this, as I’ve repeatedly stated, adopting a UK-version of Questions would only work if we also adopted Urgent Questions and revamped Ministerial Statements.

3. Wherry proposes getting rid of Members’ statements.

For those who aren’t familiar with this proceeding, Members’ statements is a daily occurrence which precedes Question Period and lasts 15 minutes. During this time, backbenchers have a minute to make a statement on any topic of their choosing. Normally, this is used to promote an event in their riding, or to bring attention to the achievements of a person or school or organization, etc., in their riding. Increasingly, however, these statements are used to make partisan attacks on other parties or politicians, which is contrary to the rules. I’d have no issue with getting rid of Members’ Statements.

4. No reading of speeches during debates.

As Wherry notes, the rules already prohibit the reading of speeches and has been in place since Confederation.  The purpose of this rule, is quite simple: it exists to maintain the cut and thrust of debate, which depends upon the speeches of successive speakers referencing the arguments of previous speakers to some extent. If this rule is ignored, debate becomes nothing more than a series of set speeches prepared beforehand without reference to each other. However, as we learn in House of Commons Procedure and Practice (pp. 607-8), by 1886, it was clear that the convention was often being ignored, which prompted the House to adopt a resolution condemning the very prevalent practice of Members reading their speeches. Little changed, however, and several Speakers addressed the issue in statements to the House and rulings against the practice of reading speeches. The 1956 statement by Speaker Beaudoin remains the definitive statement on established practice in the House of Commons:

A Member addressing the House may refer to notes. The Prime Minister, the cabinet ministers, the Leader of the Opposition, the leaders of other parties or Members speaking on their behalf, may read important policy speeches. New Members may read their [maiden] speeches. The Members speaking in a language other than their mother tongue, the Members speaking in debates involving matters of a technical nature, or in debates on the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne and on the Budget may use full notes or, if they wish, read their speeches.

The use of extensive notes, even prepared notes, by Members delivering their remarks is still prevalent in the House of Commons and the Chair has been disinclined to insist that Members not read their speeches. This is in sharp contrast to what transpires in the UK, where you never see anyone reading from texts. In the UK House of Commons, the principle has been quite strongly reinforced by recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which recommended, among other things, that Members who wished to take part in a debate should be in the House to hear the opening speeches, and if not, they should not expect to be called upon to participate. If they were called, they should make some effort to respond to and reference previous speeches before pursuing their own line of argument, and remain in the Chamber after they’d finished speaking to listen to at least two more speeches in order to ascertain the reaction to their own comments. Speakers regularly reinforce the views of the Committee in a letter to Members.

Debate in the UK House of Commons perhaps also benefits from the fact that there aren’t any time limits on speeches (unlike in Canada), and because of the practice of giving way, while in the Canadian House of Commons, we have Questions and Comments. As well, Samara.org found that many MPs are told at the last minute that they are to speak in a debate and are given prepared texts by the party whips to read. This certainly doesn’t help the situation.

5. Requiring justification for the use of time allocation and/or closure

One of the fundamental principles of parliamentary procedure is that debate in the House of Commons must lead to a decision within a reasonable period of time. While the political parties in the House may disagree on what a ‘reasonable period’ might be, they would all agree that eventually, debate must end and the House must decide a matter. Therefore, time allocation and closure motions do have their place; the problem is that they are often used to avoid debate and scrutiny. Therefore I don’t have any real objections to what Wherry proposes: require a Minister “to provide justification for the curtailment of debate; the Speaker would be required to refuse such a request in the interest of protecting the duty of MPs to examine legislation thoroughly, unless the government’s justification sufficiently outweighed said duty; criteria would be set out for assessing the government’s justification, which would provide the Speaker with the basis for a decision to allow for the curtailment of debate.”

6.  The Aucoin/Turnbull/Jarvis reforms

I admit to being less familiar with these proposals, which Wherry sumarizes thusly: “Codify the following: that elections occur every four years on a specific date unless a majority of two-thirds of MPs approve a motion to dissolve Parliament for a new election; that  the opposition can only bring down the government via an explicit motion of non-confidence that also identifies the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government that has the support of a majority of MPs in the House; and that the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons be required to prorogue Parliament.”

This sounds somewhat similar to what the UK recently adopted with its Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. That Act fixes elections at every five years and stipulates that while a motion of confidence in the Government will still require the current 50%+1 to pass, this now won’t automatically trigger the dissolution of Parliament. There will now be a 14-day period to see if a new Government can be formed which will command the confidence of the House. If no alternative Government emerges, then Parliament would be dissolved. If the House wanted to dissolve Parliament before the 5-year term was up without recourse to a motion of non-confidence as described above, this would require a majority of tw0-thirds of MPs to approve a motion to dissolve Parliament.

I am not a strong supporter of fixed-term parliaments. I am not convinced that they solve the problems they are supposed to address, and I do think that they create new problems while exacerbating others. I do like the UK changes re: non-confidence motions not automatically leading to the dissolution of Parliament, and I don’t have objections per se to requiring a super-majority vote in favour of a motion to dissolve Parliament before the usual end of a parliamentary term. I don’t think a motion of non-confidence would need to identify “the name of the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government”.

Ultimately, it is only the House of Commons itself which can initiate any sort of change in how it conducts its business. Also, a lot of the issues these suggestions are meant to address could be “fixed” by the political parties themselves if they simply decided to ease up on their control of their own members. It is interesting to see these issues debated in the media since it means that many Canadians are concerned about the health of their democratic institutions. The question is – do our politicians share this concern?

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