Parliamentary reform would work

In a recent article, Don Lenihan argues that parliamentary reform won’t “force a government to engage in meaningful debate” and reverse the fact that Parliament is, in his words “broken”. Lenihan writes:

MPs like Michael Chong and Nathan Cullen remain hopeful. They think that the right combination of rules and procedures can fix Parliament. Unfortunately, if “fixing” it means rekindling meaningful debate, they are wrong. House Speaker Andrew Scheer’s ruling on the F-35s last week inadvertently shows why.

Scheer argues that a minister cannot be charged with misleading the House unless it can be proved that he/she intended to do so. Intentions, however, are slippery things.


Scheer’s point is that, when a minister declares that he/she is not lying, it is very hard to prove otherwise, which usually results in a standoff between the government and the opposition.

The disconcerting lesson for parliamentary reform is that no package of rules or procedures can force a government to engage in meaningful debate. As long as its members pretend to be sincere, they can weave and bob, dance and spin, and there is little anyone can do to stop them. Good politicians have this down to an art.

I disagree heartedly with Mr. Lenihan. I strongly believe that there are a number of procedural and Standing Order changes which could be implemented in the Canadian House of Commons which would not only greatly improve the quality of debate, but also make it much more difficult for the ministry to shirk its responsibilities and force them to be much more accountable to the House. I will leave aside the matter of Speaker Scheer’s recent ruling referred to above, since the issue of misleading the House is in many ways completely separate from simply making Parliament more effective and functional.

I have written in depth about many of these in earlier posts, and so won’t go into great detail herein. I will provide links to my earlier posts, so that any reader interested in some of these changes can read the older posts. Most of what I will propose are practices which currently exist in the UK House of Commons. I know Mr. Lenihan writes that a similar trend to what he describes here in Canada is occurring in the UK, but again, I disagree. As someone who follows the UK House of Commons very closely (much more closely than I do the Canadian parliament, I must admit), the reality is that ministers in the UK are far more accountable to the House, and the House has been greatly empowered in the past few years.

The first procedure Canada could borrow from the UK is the UK format for Questions to ministers. I have written extensively about everything that is wrong with the current Question Period in Ottawa. The biggest problem is the time limits on both questions and answers (35 seconds for each). How anyone thinks for one instant that they’re going to solicit any sort of detailed exchange of information in 35 seconds is quite beyond me. The UK format sees one ministry only face questions each day (or the one-hour time slot can be split between two or more smaller agencies and ministries). Questions are submitted three days beforehand to give ministers the time to prepare comprehensive answers. They are very civil, even dull at times, exchanges, but at least actual information is exchanged. Ministers must answer the questions. They cannot refuse to do so, as they can here, nor can another minister from a different ministry answer on their behalf, as occurs here.

Along with the UK format for Questions to ministers, we should also adopt both Urgent Questions (UQ), which don’t exist here at all, and revamp our ministerial statements. UQs are initiated by any backbench MP – if the Speaker approves the question, a minister is hauled before the House on relatively short notice to address the question. Other MPs can also question the minister on that particular matter. This normally lasts about an hour. (Urgent questions are described in the blog post linked to above.)

Ministerial statements in the UK are also very useful, unlike their Canadian counterparts. While initiated by the minister, MPs are then able to question the minister following his or her statement. This isn’t allowed in Canada. Ministerial statements also normally last about an hour, but the Speaker can let them go on much longer if there is sufficient interest. Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance minister) was kept at the despatch box taking questions following his statement for close to three hours. This post has video clips from the UK of oral questions (not PMQs), an urgent question and a ministerial statement, to give you a better idea of how these procedures actually work.

Canada would also do well to get rid of time limits on debate and members speeches. Again, these don’t exist in the UK, and the quality of debate reflects that. We should return to the practice of giving way, which we used to do, until time limits on speeches were brought in. By allowing members to interrupt the MP speaking to ask a question or comment on what they’ve just said, the debate becomes much more interactive. Our debates tend to sound like a rota of read speeches.

Make all MPs refer to each other as “honourable”. This may sound quaint, but I think it contributes greatly to a greater sense of decorum and respect in the UK House of Commons. All members refer to each other as “the honourable lady”, “my honourable friend”, “the Rt. Hon. Prime Minister”, etc.

Ban the reading of speeches. The rules already prohibit this, but it is never enforced. No one reads from prepared texts in the UK House of Commons, and any MP who wishes to participate in a debate must refer to comments made by the 3 or 4 MPs who spoke before they did before moving on to their own comments. This is a sign of respect that one was in the Chamber, following the debate, paying attention, etc. Members must also stay around after they’ve delivered their comments to see how their comments are received by the next few speakers. Participating in debates should not be some form of torture or punishment – it should be something MPs want to do and look forward to doing.

The biggest problem in the Canadian House of Commons is the dominance of the Executive, and in particular the Prime Minister, on the one hand, and party discipline on the other. MPs are so whipped in the Canadian House of Commons, they don’t dare speak out against their own party’s position on anything. The Whips have virtual control over everything – when they speak, what they say, if they participate on a committee, etc. This is not healthy and greatly undermines the effectiveness of our Parliament.

The UK has a huge advantage on that front simply because of the sheer number of MPs – 650 compared to 308 in Canada. Most backbenchers in the UK know they will not sit on committees or be on the front bench, and so it is more difficult for the Whips to exert total control over them. Consequently, MP rebellions are very common – on both sides of the House. But while we don’t have the same numbers of MPs here in Canada, there are still many things which could be done which would lessen the dominance of party Whips.

First, Canada could introduce the UK’s system of one- , two- and three-line whips, which would allow MPs more freedom in how they vote on various measures.

Next, committee reform. I’ve written at length about the committee reforms in the UK, but to summarise: committees chairships are divided up amongst the main parties roughly in proportion to their representation in the House. Chairs of most of the select committees are now elected by their fellow MPs. Members of the committees are now elected by their respective caucuses. This has made the committees much more independent and much more accountable to the House, rather than to party Whips. I’ve written about how Committees in Ottawa could be strengthened.

The UK now has a Backbench Business Committee which determines what business will be debated on 35 days each session. This will be business that is of interest to backbenchers. There are plans to bring in a House Business Committee, which in theory would program all business in the House – which is currently controlled by the Executive.

In the UK, ministers regularly appear before the Select Committee oversees their department. Even the Prime Minister is not immune from this: the PM appears before the Liaison Committee, which is a sort of super-committee whose membership consists of the chairs of all of the other select committees, and is grilled by the committee for a couple of hours. You can see Prime Minister David Cameron’s most recent appearance before the Liaison Committee here. (Side note, around the 37:30 mark, they start discussing accountability in general, then more specifically ministerial accountability.)

There are undoubtedly more rules from the UK House of Commons which would be of interest, but as you can see from the above, it is false to say that different rules wouldn’t improve things. If the House of Commons were empowered, if MPs were less whipped, the Ministry would have to adopt a different attitude towards it and engage more fully. The simple reality is that the current government here in Canada wouldn’t survive two minutes in the UK House of Commons if they attempted to conduct themselves in Parliament there the way they do here. They’d be ripped to shreds by the Speaker, the Opposition, and perhaps more importantly, the press and the general public. It simply wouldn’t be tolerated.

And that is another important difference. I think there is a greater public awareness of Parliament in the UK, and greater media focus as well. If you take the time to look at any UK media source online, there is no shortage of political liveblogging and detailed coverage of happenings in Parliament (well beyond PMQs). Perhaps that is in part because it is the only parliament (not counting the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Canadians – those who bother at least- find their attention divided between City Hall, their provincial or territorial legislature, and Ottawa. And for many, Ottawa is very, very far away.

Finally, regarding Mr. Lenihan’s references to the problems of ministers lying or misleading Parliament, this isn’t really the issue. The Canadian House of Commons is very weak, and it is very easy for the Executive to undermine it – even without outright lying. Adopting any or all of the measures described above of course would not stop a minister from lying, but they would go a long way towards empowering the House vis-à-vis the Executive, and giving backbenchers more freedom from their own parties (it’s not just the government that is the problem here – all of our parties need to stop controlling their MPs to the degree that they currently do). It would be more difficult for a minister to mislead the House, deliberately or otherwise, if the House wasn’t so impotent.

Also, as I explained in this post, charges of misleading the House are extremely difficult to prove. I know that there has been a lot of criticism of Speaker Scheer over the 7 May 2012 ruling, but it was a given that he wouldn’t be able to find that the minister had lied or deliberately misled the House. To the best of my knowledge, there has been only one instance anywhere in the Commonwealth of a minister found in contempt for misleading the House, and that was in 1963, the case of John Profumo in the UK. And he was only found in contempt after he admitted to the House that he had indeed lied, and deliberately so, with intent to mislead. You may disagree with this, but procedural convention is what it is.

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