Fix That House?

Two of the CBC’s politics programmes – CBC Radio’s The House and Newsworld’s Power and Politics – are exploring ways to “fix” Parliament. The series is called “Fix that House” and people are being invited to send in via email or Twitter their ideas to improve Parliament. I have been reading through the list of at least some of the suggestions submitted thus far and have found a few recurring themes, as well as an unfortunate lack of understanding concerning how Parliament works and why some things are done the way they are. Consequently, I thought I would comment on some of the suggestions put forward.

First of all, there are a fair number of calls for electoral reform – this was probably the most popular suggestion. Most proposed some unspecified form of proportional representation, and one person called for adopting the preferential ballot.

Different aspects of Question Period were a favourite target. A fair few suggestions called for an end to scripted questions from backbenchers. Unfortunately, this isn’t really something that could be fixed with a rule change. It would be easy enough to add a new Standing Order formally banning the practice, but how could you prove that a question asked by an MP was scripted by their party whip if the MP were to insist it wasn’t? The only way to end this practice is for the party leadership to stop forcing their MPs to read ask these scripted questions. Or for MPs to simply refuse to ask scripted questions. If only one MP in a caucus did so, they’d probably be expelled from that caucus, but if all of the backbenchers in a party caucus refused to ask scripted questions, I would think the party leadership would have no choice to but to back down.

The asking of questions during QP wasn’t the only thing under fire; some suggested that answers to questions be required to relate directly to the question asked, rather than used to attack the opposition or provide an opportunity to sing the praises of the government. It is true that there aren’t any Standing Orders governing the content of answers provided; but even if there were, how would the Speaker – whose job it would be to enforce this new rule – be able to assess if the answer did fully relate to the question asked? In some cases it would be fairly obvious – for example, if a minister was asked about taxation and he or she replied by attacking the opposition leader instead, that is clearly an unrelated answer. However, the Speaker can’t assess this until the answer had been given – and it’s too late at that point. Some suggested imposing penalties for those who would violate this rule – what sort of penalty? Naming them and kicking them out of the Chamber for the duration of Question Period? While I fully understand where people are coming from on this, again, rules won’t really change overall behaviour. It is up to the ministers to take Question Period seriously and provide the House with serious, thoughtful answers.

Related to this, someone suggested extending the time allowed for each question and answer during QP from the current 30 seconds to 90 seconds. I would go one better – get rid of time limits completely. In the UK House of Commons, there are no time limits and ministers frequently give fairly long, detailed answers to questions.

Another reader suggested moving Question Period to 20:00 and broadcasting it nationally (on what network, he didn’t say) so that Canadians could see their politicians in action. Hmmmm… Nice idea but I’m afraid they would lose badly in the rating to the multitude of US TV shows that Canadians would much prefer watching. Even if every Canadian network were forced to broadcast QP in prime time, my gut tells me that most Canadians would just switch over to a US network to catch their favourite show.

Someone suggested that the Speaker be “allowed” to recognize MPs during Question Period. The Speaker does not have to be allowed to do this – he or she has every right to do so – it’s in the Standing Orders. Yes, the parties provide a list of MPs who are to stand to ask questions on behalf of the party, but there is nothing stopping MPs not on those lists from standing to catch the Speaker’s eye and the Speaker calling on them.

One suggestion was for a more general move away from the reading from texts during debate so that “actual debate” could occur. I fully support this suggestion, and have blogged to that effect in the past. This would require a return to giving way as they do in the UK House of Commons. And for giving way to work properly, we’d probably also have to get rid of the existing time limits on speeches followed by the questions and comments section. This is what has killed proper debate in the Canadian House of Commons. If you watch any debate from the UK House of Commons, you will see the difference immediately. The MP who has the floor will give way – meaning they will sit down briefly so that another MP can ask them a question or comment on something they just said, and then the MP will get up again and respond, and then continue on with his or her remarks. We used to do this in Canada as well, but then time limits on speeches were introduced (to counter the opposition’s tendency to filibuster), and knowing they had a time limit on how long they could speak, MPs were increasingly unwilling to give way, so no other MP could ask them questions or comment on what they were saying. A brief “questions and comments” section was then added to the end of each MP’s speaking time. It makes for a very stilted, artificial “debate”.

Some suggestions were rather bizarre. One reader proposed an age limit for politicians to discourage “lifers”. First of all, I would think this would be unconstitutional, and second, it doesn’t make much sense. I think what the person has in mind might be a term limit, not an age limit. I think their goal is to prevent one person from sitting for decades – becoming a career politician, if you will. However an age limit wouldn’t necessarily change this as some people only enter politics when they’re older. If you set the age limit at say, 60, and someone was elected for the first time at age 58, they’d have to retire after only two years of service, while someone first elected at age 25 would (assuming they got re-elected) be able to serve for 35 years!

On a similar note, someone suggested that we should only elect “highly educated/experienced” Canadians to counter the perceived problem of ministers with little or no background in the portfolio to which they are appointed. This I know would be unconstitutional – section 3 of the Constitution Act, 1982 states:

3. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.

That means that every Canadian, regardless of educational background and experience, has the right to qualify to be a member of the House of Commons (or a provincial legislature).

Someone proposed that MPs vote from their constituency office via the web or social media rather than from inside the Chamber. This is completely impractical and ignores the fact that there is way more to being an MP than voting in divisions. What about participating in debates? Or sitting on committees? MPs need to be in the House.

Still on the topic of voting, another person suggested that MPs be allowed to vote “anonymously” in order to represent their constituents or beliefs rather than as their party whip tells them to vote. The reality is that most votes in the House are sort of anonymous already – they are voice votes. Most Canadians are familiar with the recorded division – where each MP stands and their name is called out as they vote for or against something. That is only one way of voting. There are also voice votes (where members call out Yea or Nay). No names are recorded during these votes, so it isn’t possible to tell exactly who voted how. See this chart from House of Commons Procedure and Practice to see the various ways voting occurs in the House of Commons. Only recorded divisions require that the MP stand and have their name recorded – the other means are, for all intents and purposes, anonymous.

One person proposed that we needed a Speaker with experience and “who has majority approval of each of the parties. Perhaps even right to recall.” The Speaker does have majority approval. He or she is elected by all MPs at the start of each new Parliament, by secret ballot. And the House can move a motion of no confidence in the Speaker if they are unhappy with their performance.

Many people had issues with MPs not being in the House and proposed posting attendance records or similar ideas. While it is true that, outside of Question Period, the chamber is often quite empty, this doesn’t mean that MPs aren’t working. They might be sitting on a committee, meeting with constituents or visiting delegation, taking part in some other House-related activity, etc. Most MPs work 70 hour weeks – you can’t judge the work they do simply by whether they are sitting in the Chamber.

One person oddly suggested that Question Period should be held only once a week for a full hour. I have no problems increasing it from 45 minutes to one hour, but only once a week? This would mean even less holding the government to account.  In the equally odd category, someone else proposed enlarging the House of Commons to “over 1000 members”. I really can’t see that going over well at all. Even with a population of 1.2 billion, India’s lower House, the Lok Sabha, has only 552 members. With a population of only 35 million, it would be very difficult to justify having over 1000 MPs here in Canada. People complain enough about the 308-soon-to-be-338 that we currently have.

There were many calls for an end to political parties, allowing each MP to be elected as an independent. Nice idea, and it works in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but I don’t think it would be practical for a larger Chamber. I think that instinctively, MPs would coalesce into like-minded informal groups.

Another idea put forward was to have an election every 18 months. This would raise some problems. First, the reality is that people don’t like voting that much and I think if we were forced to go to the polls every year and a half, our already low voter turnout rates would just drop even further. Second, it’s not practical. Many policies require a long-term view and if parties had to focus on elections every 18-months, they’d completely forfeit any policy other than short-term, quick-fix ones.

One reader proposed giving the Ethics Commissioner “real teeth” so that they had the power to remove a sitting MP for infractions. The problem with this is that it would violate parliamentary privilege. Under section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which endowed the House with the same privileges, immunities, and powers as enjoyed by the British House of Commons, the House of Commons possesses the power of expulsion. The Ethics Commissioner could at best recommend expulsion; it would ultimately be up to the House itself to decide the matter.

A few people suggested getting rid of the desks and having MPs sit tightly together on benches as they do in the UK House of Commons. I am not certain what problem this is intended to “fix”, but I don’t dislike the idea.

Most of the suggestions were aimed at improving decorum and increasing the independence of MPs/lessening the influence of political parties.

There were a number of suggestions that had little to do with fixing the House – such as abolishing the Senate, or changes affecting the Parliamentary Budget Office, or changes affecting Elections Canada, so I’ve ignored those.

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