The question we should all be asking is why? Why should it matter at all how many MPs get elected under a particular banner, and why are parliamentary proceedings organized around parties rather than MPs?

The oddity of “officially recognized parties”

Maclean’s Aaron Wherry’s recent post touches on the question of the rights and privileges of “independent” MPs in the Canadian House of Commons. The issue is that almost all proceedings in the Canadian House of Commons are organized around political parties rather than Members. While this in itself is troubling, to compound matters is the very odd concept of an “officially recognized party” in the House of Commons. To be “officially” recognized as a party in the House of Commons, the party must have a minimum of 12 MPs. Consequently, if only 11 MPs (or fewer) get elected under one party banner in a general election, those MPs will be considered “independents”. The consequences of that non-recognition of their party status is that they will be either completely excluded from participating in certain procedures (e.g. being members of a Committee), or else their participation will be severely limited (almost everything else that goes on in the House).

This is a uniquely Canadian phenomenon.*  The numbers required to be an “officially recognized party” at the provincial level will be different — for example, at the Ontario Legislative Assembly, a party must elect at least 8 MPPs, while at the Quebec National Assembly, a party must elect at least 12 Members or receive at least 20% of the vote in the most recent election to be recognized as a parliamentary group — but the concept exists provincially as well.

The question we should all be asking is why? Why should it matter at all how many MPs get elected under a particular banner, and why are parliamentary proceedings organized around parties rather than MPs?

Compare the experiences of two Green Party MPs, Caroline Lucas, who was the first Green MP elected to the UK House of Commons in the 2010 general election, and Elizabeth May, the first Green MP elected to the Canadian House of Commons in the 2011 general election.

Even though she was the sole Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas received £64,292.71 in Short money on top of her MP salary, an allowance provided by the House of Commons to support opposition parties that is to be used toward travel expenses and associated expenses necessarily incurred by an opposition party’s spokesmen in relation to the party’s Parliamentary business. She is a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, and has also served on a number of general committees, the committees which consider a particular bill after it has received Second Reading in the House. When Ms. Lucas wishes to participate in a debate in the House of Commons, she, like every other MP, simply signs up for the debate on a sheet outside the Speaker’s office and then waits for the Speaker to call on her to speak. If she wants to question Ministers during Oral Answers to Questions, she, like every other MP, submits her question(s) and hopes to be successful in the lottery which determines which MPs will have the chance to pose their questions. Even if her question is not chosen, she can always be recognized by the Speaker to ask a supplementary on a question posed by another MP. If she wishes to question a minister on an Urgent Question or a ministerial statement, she simply rises and hopes the Speaker will recognize her to speak — as does every other MP.

Ms. May’s experience in the Canadian House of Commons could not have been more different from that of her UK counterpart. Because she is the only MP elected representing her party, she is considered an independent MP. Because she is considered an independent, she is not eligible for any research allowance or other funding provided to recognized parties in the House of Commons.  She is not allowed to be a member of any Commons committee. She may attend committee meetings and have limited participation, but she cannot move amendments or vote. If she wishes to participate in a debate in the House or ask a question of a Minister during Question Period, she must wait while the main speaking and question slots allocated to the other parties are used and hope that the Speaker might then call on her. However, opportunities for independent MPs to speak are limited and Ms. May is not the only independent MP in the House. Similarly, only one question per daily question period is allocated to the independents. The frequent use of time allocation to limit debate on government bills means that time for debate often expires before any independents are able to participate. If she hopes to have any influence over a Bill before the House, she can move amendments during Report Stage, but even this opportunity has been severely curtailed.  If she wishes to comment on a ministerial statement on behalf of her party, she needs the unanimous consent of the House.

The UK House of Commons simply does not have any concept of “officially recognized party”; it recognizes 650 MPs. The closest the UK House of Commons comes to limiting participation due to caucus size is when it comes to allocating committee chairships. However, this is due to the reality that the minor parties are too small to statistically claim a chair (chairs of committees are allocated in proportion to each party’s representation in the House). But MPs from the smaller parties are still able to be members of committees, which is not the case for Canadian MPs from parties which have fewer than 12 MPs. The funding formula for the Short money which I referred to above takes into account both seats in the House and votes in the last election. The scheme is confined to parties having at least:

  • two Members elected at the previous general election, or
  • one Member elected and a minimum of 150,000 votes cast nationally for the party.

That is why Ms. Lucas qualifies for funding, while the Greens elected only one MP, the party received 284,823 votes in the 2010 election. It should be noted that the UK House of Commons also provides special funding for the Members of Sinn Fein who don’t even take their seats in the House of Commons because they refuse to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. They get separate funding to help carry out constituency work. If you’re really interested, you can read a detailed overview of Short Money in this House of Commons Library Note.

But far more important than the provision of funding is the simple fact that all MPs in the UK House of Commons — even those who don’t qualify for Short Money — are treated equally and have the same opportunities to participate in the House’s business. They don’t have to — if I may paraphrase — “whip out their caucus and show how big it is”, their rights and privileges are not contingent on their party’s overall electoral success, only on the fact that they were elected to the House. And quite frankly, that’s the way it should be.

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*While I discuss only the UK and Canada in this post, neither Australia or New Zealand have Canada’s concept of “officially recognized parties”.

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