The Ottawa Citizen published an article looking at the voting records of MPs in the Canadian House of Commons. The main motivation behind this effort was to measure MP attendance in the House. The House of Commons does not keep attendance records of MPs and the reporters, Glen McGregor and Jason Fekete, admit that using MP voting records is a “very rough proxy”.
Rough indeed. As the writers admit, the “percentage of votes attended or missed isn’t always indicative of general attendance in Parliament, because many votes are held on a single day.” Also worth noting, it’s not even a complete picture of an MP’s voting record since not all votes are recorded divisions.
It is easy to understand why people fixate on MPs’ attendance in the House. Anyone who watches proceedings in the House of Commons will note that, outside of Question Period, there often seems to be only a skeleton crew of MPs present. This encourages the public perception that MPs don’t actually do anything, and considering how much money they are paid (by taxpayers!), they should at least turn up in the House and do the job they’re paid to do!
Under the Constitution Act, 1867, a quorum of 20 MPs including the Speaker is required “to constitute a meeting of the House for the exercise of its powers”. That means that as long as there are 19 MPs and someone in the Chair, the House can legally conduct business. The MPs don’t even have to be from different parties – all that is required is that 20 MPs be present. There have been attempts over the years to increase the number required for quorum, but these have all been unsuccessful. And if you think a quorum of 20 MPs is unacceptably low, you may be interested to know that the UK House of Commons doesn’t require any minimum number of MPs to be present; as long as there is one MP in the House and the Speaker, business goes on, except for votes. A division can occur only if there are at least 40 MPs present (out of 650).
There are many very legitimate reasons why an MP may not be in the House for debates and other proceedings, and that is why the House of Commons does not keep attendance records (and why it is also against the rules to point out that some MPs are absent). Indeed, it is safe to say that ensuring attendance has become a function of party machinery, and the Whips of the various parties make it their duty to secure adequate representation. Attending sittings of the House is only one of many demands on on an MP’s time. This is why using the voting record to gauge overall attendance isn’t really that useful. Participation rates for divisions can be affected by a number of factors. These may include:
- Abstentions: There is no rule requiring a Member to vote. There is no provision in the House of Commons for a formal abstention, so a Member not wishing to vote either for or against a motion is simply recorded as not voting. Parties may decide to have a whipped abstention on certain divisions.
- Ministerial or Opposition front-bench duties.
- Visits abroad as part of a Parliamentary or Committee delegation.
- Constituency business or party duties.
- Pairing: MPs who are ‘paired’ have agreed with their pair not to vote, even if they are present within the precincts of the House.
- Personal circumstances such as illness, bereavements, etc.
- No Member is entitled to take part in debate or to vote on any question in which he or she has a private interest.
Personally, I think people take the attendance in divisions too seriously, when it is really pretty meaningless, particularly in the Canadian House of Commons. Because of our incredibly strong party discipline, the outcomes of the vast majority of divisions is a foregone conclusion, and this is particularly true when it comes to votes on Government business, and especially during majority parliaments. At times I think we may as well simply adopt party votes as they have in New Zealand. (A party vote is a collective vote cast on behalf of up to all members of the party concerned. The leader of the party or the senior whip of the party or any member acting for the time being in the House as leader or senior whip, holds a standing authority to exercise a proxy vote for all members of the party, subject to any express direction from a member to the contrary.)
What I would much rather see happen is MPs actually properly scrutinizing the bills that come before them and making them better, and voting well on them, rather than voting more often.