Baby steps on parliamentary reform

The Liberal Party of Canada released a plan for political and parliamentary reform this week and many, if not most political commentators seemed quite enthusiastic about much of what the party proposed.

I must admit that I was somewhat underwhelmed. The proposals for parliamentary reform were at best minor tinkering. Maclean’s Aaron Wherry provides a much more comprehensive overview of parliamentary and political reforms that have been, or could be, proposed. It’s much more interesting.

The Liberals’ proposals for parliamentary reform address Question Period, Committees, prorogation and omnibus bills, free votes and changes to financial procedures. I’m going to focus on only on the first four.

Question Period

The Liberals propose to restore relevance to Question Period by establishing a Canadian version of Prime Minister’s Questions, empowering the Speaker to challenge and sanction Members during Question Period, and allow more time for questions and answers.

I agree that there is little point in having the PM present every day, and in any case, he never is. The current PM attends 2-3 days a week. But his presence deflects attention from other ministers, meaning more questions are directed to the PM when they’d be better placed to a Minister. That said, the current PM normally will only answer questions from the other party leaders. Questions posed to him by other MPs get referred to someone else, often the PM’s parliamentary assistant. The Canadian Question Period is 45 minutes long; I don’t know if the Liberals’ proposal would be for the PM to answer questions one day a week for the full 45 minutes. That seems a bit excessive to me. I assume the other days would be the current system, which requires that all ministers be present (in theory). Like Aaron Wherry, I would prefer a move to a rotation of ministers, complemented by the introduction of the UK’s Urgent Questions procedure.

The other proposals I have issues with. The Speaker already has the power to sanction MPs who act up — that he doesn’t use said power is a completely different issue. Creating more or better rules won’t necessarily change our culture of weak Speakerships. As for increased time for both questions and answers — no, at least, not for the question part. Currently, an MP has 35 seconds to put their question to a minister, and the minister has 35 seconds for his or her reply. The reality is that 35 seconds for a question is already too long. It allows for too much preamble and context-setting. The Ontario Legislative Assembly allows 1 minutes for questions and 1 minute for answers. This works rather well for the answer part, but it is horrible for questions. Do you know how much boring context-setting blah blah you can squeeze into a full minute? A lot. It would be better if MPs had maybe 10-15 seconds to put their question forward: that would force them to keep it short and to the point. Don’t believe me on this one? Have a look:

UK House of Commons
Questions on Childcare
Cdn House of Commons
Questions on Childcare
ON Legislative Assembly
Questions on Childcare
What steps is the minister taking to ensure that there are sufficient childcare places to meet demand? Mr. Speaker, in 1984 Brian Mulroney promised a national child care plan and delivered exactly zero spaces. In 1993, Jean Chrétien promised a national child care plan and, after 13 years in office, the Liberals delivered exactly zero spaces. In 2006, the Prime Minister discovered at least the merits of announcing a child care policy, and he said that he would deliver, precise fellow that he is, exactly 125,000 child care spaces in Canada. Could the Prime Minister tell us, after nine years in office, precisely how many of those 125,000 child care spaces he has actually delivered? My question is for the Premier. Families across Ontario are struggling to find safe, affordable child care for their kids while this government is making the crisis even worse by cutting child care funding to 18 communities across our province. Child care centres like Coronation Park Day Nursery in Sarnia are on the chopping block. Over a hundred kids at that centre in Sarnia alone are at risk of losing access to child care. Can the Premier explain to parents in Sarnia and across our province why her government is intent on shutting down child care centres that families rely upon?
I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he give the figure for how much additional funding will come to Scotland as a result of the Barnett consequentials from the planned expansion of childcare in England? Mr. Speaker, I did not hear an answer from the Prime Minister. I will give him a hint. The answer on the number of child care spaces created by the Conservatives begins with a z. By the way, if the Prime Minister thinks today that it is such a bad idea, why did he promise it to Canadians to get elected in 2006? The Prime Minister promised to give Canadians a choice but the only choice, he is proposing is between money for the rich or more money for the rich. Is that really what he promised? I think the Premier just admitted that she has created a crisis in the child care system. The Premier’s Trojan Horse budget, in fact, does nothing to stop the child care cuts in 18 communities. When only one in five kids can access licensed child care in this province, no community can afford cuts to child care funding, no community should be forced to close the doors on their licensed child care centres in this province and no family should have to worry about losing their kid’s spot in child care. But this government has decided that services will be cut, and child care happens to be the first to go. Why won’t the Premier do the right thing and commit today to stop the cuts in the child care centres in Sarnia and all 18 communities across this province? Why doesn’t she just commit today to do the right thing by these families and these children in these 18 communities?

So I hope you see my point here that more time for question asking is an idea that needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. If you can’t ask a simple, straightforward, clear question in 10-15 seconds, you’re probably not asking about the right thing. Ironically, I’d like to point out that there aren’t actually any time limits for questions or answers in the UK. The Speaker will simply encourage Members and ministers to be brief.

There is one major and very necessary reform of Question Period that wasn’t mentioned: barring parliamentary secretaries from answering questions during Question Period. That practice has to stop. They aren’t responsible for anything so they shouldn’t be answering on behalf of ministers.

Committees

The Liberals propose to have committee chairs elected by secret ballot by the House, ensure a more robust system of oversight and review for legislation and other matters in the House of Commons and Senate. This will be achieved by giving committees more resources to acquire independent, expert analysis of proposed legislation and change the rules so that Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries may not be, or stand in for, voting members on committees.

Well, this is a start. Regular readers of this blog know that I am very keen on the idea of electing committee chairs by the House as they do now in the UK. Barring Ministers and parliamentary secretaries from sitting on committees is also excellent. But again, these proposals miss some of the bigger problems with committees.

First, for reasons I don’t understand, the governing party chairs the majority of the House’s standing committees. In the UK (and most other legislatures with which I am familiar), committee chairships are allocated in proportion to the parties’ strength in the House. But in the Canadian House of Commons, the governing party chairs all but 4. And those 4 are chaired by the Official Opposition. No other party gets to chair a committee. I don’t understand why a party with 54% of the seats in the House gets to chair 85% of the committees. In my world, based on the 2011 election results, the Conservatives would chair 14 committees, the NDP would chair 9 and the Liberals would chair 3.

Second, while it’s great that the Liberals are proposing that ministers and parliamentary secretaries shouldn’t be allowed to be on committees or substitute for existing members of the committee, lets go further. Ban all substitutions. In the UK, the chair is elected for the duration of the parliament, as are the committee members. No substitutions.  Get rid of those ridiculous lists of “associate members”, meaning members who can be substituted in. The lists essentially include every single MP who isn’t a cabinet minister. We all know the parties play games by subbing out members and replacing them with others to undermine the work of a committee. Just ban substitutions.

Along with electing chairs, lets also allow caucuses to elect who will represent their party on each committee. That’s what they do in the UK. If we’re going to have committee chairs elected by their fellow MPs, but have them face a committee full of whip-appointed members, I can’t see that working out very well. The chair will feel beholden to the House (one hopes), while the members will be beholden to their party leadership. How is that supposed to work effectively?

Abuses of prorogation and omnibus bills

The Liberals are promising to not use prorogation to avoid difficult political circumstances and to introduce rule changes to bring an end to the use of omnibus bills.

With regards to prorogation, I think a better approach would be to return to the old practice of having regular, yearly sessions. In the Canadian House of Commons, we’ve abandoned the practice of proroguing annually; instead, our sessions have no fixed duration and can be as long or short as the government wants. A parliament could consist of a single session. Or twenty. If we went back to annual prorogations (the dates of which would be known ahead of time, and would last maybe a week), I think that would improve a number of things. First, it would require the government to present a more focused agenda at the start of each new session because they would have only a year to implement whatever they announced in the throne speech. In turn, that would hopefully lead to much shorter and more specific throne speeches. In the UK, the Queen’s Speech is typically about 10 minutes long and consists of a list of bills the government plans to bring forward during the session. In Canada, the Throne Speech is typically at least a good 45 minutes long (often longer) and very vague. That makes it much harder to hold the government to account because it’s more difficult to pinpoint what they’re promising to do and if they actually do it.

As for omnibus bills, I deplore their use. However, since there’s no real definition of omnibus bills, it’s going to be tricky to come up with a coherent Standing Order or two to fully curtail the practice. And is likely to put the Speaker in a very awkward situation of having to determine if one of those rules is being violated.

The Liberal Party’s proposals are far from perfect, but I guess I should be at least somewhat happy that they’re proposing anything at all. It’s all mostly just tinkering, but that seems to be the most anyone in Canada can hope for these days.

 

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