Cromwell, Disraeli, Churchill, Macmillan would not have allowed that. They believed in the power and supremacy not of Government, but of Parliament. It is our inheritance and our duty to take radical steps to preserve and enhance that primacy.

James Gray, MP

Winds of change? Ideas for parliamentary revival

There is much speculation and — dare I say it — hope among Canadian political observers that we might see a sort of reboot of Parliament — which wouldn’t be that difficult to achieve, given how bad things got during the 41st Parliament. Over the past few days, two articles and one report dealing with ways to make Ottawa better came to my attention, and I would like to briefly touch on each.

The Public Policy Forum released a report entitled Time for a Reboot: Nine Ways to Restore Trust in Canada’s Public Institutions, which you can download from this page (PDF). Most of it does not deal with proceedings in the House of Commons, but larger governance issues, and I won’t focus on those. The one recommendation they make that does involve the House of Commons is to strengthen parliamentary committees. This would be achieved by:

  • having committee chairs elected by the full House via secret ballot;
  • having committee chairs and members retain their posts for the duration of the parliament;
  • allowing committees to determine their own meeting schedules, including being able to meet any time during the life of a parliament, including during periods of recess and adjournment;
  • reducing the number of parliamentary committees and providing them with effective resources to fulfill their mandates. Committees should also engage the public in a more robust manner, using new technologies and informed by best practices; and
  • having ministers and deputy ministers regularly appear before parliamentary committees.

I strongly support all of these recommendations, except maybe for the call to reduce the number of parliamentary committees. The report justified this on the grounds that some committees aren’t particularly active, or at least weren’t particularly active during the previous parliament. Is that a justification to reduce the overall number of committees, or does it simply point out that maybe different committees are needed?

Most of these recommendations mirror what currently occurs in the UK House of Commons, but ignore a couple of important points. Chairs of select committees (but not the general bill committees) are elected by their fellow MPs via secret ballot, and it is one of the recent reforms that have made the select committees very independent. The other reform which has greatly contributed to this newfound committee independence is how committee members are selected. In the Public Policy Forum’s report, it states:

The selection of committee members by a multi-party committee of MPs, instead of by party whips and House leaders, could also help bolster the independence of committees. This would follow the model already used in the Quebec legislature and the UK.

This isn’t accurate. In the UK, members of select committees are elected by their respective caucuses. The caucuses can use any method they want to fill their allotted committee slots, but the Speaker has to approve the process used as being open and free of any influence by the whips and party leadership. I think the report is referring to the practice used to choose members for the general committees — the ad hoc committees put together to study bills. These are not permanent committees — each committee is constituted to study a particular bill and dissolves once the bill is returned to the House for Report Stage. The “multi-party committee” that selects the members of general committees consists of the party whips — it is still a very partisan process. However, there are on-going attempts to change the practice to more closely mirror the procedures in place for select committees.

There is one other reform that the PPF’s report does not mention that I would very much like to see implemented. In the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the 41st Parliament, 22 of the 26 Standing Committees — 84% — were chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives held only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chaired the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, didn’t chair any. In the UK, the chairs are proportionate to party representation in the House, which makes far more sense to me. If we adopted that approach to allocating committee chairs in the Canadian House of Commons, we’d end up with the following breakdown (assuming there will be 26 committees as was the case in the previous parliament):

Party # Seats % of Total Seats # of Committee Chairs
Liberals 184 54% 14
Conservatives 99 29% 8
NDP 44 13% 3
Bloc Quebecois 10 3% 1
Greens 1 1% 0

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be possible because the Bloc Quebecois, having “only” 10 MPs, wouldn’t even be considered for a possible committee chairship because they won’t have “officially recognized party” status — which requires that a caucus have 12 Members. They, like the sole Green MP, will be considered “independents” and thus will have their ability to participate fully in the House greatly restricted.

The two articles that I want to discuss both deal with the matter of backbenchers — more specifically, how to make them “relevant”. The first, by Don Lenihan, proposes that some of the unfortunate members of the Liberal Party caucus who don’t end up in cabinet should be made “envoys” tasked with going out to sell the government’s program and policies:

Envoys could be named for a number of key themes in the government’s agenda, such as clean technology, the integration of refugees or democratic reform. They would be sent out across the country to meet with stakeholder groups and interested Canadians.

Their job would not be to develop policy or deliver talking points, but to spark a conversation on their theme; and then to carry the discussion from group to group, building agreement around an emerging narrative.

This just strikes me as wrong on so many levels. This is not the job of a backbencher. The number one role of a backbencher — including (or especially) those from the governing party — is to hold the government to account — and they don’t do that one very well. If they’re off on the road acting as mouthpieces of the government, there is no way that they will then turn around and fulfill that whole “holding them to account” thing in the House. As well, it has to be said that Lenihan’s proposal only applies to government party backbenchers. Does that mean he doesn’t think it’s their job to hold the government to account — only that of opposition MPs? If that’s the case, he’s very wrong.

Another problem with Lenihan’s idea is the optics of it all. He raises the examples of Jason Kenney, who was a government minister, and Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party. Now it’s fine for a government minister to visit communities across the country to promote government business — that is part of their job. And it’s fine for a party leader to visit communities across the country to promote his or her party and its program — that is part of their job. However, a government backbencher visiting various communities — which would include ridings held by MPs from a different party — to promote the government’s agenda? I really don’t think that would go over very well. There were numerous instances during the previous parliament where non-government MPs were not included at events where the government was making funding announcements. I think this “envoy” idea would cause similar problems.

Which brings me to the other article, which is the polar opposite of the Lenihan piece. Entitled “Backbenchers can matter again — if they want to” this one does get what backbenchers are supposed to do: “holding government to account, scrutinizing government spending, ensuring that laws are the best that they could be, and bringing forward and examining policies and programs.” The article, written by a former Parliamentary Librarian of Canada, fully recognizes how MPs are whipped into playing the games the party leadership wants them to play, but unlike Lenihan, rather than suggest that backbenchers reinforce that even more by becoming “envoys” of the government, Young suggests maybe they should “be encouraged to think of a successful parliamentary career that doesn’t involve joining cabinet.” Maybe they could start by looking into how other parliaments work and pushing for much needed reforms here in Canada.

Neatly tying into this is an article by a British MP, James Gray, asking What is an MP for? Gray’s concern is that MPs’ focus on constituency work is diverting MPs from their true role — holding the government to account. Gray identifies seven core functions MPs perform:

  • To make, amend, improve, or stop the making of laws
  • To examine the daily workings of the Executive branch of Government, and ‘hold it to account.’
  • To represent the interests of our constituents in Westminster
  • To support our party or colleagues in a collective effort to govern or to oppose
  • To advance causes national or local in Parliament
  • To liaise with or scrutinise EU and devolved administrations
  • To carry out ‘case-work’ and constituency matters

Obviously, the 6th on that list — liaising with or scrutinising EU and devolved administrations doesn’t apply here in Canada, but otherwise, I’d argue that the job description fits Canadian MPs. I don’t see “acting as an envoy to promote government policies and programs” anywhere on that list, unless you want to go out on a limb and tack it under point #4, “To support our party or colleagues in a collective effort to govern or to oppose”. However, I think acting as an envoy, as proposed by Mr. Lenihan, would be taking that role to the extreme. As Gray notes:

The more we do in our constituencies (and in harmless, if worthwhile, pursuits like backbench debates, all party groups and the like), the less we will trouble them.

How wrong all of this is. The complexity of Government is certainly no less today than it has ever been. Legislation has in fact vastly increased in numbers in recent years, and vastly decreased in quality. Why? Because we are failing to scrutinise it properly in Parliament. Why? Because we don’t have enough time to do so. Surely we should be seeking to extend Parliamentary hours and scrutiny rather than shortening them?

If you want to make backbenchers more relevant, tying them even closer to the government by making them “envoys” is not the way to go about it. That would only further weaken the House of Commons, making it even more irrelevant than it already is. I couldn’t agree more with how Gray concludes his article:

They [the Government] would be secretly content if backbenchers put them into power and then went quietly off into the night – little moles beavering away with our casework, emerging blinking into the sunlight just in time to ensure their re-election to power at the next General Election.

Is it not time to reverse this decline; to strengthen Parliament at the expense of the over-mighty Executive, to re-establish our supremacy over institutions like the EU and devolved administrations; to energise the press and public’s interest in and respect for the parliamentary process; and to correct the increasing belief that ’case-work’ is what we are all here to do?

The collegiate nature of Parliament – ‘the place where people speak’ – should be enhanced, not diminished. Macmillan was of the view that of the 2000 rooms in the Palace, the young backbencher need only trouble himself with two: the Chamber and the Smoking Room. Parliament works because people move around the building attending events, talking, swapping experiences, plotting. That would be destroyed at a stroke by ‘family friendly hours’. And ‘decanting’ us elsewhere to make life easier for the vastly extravagant mending of the mechanical and electrical engineering systems which some people are proposing would end it for all time.

Cromwell, Disraeli, Churchill, Macmillan would not have allowed that. They believed in the power and supremacy not of Government, but of Parliament. It is our inheritance and our duty to take radical steps to preserve and enhance that primacy.


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