More on electing committee chairs

In my previous post, I wrote about the recent election of the new chair of the Select Committee on Health which occurred last week in the UK House of Commons. Dr. Sarah Wollaston was elected by her fellow MPs, winning on the fourth count over four other contenders for the post.

The BBC’s Parliamentary correspondent, Mark D’Arcy’s recent column warns that some Conservative MPs aren’t too happy that Dr. Wollaston won the election. Ms. Wollaston, he explains, “has never been an identikit party trooper.” She was the first Conservative MP chosen via open primary, and has always been very independent as an MP. In fact, she was highly critical of her Government’s original NHS reforms as proposed in the Heath and Social Care Bill back in 2011. Some Conservatives, according to Mr. D’Arcy, fear that having such an independently-minded Conservative heading the committee could be embarrassing for the Government should any major issue involving the country’s health services arise over the course of the final year of this parliament. They also think that this independence is why Dr. Wollaston has so much support from Labour MPs. Because of this, some Conservatives:

are starting to suggest that their party should have some kind of primary process to decide its favoured candidates before the election is thrown to the whole House, or that the election itself should be restricted to MPs from the party which holds the particular committee.

Now for the non-regular readers of this blog, and for those not familiar with how the UK House of Commons chooses committee chairs, let me explain why the above quote is worrisome. Chairs of select committees (the equivalent of Standing Committees here in Canada) are elected by the whole House – by MPs. The chairships are divided amongst the major parties at the outset of a new parliament, in proportion to each party’s share of seats in the House of Commons. This in itself is a major departure from how we do things in Canada. In the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the current parliament, 22 of the 26 — 84% of the Standing Committees — are chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives hold only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chairs the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, don’t chair any. This isn’t the case in the UK House of Commons. There are 38 select committees in the UK House of Commons; the Conservative Party chairs 20 (53%), Labour chairs 14 (37%) and the Liberal Democrats chair 4 (10%). This is comparable to their representation in the House where the Conservatives hold 47% of the seats, Labour 40% and the Liberal Democrats 9%. The parties decide amongst themselves which party will chair which committee, although traditionally, the Public Accounts Committee is chaired by the Official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats always take International Development.

The Health Select Committee was allocated to the Conservative party, and thus when the former chair stepped down, only interested Conservative MPs were eligible to put themselves forward as candidates to replace him. However, following the election of two very independent-minded Conservative MPs, Dr. Wollaston at Health and, earlier this year, Rory Stewart at Defence, some within the Conservative party want to control the process of who becomes a committee chair. One way, according to Mr. D’Arcy’s article, would be for the Conservative caucus to decide by some process which of their MPs could stand for election for the post of committee chair. This would, in theory, allow the party (aka the party leadership) to weed out any MPs who are less keen on toeing the party line. Alternatively, any Conservative MP could put themselves forward as a candidate, but rather than the whole House voting to elect the Chair, the vote would be limited to  Conservative MPs (and one assumes they’d want the same process to apply to the election of chairs from other parties – limiting the vote to members of that party only). That would prevent the other parties from backing a candidate that they favour. Suffice it to say that either option completely undermines the entire point of having elected committee chairs and would reverse this very important procedural reform by putting the committee system back under the control of party whips.

However, not all Conservative MPs want the process to change. Mr. D’Arcy heard from a fair number who said they voted for Dr. Wollaston because she is independent-minded and won’t hesitate to criticize the government (and their own party) if that criticism is warranted.

Canadians may not be aware that a Canadian Conservative backbencher, Brad Trost, has successfully moved a motion ordering the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to study the matter of elected committee chairs. Trost was inspired by the reforms adopted by the UK House of Commons; however, his proposal falls short (in my view) because he does not also recommend distributing the chairships more proportionally among the parties. I don’t know why the government party has almost complete control of the committees here in Canada, but this is something that should be changed. As I mentioned above, in the Canadian House of Commons, the government party chairs almost every single committee. In the current parliament, 22 of the 26 — 84% of the Standing Committees — are chaired by Conservative MPs, even though the Conservatives hold only 52% of the seats in the House of Commons. The Official Opposition chairs the other four, and the third party Liberals, despite holding 11% of the seats, don’t chair any. If the chair positions were divided more proportionally, the Conservatives would chair 14 committees rather than 22, the NDP 8, the Liberals 3 and the Bloc Quebecois 1. But of course, in our system, the BQ can’t chair a committee because they aren’t “recognized” as a party, failing, as they do, to have the magic number of MPs required to be considered a party in the House. And because they don’t meet this magic number, not only are BQ MPs denied the right to chair a committee, they can’t even be members of a committee. This is another thing that we do horribly wrong – the entire concept of “officially recognized party” needs to be tossed out the window.

But that, my friends, is perhaps a post for another day.

(Note: for those interested, Mr. Trost’s motion on electing committee chairs was debated on two occasions, first on October 21 2013, and then again on January 29 2014.)

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Other reforms of Parliament are more urgently needed than electoral reform

A reader left the following comment on my post about the Reform Act’s proposals for party leader selection:

While there is much to be said for the concept of MPs having more weight than the average party member in selecting a leader, this assumes that the MPs are properly representative of the party’s voters. Because of our skewed winner-take-all vopting system, this is far from the case. As Stephane Dion never tires of pointing out, our voting system “makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are.” It “artificially amplifies the regional concentration of political party support at the federal level. This regional amplification effect benefits parties with regionally concentrated support and, conversely, penalizes parties whose support is spread across the country without dominating anywhere.”

The Conservative “equality of ridings” provision ensures that representative from Quebec cast about 25% of the votes in a leadership contest. If the caucus elected the leader, Quebec representatives would cast 3% of the votes. Stephane Dion would be quick to say that this “weakens Canada’s cohesion.”

First things first. Once we have a fair, modern voting system that lets all votes count equally toward electing MPs, the caucus might be entrusted with more weight in selecting a leader. Not until then.

Many others have expressed a similar view, that electoral reform is a far more pressing issue. However, I disagree, and I think the above misses a couple of critical points: first, that the Canadian Parliament does not work properly; and second, that electoral reform will not only fail to address those very major problems, but might even exacerbate them.

Let me begin by stating that I am not against the idea of electoral reform; I have written a number of posts outlining some of the problems inherent with the use of single-member plurality (or First-Past-the-Post – FPTP as it is more commonly known) in a multi-party state such as Canada (and the UK). However, the problems facing the Canadian House of Commons have very little to do with the electoral system. The main problems (in my view at least) are as follows:

  • the absolute control of party leadership over caucus members;
  • the absolute control of political parties over too many proceedings;
  • the abuse of certain procedures such as time allocation by the Executive.

When people talk of the need for electoral reform, most refer to PR — proportional representation — without specifying exactly what they mean by that. Unlike FPTP, proportional representation is not a single voting system — there are probably as many variations of PR as there are countries which use it. Most, if not all, forms of PR enhance the role of the party, in that you end up with some MPs who are not directly elected by anyone. Those who advocate for electoral reform above any other reform regularly criticize FPTP by hauling out the usual “In the last election, 39% of the vote resulted in 100% of power” or “millions of votes didn’t count!” arguments.

The problem with these arguments is that they ignore how our system works. We don’t vote for a government. We don’t elect a government. We elect individuals to represent each riding as an MP, that collection of individual MPs forms a Parliament, and the Parliament determines who will form the government. Rather than view a general election as one election, it really should be viewed as 308 (soon to be 338) individual elections.

This is why the argument that “39% of the vote shouldn’t equal 100% of the power” misses the point. You can’t focus on a “national” percentage of the vote for each party – it’s irrelevant because there is no national party or government vote on the ballot. You have to focus on each individual race in each individual constituency.

If you take this approach to it, then yes, every vote most certainly did count. In a very close three- or four-way race, as in Ahuntsic back in 2011, where the final tally was:

  • Bloc Quebecois – 14,908 or 31.8%,
  • NDP – 14,200 or 30.3%,
  • Liberal – 13,087 or 27.9%

every vote most certainly did count, was counted, and at the end of the count, the BQ candidate ended up with the most votes. Now you can certainly make the argument that no one should be elected with less than 50% of the vote, but it doesn’t change the fact that Athuntsic was very competitive and every single vote mattered and was counted and a winner emerged — the candidate with the most votes. And that was repeated in the other 307 separate elections that were held. Some were runaway victories for one candidate — and in those cases, that candidate would have won the seat no matter what voting system we had in place, while others were like Ahuntsic. Others were even closer still, tight two-way battles won by a handful of votes. How can you argue that in those instances, votes didn’t matter? Each one did — a lot. The winner may not have won with over 50% of the votes cast, but every single vote was counted and mattered.

It’s really not fair (or right) to say “votes don’t count” under FPTP — they do. Even if we had a preferential ballot (where candidates are ranked in order of preference, and votes transferred based on those preferences until one candidate has over 50%), there would be people who would not have ranked the candidate who ultimately wins, or maybe would have ranked that candidate last — yet you wouldn’t say their vote didn’t count. Under most forms of Mixed-Member Proportional, the bulk of MPs are still elected using FPTP — the only difference is that each party’s seat total is then topped up with list MPs (whom NOBODY votes for) based on the party’s percentage of the overall vote.

The problem with most forms of PR, because they involve list MPs chosen by the party leadership to fill seats assigned to the party to ensure its percentage of seats in the House more closely matches the overall percentage of the vote received by that party, is that the party becomes even more dominant. Look at New Zealand, for example. As one extreme example, in New Zealand, party votes — which are most votes in the House — are cast based on the number of MPs that party has. If a party has 10 MPs and indicates it will support a certain bill, the party vote is an automatic 10 in favour – and the MPs don’t even have to be in the Chamber when the vote occurs.

FPTP is not the real problem. The UK uses FPTP and their Parliament — while certainly not perfect — operates so much better in so many ways than does the Canadian Parliament. If you follow UK politics closely, as I do, you will reguarly see both political analysts and readers bemoaning how whipped their MPs are; yet compared to Canadian MPs, British MPs appear incredibly independent and even rebellious. If we had far more independent MPs — and by independent, I don’t mean persons elected as Independents, but MPs willing to act more independently/less like party automatons, then our current system could work better. If backbenchers from the governing party understood that they were not part of government and were willing to actually hold the the government to account and vote against it now and then when they believed it was in the best interests of the constituents to do so, as they do in the UK, then even a single-party majority government wouldn’t be able to exercise the same level of power that they currently do. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for governments with even large majorities to see legislation to pass by only a handful of votes because a good number of the governing party’s own backbenchers vote against it. This has been particularly true with the Coalition government (for obvious reasons — Conservative backbenchers feel less “loyalty” to the government since it’s not a Conservative government), but was also true on more than one occasion during the Labour majorities. Blair suffered a number of important backbench rebellions on key pieces of legislation, which in some cases passed by only a handful of votes, or because there was enough support from MPs from other parties to make up for the number of Labour MPs who dissented. Our problem isn’t so much FPTP, but a combination of excessive and abusive party discipline and a need to reform some of the House of Commons’ current practices to lessen the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature.

What reforms do I think would be needed here in Canada?

First, increase the number of MPs. While the next election will see a larger House – 338 MPs instead of the current 308, I would like to increase the number of MPs by a significant margin – at least by 100, preferably by as many as 150. One of the biggest problems here is that it is too easy for the party leadership to “reward” their MPs with positions, thus ensuring their compliance. In the UK House of Commons, with its 650 MPs, the leadership of the two main parties simply cannot exert the same level of control – there simply aren’t enough positions to hand out. Let me illustrate the problem.

The current Conservative caucus in the House of Commons in Ottawa numbers 162 MPs. One of those is the Speaker, which brings the total down to 161 MPs. Of that number, 70 would be what is called the “payroll vote” – the PM, Cabinet and the parliamentary secretaries. That is 43% of the caucus. On top of that, 24 of the House of Commons’ 28 committees are chaired by Conservatives. Now, committee chairs are elected by the committee members, but the committee membership is appointed by the party leadership. There are only 44 Conservative MPs who are NOT members of any committee — those who are in Cabinet (39), the Speaker, and four other MPs — two of whom were elected in by-elections only in November of last year and probably haven’t had a chance to be assigned to a committee yet. That means that there are only 4 members of the Conservative Party caucus who have no role in the House other than being an MP (not counting the Speaker). More importantly, this means that there are only four members of the Conservative caucus who haven’t been “awarded” a role by the party’s leadership. The situation would be similar (and even worse) for the other parties in the House given that they have smaller caucuses. However, it matters more, perhaps, for the Conservatives since they form the government. The Conservative backbench MPs are not part of the government; they are simply MPs whose task it is to hold the government to account — same as the Opposition parties. However, because all but a handful of them have been appointed to one position or another by their party leader, they don’t do this. The issue of the payroll vote is one that is regularly raised in the UK — even by MPs themselves (see this article from 2011 by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston). I can’t recall seeing much, if any, discussion of the issue here in Canada.

This would lead to my second reform: change how committee members and chairs are selected. In the UK House of Commons, the issue of the pay-roll vote is a major one, as explained in detail in this article. That said, however, recent reforms all but eliminated the influence of the party leadership in committees. I have explained these reforms in detail in this post, but to summarize, Select Committee chairs are now elected by the whole House using ranked ballots. Party caucuses elect which of their members will sit on each committee. This has led to Commons Select Committees being far more independent, willing to engage in a series of important inquiries, newsworthy, and, in many ways, far less partisan. There is a greater sense that they are accountable to the Commons as a whole, rather than trying to advance their parties’ respective interests. A Private Member’s bill has been put forward in Ottawa proposing a similar reform for the Canadian House of Commons.

Reform #3: Get the parties out of Question Period. Question Period in the Canadian House of Commons is, at best, a farce. It is completely controlled by the parties. Each party decides which of its MPs will ask a question, in what order they will ask the question, and even write the questions out that the MPs will ask. The Speaker has the power to call on any MP in any order, but rarely does so; he or she follows the lists provided by the party whips. In the UK, MPs submit their questions in advance, and these questions are drawn in a shuffle to determine which MPs will get to ask a question and in what order. What difference does this make? MPs are free to ask questions that matter to them and to their constituents. It is very common to hear MPs in the UK House of Commons ask ministers — including the PM — questions that are about a problem in their riding, or about a problem facing one of their constituents. You never hear that in the Canadian House of Commons. Also, questions in the UK are submitted at least three days ahead of the scheduled departmental question time to allow the ministers to prepare thoughtful answers. This in turn means that the questions do actually get answered, unlike in the Canadian House of Commons where a minister is as likely to answer with an attack on the opposition rather than address the actual question.

Reform #4: Bring in Urgent Questions and UK-style Ministerial Statements. You can read about both of those procedures in this earlier post.

Reform #5: Adopt the proposals put forward in the Reform Act. You can read my various posts about the Reform Act for more information.

The pressing problem here is that the Canadian House of Commons cannot carry out its duties of scrutiny and seeking information effectively. Changing the voting system will not address this; in fact, depending on which form of PR were to be adopted, it could worsen the situation by making the role of parties even more central to everything. The most democratic voting system in the world will mean nothing if the legislative body to which MPs are elected cannot function efficiently and effectively. Parliamentary and procedural reform are needed far more urgently. And the simple reality is that it might be easier to address the party control and discipline issues and need for Standing Order changes than to ever get any type of PR adopted.

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Collective ministerial responsibility: a brief history

I am currently engaged in a fairly major research project, which requires that I delve into many older texts looking at the evolution of parliament and its many conventions and procedures. One such book is A.H. Birch’s Representative and Responsible Government: an Essay on the British Constitution, which was published in 1964.

Birch provides a very interesting history of how the convention of collective ministerial responsibility evolved.

The convention of collective ministerial responsibility holds that the Cabinet is collectively responsible to the people, through the Parliament, for determining and implementing policies for national government. Broadly, it is required by convention that all Ministers must be prepared to accept collective responsibility for, and defend publicly, the policies and actions of the Government. Part of this, of course, requires that the loss of a want of confidence motion or on a major issue – such as the Budget -  is expected to lead to the resignation of the whole Government.

According to Birch, the idea or concept of collective responsibility was advocated as early as 1739, when then Prime Minister Robert Walpole told the House of Commons that the ministry should be accountable to Parliament, and when he was defeated in a Parliamentary vote in 1742, he resigned. However, Birch argues that it was only with the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 that the convention was firmly established.Three developments were necessary for this to occur:

  1. the effective unity of the cabinet;
  2. the effective control of the cabinet by the Prime Minister; and
  3. the understanding that if the cabinet were defeated in Parliament on a major issue or a vote of confidence, the Prime Minister would have no choice but to resign or ask for a dissolution.

We take the first two points – that the cabinet is united and that the PM controls the cabinet – for granted today, but as Birch explains, this was not always the case. Birch suggests that cabinet unity was established between 1780 and 1815. The first collective resignation of a ministry occurred in 1782. William Pitt, Prime Minister from 1783 to 1800, did “a great deal to develop the convention that cabinet ministers, whatever their private disagreements, should present a united front.” For example, he secured the resignation of the Lord Chancellor in 1792 after the latter had criticized the PM’s policies in the House. In 1812, “an attempt to form a government drawn from opposed groups was rejected as ‘inconsistent with the prosecution of any uniform and beneficial course of policy’.” Birch argues that since 1815, public disagreements between ministers have been rare, even though political memoirs and other sources make it clear that private disagreements were (and are) quite frequent. Birch also writes that since 1832, “there has been no occasion on which cabinet ministers have disagreed in public.” Of course, Birch wrote this in 1964. There have been a number of fairly public disagreements within the current UK Government, but given that it is a coalition government, this is perhaps not surprising (although in fairness, many of the disagreements have been between ministers from the same party and not conflicts between Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers). It is an issue of concern for some, however; it is one of the key points being studied by the House of Lords Constitution Committee during its inquiry into the constitutional implications of coalition government.

The powers of the Prime Minister within the British and Canadian political structure have developed in recent decades to such an extent that some political analysts now refer to these countries as having a Prime Ministerial government rather than a Cabinet government. As Birch points out, the situation used to be very different. According to Birch, it was only when William Pitt became Prime Minister that the position of Prime Minister became ascendant over that of the monarch, facilitated in no small part by the declining mental health of George III. Prior to 1783, the position of Prime Minister was overshadowed by the power of the monarch. Cabinet ministers were “the King’s ministers”: they had separate access to the King and more importantly, perhaps, the King could actually dismiss a prime minister and appoint one of his former colleagues in his place. William IV, who succeded George III, did not make any attempt to yield the same sort of power over cabinet that George III had. When the young Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at age 18, she and Prime Minister Lord Melbourne developed a close relationship, with the prime minister tutoring the new queen in government and politics. From that point forward, the Prime Minister was in control of the cabinet.

The final necessary development was the understanding that the Prime Minister should resign or ask for a dissolution if his or her ministry is defeated in Parliament. This understanding did not exist when Pitt became Prime Minister in 1783, and indeed, he refused to resign during the first few years of his ministry despite many defeats in Parliament. Attitudes gradually changed, however; in 1830, Wellington resigned when his ministry lost a vote and faced another one on a much more important motion. After the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, “it quickly became regarded as axiomatic that the government must respond to a Parliamentary defeat on a major issue.”

Thus, between Pitt’s appointment in 1783 and the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, the three conditions necessary for the establishment of of the convention of collective responsibility fell into place. And it was strengthened in no small way by the nature of party politics at that time. Party discipline in Parliament was very weak – bordering on non-existent. As Birch explains, between the first and second Reform Acts (1832-1867):

the question was not one of discipline, for the means to enforce this did not yet exist: the question was one of the influence that leaders could bring to bear on their Parliamentary supporters. And, as Bagehot noted in 1867, ‘the power of leaders of their followers is strictly and wisely limited: they can take their followers but a little way, and that only in certain directions.

Indeed, during that time period, several party leaders would change sides between one ministry and the next.

It was against that background, during the middle decades of the 19th century, that the collective responsibility of the cabinet to Parliament because a central feature of British politics. Between 1832 and 1867, ten governments were brought down by defeats in the Commons. In eight of these instances, the Prime Minister resigned and in the other two cases, he sought and was granted a dissolution. More interestingly, perhaps, is that not one government lasted the entire life of a Parliament, from one general election to the next. The House of Commons truly was, as Bagehot noted, “a real choosing body; it elects the people it likes. And it dismisses whom it likes too.”

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David Frum misses the point

“Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition.” Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament, 1970, p 259

David Frum is not a fan of the Reform Act.

What underlies Frum’s objection to the Act is a blurring of the distinction between, on the one hand, the legislature and the Executive, and on the other, party and government. It’s not that Frum doesn’t understand that these distinctions exist – he does – to a degree, at least. But he doesn’t seem to understand them well.

Frum doesn’t want to relinquish one iota of a party leader’s control over candidate nominations. He writes:

No party can perfectly protect itself against ever nominating crooked or stupid or obnoxious candidates. But it can screen against them and then take decisive action against those who somehow slip through the screens.

(…)

Nominations are decided by relatively small numbers of people who typically cluster more toward the political poles than the political center and have their own narrow agendas. Their influence is counteracted in Canada by the party leader’s ultimate veto power over nominations. That power is rarely used, but it shapes the whole process.

To be fair, Frum isn’t the only critic of the Reform Act to voice this concern. However, what he and the others seem to ignore is that no one is advocating that there be no screening of potential candidates. The only thing that is being proposed is that party leaders not sign off on nomination papers. I wrote a lengthy post outlining how the UK Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties select candidates. Both have a very comprehensive screening process in place for persons interested in running for the party. The screening is done by a board (or boards throughout the country) that consists of sitting MPs and senior Party volunteers. They have specific criteria drawn up detailing what qualities a party candidate must have, and they test each interested applicant, running them through interviews and scenarios. If the person makes the grade, they are on a List of Approved Candidates and can then seek out the nomination in constituencies that will need a candidate in the next election. The final decision regarding who will be the candidate is left to the local constituency’s selection committee, but all of the candidates that apply to local constituencies have already been screened and approved by the party. Even if, as Frum claims, nominations are currently “decided by relatively small numbers of people who typically cluster more toward the political poles than the political center and have their own narrow agendas”, that would be circumvented by a process such as the one used by the UK parties. It is very thorough and does not involve the party leader at any stage in the process. Why couldn’t Canadian parties implement similar procedures?

Frum’s rejection of “looser” candidate selection is grounded in the fear that this will result in a caucus overrun by “irresponsible and refractory” MPs who will constantly undermine the leader. This is where Frum’s willful (or perhaps unconscious) blurring of the distinctions between the legislature and the Executive, and party and government, becomes most apparent. Frum writes:

If a prime minister has pledged that his government won’t take action on abortion during its next mandate — and a backbencher insists on trying anyway — that action makes liars out of the whole government. Voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between the “government” on the front benches and the government members behind them.

The votes of those backbenchers sustain the government. Stray musings by those backbenchers can doom it.

Here Frum argues that the problem is that “voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between ‘the government’ on the front benches and the government members behind them.” That may be so, but it doesn’t change the very important fact that this distinction exists – it is the very foundation of our system of government. We do not elect the Prime Minister. We do not even elect the Government. We elect individual MPs and they form a Parliament. The Executive (Government) is drawn from the Legislature and is accountable to it. MPs from the political party from which the Government is formed (or parties in the case of a coalition government) are not part of the Government. They have the same job as all of the opposition MPs in the House – and that is to hold the Government to account, and to withdraw confidence if the Government is undeserving of that confidence. If anything, I would argue that backbenchers from the governing party should hold the Government to account even more stringently than the Opposition does because they should want their party to provide the best government possible. They shouldn’t tolerate abuses of the legislative process. They should want imperfect bills to be amended and improved. They should not provide unconditional support if that confidence is not warranted.

Disaffected backbenchers would gain new leverage over party leaders, because a small minority of them – 15% — could at any moment set in motion a leadership review.

The Reform Act is a grant of power to each party’s most irresponsible and refractory MPs.

On the surface, there is some truth to this. Our main political parties are “big tent” parties, meaning they attract supporters under a very broad banner, such as “conservatism” or “social democracy”, but these supporters often have very disparate views on some issues – views which may be at odds with official party policy. Big tent parties seek to find a middle-ground, to appeal to voters beyond their more traditional base. They have to if they want to win enough seats and possibly form a government. The main consequence of this push to the middle ground is that within the party, some will become increasingly disgruntled by the party’s lack of concrete action on a particular issue. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are regular rumours of Conservative MPs challenging party leader and Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership. This is in no small part due to the reality that the Conservatives are in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, which has forced the party to put aside some of its key manifesto commitments in order to find a compromise position with its coalition partner. The UK’s membership in the European Union is one such issue. Many Conservatives believe the UK should withdraw from the EU and want a referendum on that very question. The Liberal Democrats are staunchly pro-EU. The Conservatives are also feeling pressure because of the growing support (in polls) for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a strongly Eurosceptic party committed to withdrawing from the EU.

But here’s the thing – despite all of the rumours of dissatisfaction with David Cameron, no leadership review has been triggered. It would take only 46 of the Conservatives’ 303 MPs to trigger such a vote. This hasn’t happened. But even if a review was launched, it would take 152 of those 303 MPs to force David Cameron out as leader. Perhaps the main reason why no review vote has proceeded is because the disgruntled MPs know they’d never get enough support to actually unseat Cameron.

As I explained in a previous post, in a study of some countries which do allow caucuses to trigger leadership reviews and spills (the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland), between 1965 and 2008, only 17 party leaders have been ousted by their caucus. Of that number, only 3 were actually Prime Minister at the time. The reality is that parties in power rarely oust their leader; they will only do after a poor election showing, or a sharp decline in the polls leading up to an election.

Frum raises the spectre of abortion in his piece. Yes, for Canada’s federal Conservative Party (CPC), many of its supporters are strongly opposed to abortion, yet the party, while in Government, has pledged to not reopen that debate. This doesn’t mean that all of the party’s MPs are happy about that. If the measures proposed in the Reform Act were in place, it would take 24 of the CPC’s 161 MPs to trigger a leadership confidence vote. I don’t know that there are 24 CPC MPs sufficiently committed to the issue of abortion to want to initiate such a vote. But even if that were the case, it would then take 81 MPs to vote against the current leader. If the leadership review was triggered based solely on one fringe issue, I find it very difficult to believe that a majority of the caucus would vote for a leadership change. The more fringe the issue, the less likely a leadership challenge would succeed. This is the point that Frum doesn’t seem to grasp. He assumes the parties would become beholden to the fringe. This isn’t the case. Dissatisfaction with the party leaders would have to be widespread throughout the caucus in order to gain majority support for a leadership change. This reform would not “empower factionalism”, as Frum argues, rather it would isolate it. The dissenting MPs would have to find other reasons – larger reasons – to attract majority support from the rest of the caucus in order to successfully challenge a leader. A faction within a party might be able to trigger a confidence vote, but they would need massive support beyond their fringe grievance for that vote to be successful.

Of course this might present a greater problem for parties with much smaller caucuses – namely opposition parties. A party in power is going to be far more leery of doing anything that might jeopardize their hold on the Government – and coming across as divided is something they will seek to avoid. If the dissatisfaction can be shown to be limited to a handful of MPs committed to one particular issue, that could actually isolate the faction even more. If the party successfully defeats the faction, their popularity with middle-of-the-road voters could actually increase. Smaller caucuses could well be more vulnerable to such hijacking because the numbers required are so much lower. But even then, I am not certain that this would occur. The federal Canadian Liberal Party currently has a caucus of only 36 MPs. Under the Reform Act proposals, it would take only 5 Liberal MPs to trigger a confidence vote in the party leader, but it would take 19 MPs to vote against the leader to force him out. It might be easier for Liberal MPs to trigger a vote, but it would still require widespread dissatisfaction in the caucus to oust the leader. Appearances of internal division will be as detrimental to a small party as they are to larger parties; most caucuses would seek to mitigate that, and only force a leadership review if they knew there was widespread support in caucus for a change.

There are a number of other questionable points in Frum’s article. For example, he writes:

Seemingly small changes in political rules can yield very large changes in political result. Given Canada’s record as arguably the best governed country in the developed world, you’d want to be very cautious about tinkering with those rules.

Advocates of the Reform Act, however, deny that Canada is so well governed. They see a Parliament crushed and stifled; MPs deprived of their historic role; local constituencies trampled by an all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office.

(…)

The promise is that, freed from PMO control, MPs will speak out on behalf of the good people of his or her constituency with a verve and brio sadly lacking today. But where’s the evidence that such local interests go unarticulated today? I’ve seen none adduced.

Again, Frum misses the point. A stronger Parliament will mean better government. That said, the changes proposed in the Reform Act are not procedural reforms. At best, they would encourage backbenchers from the governing party to do their job of holding the Government to account more effectively by not allowing the Executive to take their support for granted. This would improve government, not hurt it, hence the quote at the start of this post: “Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition.” As for his claim that there is no evidence that MPs don’t articulate the concerns of their constituency, has he not listened to Members’ Statements or Question Period in recent years?

And even if one accepts the view that Canada is “arguably the best governed in the world” – which appears to be based not on any OECD or other empirical study but on Mr. Frum’s personal opinion from an earlier op ed piece, does that mean it can’t be improved at all? Frum’s main argument seems to be that we should avoid reforms because there is nothing wrong with the status quo. Our politics may be dull, but “more exciting politics is not the same thing as better government.” I counter that no one is advocating for “more exciting” politics, but better politics. And better politics will inevitably mean better government.

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Towards a Parliament 2.0

UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow delivered a speech to the Hansard Society (PDF downloadable here) outlining his plans for a Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.

The first part of his speech highlighted the Westminister Spring – the remarkable revival of the UK House of Commons as an institution since the 2010 general election. Mr. Speaker noted that when he became Speaker in 2009,

the House of Commons as a meangingful political institution, an effective legislature, had been in decline for some decades and was close to reaching the point wher eit had become, to distort Walter Bagehot slightly, a diginified part of our constitution without any dignity.

(…)

Parliament appaered to have been reduced to the status of a small green room in which men, overwhelmingly men, shouted at each othe rfor relatively short periods of the working week and then disappeared from sight thereafter to do Lord Knows What. Certainly, it was not to strike terror in the hearts of Ministers or offer considreed criticism and surgical scrutiny either of proposed legislation in the Chamber or via the Select Committee system of the implementation of executive policy.

However, as Speaker Bercow explains, “the virtual corpse has staged an unexpected recovery.” He attributes this miracle to three facters: procedural reform, fresh blood and the novelty of coalition government.

In the dying days of the previous Parliament, the House adopted many of the Wright Committee recommendations (of which I have written about many times). These reforms were implemented for the first time in May 2010, following the general election. They include the election of the Deputy Speakers, the election of Select Committee chairs by the whole House, the election of Select committee members by their respective caucuses, and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee.

Added to this is Speaker Bercow’s revival of an existing, but almost extinct, procedure, the Urgent Question UQ), which Speaker Bercow describes as a “parliamentary intrument of inquisition.” I explain Urgent Questions in some detail here, but simply put, it is a procedure which allows any MP on any day to petition the Speaker to demand that a ministry send one of its Ministers to answer some issue or matter that has arisen very suddenly. In the 12 months under Speaker Bercow’s predecessor, only two UQs had been allowed. Since becoming Speaker, Bercow has granted 154.

The revival of the UQ has had another unexpected benefit – Ministers are now far more likely to take the initiative and deliver statements to the House “because they know that if they do not the chance of a UQ is now high.”

The 2010 general election saw a very large intake of new MPs – 227 (out of a total of 650 MPs). These new MPs were more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, career background, etc., that had been true previously. They also brought with them a new attitude – not content to simply sit quietly and do what they were told by party Whips.

Add to this mix the formation of a coalition government – the first in some seventy years, which forced both the government and Parliament to “make up new norms as we have gone along”:

The uncertainty as to what exactly is the correct way to proceed has offered the breathing space for backbench creativity and parliamentary originality which the House Backbench Business Committee chaired by the redoubtable Natascha Engel MP has eagerly exploited. It has also, I conclude, further convinced Select Committees that a more forensic approach to scrutiny is not an act of rebellion or disloyalty to their own political party but a civic obligation.

Speaker Bercow acknowledges that there is still more to do, particularly in the area of setting up a House Business Committee, improving Private Members’ Bills, and perhaps reforming Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). And beyond that, one enormous challenge remains, not only for Westminster, but for all legislatures in the 21st century, namely,

how to reconcile traditional concepts and institutions of representative democracy with the technological revolution which we have witnessed over the past decade or two which has created both a demand for and an opportunity to establish a digital democracy.

And this is where the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy comes in. The Commission will have a core membership supplemented by a circle of around 30 expert Commissioners and will solicit input by the public. it will begin its work in 2014, reporting in early 2015, just before the next general election. Digital democracy initiatives could include:

online voting, e-dialogue between representatives and those they represent, increased interconnectedness between the functions of representation, scrutiny and legislation, multiple concepts of what is a constituency, flexibility about what is debated when and how, and a much more intense pace for invention and adaptation.

Speaker Bercow goes on to explain that digital democracy is a form of “in-reach encouraging and enabling the public to become more involved in the work of Parliament and Parliament responding as a result.” In-reach used to consist of voting once every 4-5 years, but this no longer suffices. He concludes by admitting that his plan is ambitious:

The structure is one which is unfamiliar to the House of Commons, the agenda is potentially vast and the timetable for publication is tight. Universities and even our schools, because this should not be an area deemed exclusive to so-called adults, might not necessarily respond to the call to e-arms, although I suspect that they will not need to be conscripted. The recommendations might not make the impact that they should arriving as they will but a few months before a general election, although I believe that when the new Parliament assembles it will be truly interested in what it means to become a new Parliament more broadly. And technology might turn up in 2020 or 2030 that renders all that we thought before redundant.

None of which should be an alibi for inaction. When I was elected Speaker I made it clear that while I would be a non-partisan figure withinour democracy, I would not be neutral about our democracy. Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what it is to be representative has to be re-examined constantly. It is a process, not an event. I am a passionate advocate of democracy. I do not feel that it is stretching the  nature of the office in which I serve to champion that democracy. I am by choice politically celibatebut I am not a political eunuch. The fantastic people who work in and for the House of Commons arenot party political figures and should not be either but from the top downwards they share my desire to see Parliament and the people connected as closely as humanly possible and we recognise that technology can be our best friend and ally in this regard. All those who care about Parliament, and I  appreciate that with this audience I am preaching to the long-time converted, should want to embrace this  cause and deliver us their thoughts on the development of digital democracy. I am convinced that we can really make a difference.

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Coalition government and constraints on the PM’s prerogative powers

The UK House of Lords Select Committee on Constitution has been conducting an inquiry on The Constitutional Implications of Coalition Government. For anyone interested in parliamentary conventions, government formation and other related issues, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.

On 9 October 2013, Professor Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Donoughue appeared as witnesses before the committee. It was quite interesting, enlivened somewhat by Lord Donoughue’s staunch dislike of the very idea of coalition government. In fact, he repeatedly urged the Committee to stress in their final report the many advantages of alternatives to coalition since, as he put it, “I fear that a younger generation will begin to assume that if they do not get a majority, they must have a coalition.” (page 2 of the uncorrected transcript)

Some interesting points were raised during the course of the hearing. Lord Norton discussed some of the major departures from “normal” constitutional practice brought about by coalition government, particularly those that affect the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers. He identified four such departures, which he grouped under two headings. The first is the existence, under coalition, of a dual executive. This affects the Prime Minister’s traditional prerogative powers in two ways. The first concerns ministerial appointments, which are no longer purely the prerogative of the PM as the sovereign’s adviser. Normally, in the case of single-party government, the Prime Minister has the power to the power to appoint, reshuffle or dismiss cabinet ministers. With the current coalition, it was agreed that the Liberal Democrats would have five cabinet positions, and number of ministerial spots. It is the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who decides which of his party’s MPs will be appointed to those spots. The Prime Minister, Conservative David Cameron, can still shuffle his cabinet, but he cannot dismiss or appoint any Liberal Democrats on his own. The second change brought about by the dual executive concerns the convention of collective responsibility. Traditionally, decisions are arrived at collectively in Cabinet, and Cabinet is bound to support those decisions plublicly and in the House (by voting for them, for example). There have been departures from this with the Coalition government.

The other changes which impede the PM’s prerogative powers have come about because of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011. The first concerns maintaining the confidence of the House. As we know, the PM and Cabinet are responsible to, and must answer to, the House of Commons and must maintain the confidence and support of a majority of the House. If the government is defeated in the House on a matter of confidence, then the government is expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament so that an election can be held. What are matters of confidence? That can vary, but it is generally acknowledged that confidence motions can be:

  • explicitly worded motions, usually moved by the Opposition, which state that the House has, or has not, confidence in the government;
  • any motion that the government expressly declares to be questions of confidence; and
  • implicit motions of confidence, that is, motions traditionally deemed to be questions of confidence, such as motions for the granting of supply, motions concerning the budgetary policy of the government and motions respecting the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011, the Prime Minister can no longer declare a certain vote to be a matter of confidence. Or rather, as Lord Norton explains, a Prime Minister could say that a particular motion was one of confidence, if defeated, the only thing the government could do is resign. The option of requesting a dissolution is no longer available. This ties in with the second change – previously, the Prime Minister could seek to dissolve the House and call a new election when he or she so desired. The Act now establishes a fixed date, and unlike similar Canadian and provincial Acts, there is a very specific process in place that must be followed in order to dissolve a parliament before the date fixed by law for the next election. As explained in the Cabinet Manual:

2.19 Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, if a government is defeated on a motion that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, there is then a 14-day period during which an alternative government can be formed from the House of Commons as presently constituted, or the incumbent government can seek to regain the confidence of the House.

If no government can secure the confidence of the House of Commons during that period, through the approval of a motion that ‘this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, a general election will take place. Other decisions of the House of Commons which have previously been regarded as expressing ‘no confidence’ in the government no longer enable or require the Prime Minister to hold a general election. The Prime Minister is expected to resign where it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.

As Lord Norton concludes, those are the main changes to the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers, and the last two won’t end with a return to single-party government. They will have “ongoing consequences because they are statutory changes.”

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Scandal as a catalyst for positive change

In 2009, the UK Parliament was rocked by a major scandal. The scandal was triggered by the leak and subsequent publication by one of the UK’s major newspapers, the Telegraph, of expense claims made by members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords over several years. These disclosures revealed widespread misuse of the Additional Cost Allowances (ACA) members were able to claim. The UK Parliament had been fighting disclosure of these expenses for years.

Compared to the UK expenses scandal, the current Canadian Senate expenses scandal is relatively minor. The abuses uncovered in the UK were quite extensive. Alongside specific allegations of incorrect claims such as claims for the cost of mortgages which had already been repaid in full, the Telegraph alleged that parliamentary expenses rules gave wide scope for a number of abuses, especially those related to costs of maintaining two residences, one in the constituency and one in London. Areas of questionable claims highlighted by the Telegraph included (but were not limited to):

  • Nominating second homes: MPs and peers were able to ensure that their second home was the one which enabled them to claim more expenses. In at least one case, the nominated home was near neither constituency nor Westminster.
  • Re-designating second homes: MPs were able repeatedly to switch the designation of their second home, enabling them to claim for purchasing, renovating and furnishing more than one property. This practice became widely known as “flipping”.
  • Renting out homes: MPs were able to claim for their “second home” while they were, in fact, renting other homes out. In most cases the rented homes were ‘third’ properties, but in one case, a second home was rented to another MP, who was claiming the rent on expenses.
  • Over-claiming for council tax on second home: MPs were able to round up actual amounts due, claiming for 12 monthly instalments where only 10 were due or by claiming up to £250.00 per month with no receipt required until those rules were changed. Over 50 MPs were alleged to have over-claimed council tax.
  • Subsidising property development: The rule that MPs could not claim for repairs “beyond making good dilapidations” was not enforced and consequently MPs were able to add significantly to the value of a property. By implication some “second homes” were effectively businesses (not homes) since they were renovated on expenses and then rapidly sold.
  • Evading tax and inappropriate attempts at avoiding tax: MPs either evaded tax, or inappropriately deemed themselves not required to pay tax on reimbursements when it was likely tax was due.
  • Claiming expenses while living in grace and favour homes: Ministers with “grace and favour” homes in Westminster as well as their existing primary residence were able to claim for a further “second home” in addition.
  • Renovating and furnishing properties when standing down: MPs were able to claim for renovations and furniture even when they had already announced their intention to resign from Parliament.
  • Furnishing of other homes: MPs were able to claim for items of furniture that were actually delivered somewhere other than their second home.
  • Exploiting the ‘no receipt’ rule: MPs submitted a large number of claims for just below £250, the ceiling under which they were not required to produce receipts, without being challenged as to their legitimacy.
  • Over-claiming for food: Under a rule permitting up to £400 for food each month (without receipts), MPs were simply able to claim the whole £400 every month, even when Parliament was not sitting.
  • Overspending at the end of the financial year: MPs were able to submit claims just before the end of the financial year, so as to use up allowances, without being challenged as to their legitimacy.

There was massive political fall-out from this scandal. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was forced to resign because of his handling of the crisis. He appeared to be far more concerned  with the fact that the information was leaked to the Telegraph than with the actual abuse of expenses. MPs from his own majority party, Labour, and the minority opposition party, the Conservatives, felt he had lost the confidence of the public and the House in general. Martin was the first Speaker to be forced out of the office by a motion of no confidence since John Trevor in 1695. A number of ministers resigned. A number of MPs from both Labour and the Conservative parties announced they would not seek re-election. Four MPs and 2 Lords were charged and convicted of various criminal offenses.

However, the scandal had a silver lining. Public outrage and anger over the expenses scandal drove home the fact to MPs and Lords alike that Parliament needed to change if it hoped to regain the public’s trust. One of the first reforms implemented, in May 2009, was the creation of the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, intended to manage Members’ expenses at an “arm’s length” from the House, ending the historical self-policing by MPs of their expenses.

The next initiative was the striking of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, which was appointed by the House of Commons on 20 July 2009 to consider and report by 13 November 2009 on four specified matters and related matters:

  • the appointment of members and chairmen of select committees;
  • the appointment of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means;
  • scheduling business in the House;
  • enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House

More commonly known as the Wright Committee, after its chair, Tony Wright, the committee’s report led to the adoption of by the UK House of Commons of the many reforms about which I have frequently written. These reforms include: the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, various initiatives to increase public involvement in the legislative process and other House business; the election of select committee chairs and select committee membership, etc.

The Wright Committee understood why it had come into being and what it needed to do. To quote from the introduction of its November 2009 report, Rebuilding the House:

1. We have been set up at a time when the House of Commons is going through a crisis of confidence not experienced in our lifetimes. This is largely, but not exclusively, because of the revelations about Members’ expenses, bringing with it a storm of public disapproval and contempt. Public confidence in the House and in Members as a whole has been low for some time, but not as low as now. It is not too much to say that the institution is in crisis.
2. The storm has been gathering, but has now reached its climax. In 2001 a survey found that 30 per cent of people were dissatisfied with how Parliament was doing its job; in 2009, in the wake of the expenses scandal, dissatisfaction with the Commons was a massive 71 per cent (Ipsos/Mori). This demands a response, if public confidence in the central institution of our representative democracy is to be restored. Action is already being taken to establish a transparent, fair and independently regulated system of allowances. This is necessary, but not sufficient.
3. The great majority of Members of Parliament work extremely hard. Members are in closer and more regular contact with their constituents than ever before, and dedicate a great deal of time to serving their interests. But while the House of Commons remains the central institution of British democracy, in both real and symbolic terms, there is a sense in the country that it matters a good deal less than it used to. We believe that the House of Commons has to become a more vital institution, less sterile in how it operates, better able to reflect public concerns, more transparent, and more vigorous in its task of scrutiny and accountability. This requires both structural and cultural change. This report by necessity focuses on structural changes, but we hope they will lead gradually to a change of culture. The core business of Parliament has to matter more to the public and to individual Members. At present many Members do not see the point in attending debates or making the House the primary focus of their activities. In order to address this we must give Members back a sense of ownership of their own institution, the ability to set its agenda and take meaningful decisions, and ensure the business of the Chamber is responsive to public concerns. We believe this is what the public demands, what the institution needs and what most Members want. The present crisis presents an opportunity to make some real progress with this.
4. Without the shock of recent events, it is unlikely that this Committee would have been established. Yet the case for an inquiry such as ours was already strong, and becoming ever stronger. Since 1997 the Modernisation Committee has presided over a number of reforms, some of which—such as sittings in Westminster Hall and oral questions without notice to Ministers—have proved successful. However, a number of the proposals from that Committee, and the Procedure Committee and others, have been shelved, sidelined or simply disregarded, often without being put to the House, which is dispiriting for reform and reformers. A steady stream of reports from outside bodies have made the case for significant parliamentary reform.  Meanwhile, the Modernisation Committee has run out of steam and not met for over a year.
5. We have a rare window of opportunity. There is an appetite for reform inside the House and among the public at large. We have a newly elected Speaker expressly committed to it. Backbenchers are fed up with their inability to make a difference and the deadweight of timeworn procedures. Select committees are universally praised but have few opportunities to initiate debates or propose amendments to legislation and sometimes struggle to maintain a quorum. Thirty years ago, in the closing period of the 1974–79 Parliament, our predecessors took the bold step of proposing a system of departmental select committees, which have now become integral to the work of the House. Unlike our predecessors, we have had to work at high speed under a very tight timetable, but hope to have produced proposals which—if implemented—may have an equivalent impact.

The Senate scandal in Canada could be a rare window of opportunity to finally implement real and lasting reform – not only of the Senate, but of our Parliament as a whole. Sadly, I doubt that will happen.

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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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Revisiting Rebuilding the House – Managing the rest of the House’s time

Background: The UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) released its Third Report of Session 2013-14, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms. The Wright reforms are those recommendations put forward by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (aka the Wright Committee, after its chair, Dr Tony Wright). In the spring of 2010, the House of Commons voted to approve and give effect to many of those recommendations, which took effect at the start of the new Parliament following the May 2010 general election.

I am providing a brief overview across a number of posts of the report’s main findings. This is the third installment, looking at Section 4 – Managing the rest of the House’s time. Previous installments include the section on Select Committees, and the section on the Backbench Business Committee.

“There is a strong case for regarding all time as the House’s time. It is not the Government that seeks a debate but the House: what the Government needs are the decisions which enable it to carry out its programme.” (Rebuilding the House, para 129)

One of the main principles set out in the Wright Report was that the House of Commons should have more control over its own agenda, timetable and procedures. Despite the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, the Government still controls a significant majority of Parliamentary time. This reality rests partly “on the argument that governments are formed as a reflection of the popular vote” (p. 23).

The Committee found that the Commons “is as far away as ever from implementing the basic Wright principle that all time should be regarded as “the House’s time’”, and that the present procedure for setting the agenda, normally referred to as “the usual channels”, is inadequate. The usual channels describes the working relationship of the whips from the different parties and the leaderships of the Government and Opposition parties. The term refers to arrangements and compromises about the running of parliamentary business that are agreed behind the scenes. The Leader of the House then delivers a Business Statement in the House (usually on Thursdays), and members are able to question him or her on upcoming House business, the schedule for which has only just been presented to the House.

While there was much agreement among witnesses who appeared before the Committee that something else was needed, two important issues emerged. First, there was a lack of clarity about what a House Business Committee would do, and second, it would be very important to strike the right balance of membership. The Committee noted that:

 The balance of the evidence we received was that a House Business Committee with a limited role, its work clearly distinguished from that of the Backbench Committee, could be set up and could do useful work. (p. 27)

It also noted that the Coalition Government had promised to introduce a House Business Committee by the third year of the current Parliament, but as I discussed in an earlier post, the Leader of the House previously informed the Committee that this would not happen. The PCRC rejected this position and took up the Leader of the House’s challenge by putting forward the arguments for and against six possible models for a House Business Committee, these being:

  1. The Status Quo (“the usual channels”)
  2. More transparency about the business managers’ meeting
  3. An Informal Bureau
  4. A Consultative House Business Committee
  5. A House Business Committee that scrutinises the agenda
  6. A select committee which itself proposes an agenda for the House

I won’t go into the description and pros and cons of each model proposed above; that information can be found on pages 29-32 of the report. The PCRC favours option D, a consultative House Business Committee. This is described in the report as a:

[F]ormal select committee meeting in private, with published summary Minutes: membership established by House with representatives of all sides of House and not dominated by Whips, but separate from Backbench Business Committee; chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means; purely consultative—Leader determines agenda actually announced to House; some House secretariat and access to forward plans to enable Committee to give timely consideration to Government’s proposals. (p. 30)

One final item considered in this section was that of a votable agenda, with many witnesses favouring such a reform. However, the Committee concluded:

111.  The Business Statement as it stands is not an adequate forum for discussion of the House’s agenda. It fails to provide a proper opportunity for Members to consider their future business, let alone for the House to endorse, and therefore genuinely control, its own agenda. We acknowledge the argument that, in certain circumstances, the House might welcome the opportunity to amend or vote down an agenda presented to it by the Leader of the House. However, we believe that a House Business Committee, constituted and operating effectively on the lines we propose, would remove the need for such a vote. (p. 35)

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