[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

Parliament has problems, but not the problems many commentators claim it has

Set out below is a op-ed by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in the July 5, 2010 issue of the Hill Times, and on TheMarkNews.com on July 26, 2010

Very unfortunately, and for various reasons, many political commentators have recently made very exaggerated and inaccurate claims about Parliament’s problems.

Some don’t realize that parliamentary rules are going through a long-overdue and important clarification (which will hopefully continue); some are unjustifiably concerned about the power and influence of political parties and Officers of Parliament, and; some want a majority government for the party they support (and so claim that minority government is less effective in every way).

Their various claims are about as accurate as the widespread claim that Parliament’s summer recess began on June 24th (in fact, the Senate was still open as of July 5th, as it almost always does taking an extra week or so to pass key bills sent to it by the House just before it closed).

Yes, the Question Period in the House of Commons needs reform -- but the main problem of Cabinet ministers not fully answering questions is almost impossible to solve (because of the difficulty of defining what a "full answer" is), and the other main problem of MPs heckling each other could easily be solved if the Speaker of the House of Commons would simply do his job properly and suspend MPs who heckle or act in other ways that are unreasonable.

The actual important problems with Parliament are well-known and long-standing.  The Prime Minister especially, but also opposition party leaders, have too many powers with too few checks, in part because too many areas of parliamentary process and government accountability lack clear, enforceable rules.

So MPs should move beyond the current war of words on parliamentary process and support each other in throwing off their chains and clearing up the rules of Parliament.  If they do so, they will not only empower themselves but also improve Canadian democracy in many ways.

The first step is for a critical mass of MPs to gather together over the summer and agree to support key changes, and then try to convince their colleagues to join them.

Then, MPs should pass a bill very quickly explicitly prohibiting the Prime Minister from advising the Governor General to prorogue Parliament (unless a legislative session has clearly ended, and then only for a maximum two weeks), and from advising the Governor General to call a snap election in between fixed election dates (unless a vote of non-confidence has occurred -- NOTE: To see details about Democracy Watch's fixed election date court challenge, click here). 

These changes will give MPs the time needed before another federal election to make other key changes.

Next, MPs should pass a bill amending the Canada Elections Act by setting out rules for democratically run elections for riding association executives and election candidates that Elections Canada enforces, including rules that prohibit party leaders from appointing executives or candidates (the only exceptions being if a party has no riding association in a riding or in the case of acclamations) -- (NOTE:  The federal Conservatives promised to make these changes in their 2006 election platform -- To see Democracy Watch's December 2009 Report Card on the Conservatives' 29 broken democracy reform and government accountability promises, click here).

As well, MPs should pass a bill amending the Parliament of Canada Act by giving MPs in each party caucus the power to choose their members of each House committee; making it clear that Cabinet staff can be called by any committee to testify; defining “confidence votes” as only votes on government spending and a limited list of other very significant issues.

These changes will empower MPs to represent the concerns of voters (instead of following their leaders no matter how wrong they are) and to hold the government accountable.

These changes will also empower riding associations by giving them more independence from party headquarters.  Already they have a much greater say that some commentators (Donald Savoie being the leading example) claim they do in influencing the decisions and actions of MPs and party leaders, and this further decentralization of power within parties will only help ensure leaders exercise their powers democratically.

Despite the claims of Prof. Savoie and some other commentators, however, MPs role in holding government accountable should not include enforcing laws, especially good government laws.

As has been seen at committee hearings during the recent minority governments examining the Adscam sponsorship scandal, Mulroney-Schreiber affair, various RCMP scandals, the Guergis-Jaffer affair, and the access-to-information disputes, MPs have widely varying standards of evidence and judgment usually based on the party they represent.

But during the Chrétien and Mulroney and other past majority governments, committees almost never investigated government scandals because MPs from the ruling party who controlled the committees blocked hearings from happening.

So while MPs holding hearings has sometimes usefully focused attention on bad government situations, in recognition of the clear need for independent, consistent, non-partisan and quasi-judicial enforcement of key good government rules, many Officers of Parliament have been created in the past few years.  As a result, these Officers do not have too much power nor have they overridden any of the proper roles of MPs (two claims Prof. Savoie repeatedly makes).

In fact, most of them have little in the way of enforcement powers, which is an ongoing problem because everyone in federal politics knows that while they may be found guilty by an Officer of violating rules, they will face no penalty (so, some conclude, why bother following the rules).

So another key step is for MPs to pass a bill amending the Access to Information Act to give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of any document if it is in the public interest and will not result in harm to the safety of any person (as the Conservatives promised in the 2006 election -- for details, click here) and giving the Commissioner (and the Ethics Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying, Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Auditor General, Parliamentary Budget Officer and Procurement Ombudsman) the power to penalize violators of the laws and codes they enforce (and, in every case, require them to identify the violator publicly -- as the Commissioner of Elections already is empowered and required to do). 

This bill must also require all of the Officers of Parliament to issue guidelines that set out clearly the lines drawn by each rule they enforce, so that everyone in federal politics will know what is permissible vs. what is prohibited (many of the Officers, especially the Ethics Commissioner as Justice Oliphant noted in his report, have neglected to issue such clear guidelines, leaving everyone covered by the rules in legal limbo -- To see details about the Ethics Commissioner's weak enforcement record, click here).

As well, the bill must give the right to anyone to challenge any of the Commissioners' rulings in court (currently, for example, the Ethics Commissioner's rulings cannot be challenged even if she makes major factual or legal errors).

If MPs make all these changes, minority and majority governments will both be more efficient as less House, Senate and committee time will be spent on process and law enforcement disputes, and everyone will know clearly what the federal good government standards are.

Finally, there is no evidence that minority government is less efficient or serious than majority government (and therefore no need, as some have claimed, for a majority government or different government in order to have major societal problems addressed).

In fact, during the three minority governments of the past six years, one bill was passed on average every four days Parliament operated -- only slightly higher than the average of one bill passed every three days during Jean Chrétien’s three majority governments.

As well, the bills passed in the recent minority and past majority governments have all addressed major societal issues.

The rate of passage slowed recently only (really, only) because of Prime Minister Harper’s two unjustifiable and undemocratic prorogations of Parliament that set back review of many bills by many months (which is why, among other reasons, the power to prorogue must be restricted as soon as possible).

So MPs, how about spending your summer kick-starting a broad-based, multi-partisan effort to make key changes that will bring Canadians, finally, much closer to having the good government they were promised in the Constitution 143 years ago?  If you are successful, you -- and Canada’s democracy -- have much to gain.

Nov. 18/08 to July 13/10 -- (Stephen Harper’s second minority) 42 bills passed, Parliament operating approx. 240 days (approx. rate of passage, 1 bill every 5.7 days)

April 3/06 to Sept. 7/08 -- (Stephen Harper's first minority) - 85 bills passed, Parliament operating approx. 275 days (approx. rate of passage, 1 bill every 3.24 days)

Oct. 4/04 to Nov. 29/05 -- (Paul Martin's minority) - 60 bills passed, Parliament operating approx. 150 days (approx. rate of passage = 1 bill every 2.5 days)

Jan. 12/01 to May 23/04 -- (Jean Chrétien's last majority (last few months Paul Martin was Prime Minister)) - 137 bills passed, Parliament operating approx. 410 days (approx. rate of passage = 1 bill every 3 days)

SOURCE: Democracy Watch

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Clean Up the System page