Inside the (metaphorical) Queensway - Parliamentary reform redux

Wonkronicity Alert:

Hey, remember a few weeks back, when Halifax Chronicle Herald reporter Steve Maher and I took a road trip to the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University for a panel on parliamentary reform (and also do some spectacularly politically geeky sightseeing)?

Well, the final version of Dr. Tom Axworthy’s paper, Everything Old is New Again: Observations on Parliamentary Reform, has been posted to the CSD website — complete with a full summary of the comments, critiques and general observations that arose during our discussion. The full report is available here, but I’ve taken the liberty of copypasting some of the highlights from the panel recap after the jump. See if you can pick out what ITQ had to say:

Appendix 4: Parliamentary Reform Roundtable
April 23, 08: Queen’s University, Policy Studies
Notes by Valerie Ashford

Members of the CSD Advisory Board in attendance: Hugh Thorburn, John Meisel, and Ronald Watts.

First Panel:
Tom Axworthy, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy and principal author of Everything
Old is new Again: Observations on Parliamentary Reform
Arthur Milnes, political-historical writer for The Hill Times, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail
Kady O’Malley, “Inside the Queensway” blogger and commentator on CBC radio (and present at all
recent committee meltdowns)
Steve Maher, parliament Hill columnist for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, known widely in Ottawa circles
for excellent analyses.

Second Panel:
Tom Axworthy, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy and principal author of Everything
Old is new Again: Observations on Parliamentary Reform
Ken Cole, Liberal candidate for Prince Edward Hastings county
Sean Conway, former Director of Queen’s Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, and currently Special
Advisor to the Principal for External Relations, the youngest MLA in history, and a committed backer of
the CSD centre
Ted Hsu, senior member of Peter Milliken’s Riding Association

Summary of Conclusions:
While the paper is an important contribution to increasing concern about the operations of Parliament, the consensus of the roundtable it was too complacent about the current difficulties affecting its operations.
Both the panellists and academics at the event criticized the paper on this point, and indicated a sense that Parliament’s reputation has suffered a deserved decline, and has become irrelevant to the needs of many Canadians.

The opening of the paper sets the wrong tone. The party system alienates rather than attracts people. The role of the speaker needs to be examined. There is some complacency in the arguments; Parliament and the party system is seriously changing. The paper understates the seriousness of the problem now.

There is a missing emphasis—contextual issue of parliamentary system and federalism – Canada created
a unique model in combining the British and American systems, so this has implications for the way
Parliament works; this is only lightly touched upon. The paper did not address federalism, and to do so
would enhance it significantly.

Summary of Comments by Theme:
Comments referred to several concerns about the role of media in Parliament and the need for greater
transparency of practices and access to information. As well, the discussion addressed failures of debate in Parliament, and the value of research bureaus. General feedback alluded quite strongly to parliamentary dysfunction, and complexities inherent in the party system.


Panel and audience comments:

On the Media:
Parliament’s website is inordinately complex and user-hostile; information is buried and badly organized.
There is no good reason why every single Hansard couldn’t be digitized and accessible. They are from
1997, but it would take perhaps six summer students a term or two to put up all earlier ones, which would make a great difference in terms of access to historical information for comparative purposes. All
Hansards are needed online to contextualize coverage, so we can see what really is precedent-setting.
Currently, committees are dissolving and filibusters are orchestrated in the PM’s office, and the Harper
government’s dirty tricks handbook has been leaked to the media. As well, there is discord over the merits of coverage itself.

The Trudeau government introduced TV cameras, and what we see is a strange show of misleading
answers to wrong questions rather than intelligent conversation. This was not always the case– consider Meighan’s debating skills. Now, often brilliant people are constrained by the permanent election
campaign that is Question Period – real debate is not happening. Cameras should be taken out, but then there is a greater risk of further erosion of already dismal public engagement. Regardless, the more the public sees, the less it likes. This may be a problem with the public’s idea of what politics is about;
politics shouldn’t be understood as “killing the enemy and taking their goods…”

Regarding the question of disengagement, Generation Y is utterly disengaged. They do not appear to be getting interested as they age either. This problem is paralleled by the collapse of patronage networks. It might be said that if there are big chunks of society not engaged, maybe that’s their problem. As for the 24 hour cycle, it is not the mission of the media to promote parliament; the media is a business enjoined to retail information. Some stuff is oatmeal, as for the common good, but what sells is the dessert: scandal.

The relationship between the media and Parliament is contentious at times. Gomery argued for a
loosening of controls, greater access to information, but Harper has made it much harder to access
information. Access to information would help public to gain a better knowledge. There does need to be
greater scrutiny of the massive departments where things are going – people should have access to greater knowledge of what’s going on.

Anyone wants to read good debate should look at the Sunset Clauses in recent security legislation. People need to watch all the debates, not just Question Period.

There should be email subscriptions regarding House of Commons information and debates, even if MP’s
might feel some anxiety about this.

The Blues are problematic in that one cannot quote from them, and MP’s get to revise what they have said prior to availability. The Blues should be abolished.

Hansards may be uninteresting, but they could be run through a compiler in the interests of popularizing
and simplifying them in order to draw readers.

There is too little political information in Canada. Party memberships are down to 1% of Canadians,
indicating a massive tune-out. MP’s perhaps do not care, because they benefit from the closed-ness.
TV in the House has brought more bad than good.

It now seems to be more about the party leader via television, etc. Parliament is premised on the literary rather than the televisual, so it and TV are difficult bedfellows – TV is best at conflict.
On Transparency of Practices:
There absolutely needs to be transparency about how research money is allocated to the partisan research bureaus – it is not going where it has been slated to go. There should be easily accessed reports on exactly how research dollars are being spent.

Parties use money intended for research for communications, etc., when these dollars are slated explicitly for research only. It is 2 to 3 million per year per caucus; where is this money really going?

A suggestion made that prioritization of 5-6 of the recommendations would be useful, and mention that
the perception of how Parliament works is important to citizen engagement. A main concern is about
effectiveness. How do we know that legislation that we pass in this country is of the best quality? What are the best practices? With respect to efficiency, is it possible that Parliament is better than it appears?

How do we restore confidence? We have huge power in hands of the PCO and the PMO—how do we
balance that to ensure that we are informed and educated?

On Research and Debate:
The House of Commons is both impressive and depressing: impressive in that the whole country is
represented in The House – fascinating to see tensions played out regarding regional differences. But in
other ways, it’s depressing because the level of debate is not as high as it should be.
Much more research is needed in Parliament.

It is good to see a call for parties to have more resources—watching the environment committee on
CPAC—it was an attack to embarrass, but the critic eventually asked a dangerous question, and yet the minister failed to respond as he should have. It was clear that neither of the MP’s were well enough

But if parties do have more resources for research, is that going to further reduce their likelihood to
consult with their constituency? One of the propositions is that you get to influence, and might this become less likely if they were better briefed? They might prefer to consult NGO’s. The process for consulting the people needs to be fixed.

There must be firewalls between research and office. Those appointed to committees should be able stay however long is necessary regardless of how the PM feels about the work coming out of that committee. This and like gestures might thwart the ego-tripping.

Harper party discipline is excessively strong – Tories cannot vote without direction from the PMO, who is known to see MP’s (fairly insultingly) as akin to electoral college members.

There is a suggestion that parties strike their own members and get them to engage in the debate – parties only develop policy with their own experts so everyone’s currency is debased. As for getting party members to initiate debates? Never happens.

On Parliamentary Dysfunction:
Committees have become a farce because what we see now is that no one now can make any of their own decisions—they are immediately on the phone to the Whip who’s on to the PM office, and the intent seems often to be to simply obstruct everything with endless filibusters. If the government wants to obstruct, it can. Blame cannot rest entirely with the Speaker of the House if he does not want to intervene because there is risk of becoming a perpetual referee, and the Speaker’s argument that committees create their dysfunction so should be responsible for fixing is legitimate.

On the other hand, can a limit be set upon the amount of time over which dysfunction is allowed to hold sway?

There is a question about why a citizen would ever go a committee? It is a huge waste of time. The
behaviour is awful, it is overly arduous to get through the precinct and in the end, and one has about 2
minutes, which is an insult.

The Senate give witnesses lots of time, but being a witness before House Committees can be frustrating because there is so much running back and forth all the time that it is like shopping at Walmart! There needs to be an office of citizen engagement, rather than always inviting witnesses or sending MP’s out— we are just starting to use the Net, to use virtual space, and so on, but Canada is very far behind other legislatures in adapting technology to serve these needs.

The environment on the Hill is very difficult because we’ve seen a great party implode, rebuild, and the
Liberal party go through significant transformation. The BLOC are the most professional in the house, the best opposition.

Which of those initiatives put forth in the paper will restore health to the system? Which of these will help a minority government? Are there any recommendations that deal with the plus or minus of fixed election dates?

There is nothing more evil than the David Emerson deal, or the Belinda Stronach deal. It’s all about

A suggestion that one read “The Magnificent Catastrophe,” which is about Jefferson, Madison, Adams, a sparkling intellectual group, who “wrote like angels, but schemed like devils.” Power is toxic. Party, they thought, would undermine the state they created, but was necessary to make people think national. In the 1980’s, Thatcher was brought down by her own caucus; in Australia, it was labour that brought down labour.

It’s about what they DON’T do. Each of the major governments in power did one big thing anathematic
to their base. Leadership is about followership—how could Rae ditch public auto insurance? You have to
build coalitions. Leadership of parties on matters of significance must think of the base. But is Harper for instance playing too much to his base?

There is disengagement because Generation Y doesn’t see the party system working—activism groups
more favoured now.

Is control in the PMO office a function of personality, or environment?

Party long term thinking is dead – everything is ad hoc and reactive, meaning there is no central vision of the party’s intent. The system could be fixed if membership for at least a year was required in order to influence; this would alleviate the current practice of packing nominations.

On the Party System:

The context of the recommendations is very good. The best thing about minority governments is that they make opposition parties behave. Party policy is an absolute must – think of Rae, coming from opposition without expertise. It happens that those on the outside go in, those on the inside go out, and that’s party, which becomes somewhat analogous to a mad relative in the attic.

There is a sort of shame in being a party person, which is cultural. The most pernicious thing abut party democracy is the leadership conventions since the 1980’s. In the past, a devoted part secretary would of course go to the convention, now maybe not. If you want a healthy local party, you have a small cadre who do the work.

People want parties to be enhanced; parties are, in a way, like the Eaton’s and Simpson’s of yesterday.
The country is now urbanized and suburbanized beyond imagining before.

There is a comment on the matter of presenting the value proposition in being an active member of a
party and often there is a social stigma.

The disturbing point is made that one of the most successful recent runs was that of Mike Harris’. They
were in 3rd place, with scarce resources, but they put the party through a rigorous policy process which resulted in the Common Sense Revolution.

The structure seems designed for a lot people, but there are not a lot of people involved. We can’t afford to have influence by the mere 1%, because the number is too small, too unrepresentative.

A good riding association has maybe 25 out of a core of 3-500.

In Germany, party foundations are responsible for educating both their own party members and also the

There should be cross-advisory voting, and on big issues, maybe 2 or 3 a year could vote, ergo influence. Then there might develop a party point of view, a platform.

Parties to develop policy that might irk in the short run but educate in the long run.

Specific Criticisms of the Paper:
The opening of the paper sets the wrong tone. The party system alienates rather than attracts people. The role of the speaker needs to be examined – they should have more measures – maybe they shouldn’t be elected… maybe they don’t want to be seen to be antagonistic.

There is some complacency in the arguments; Parliament and the party system is seriously changing. The paper understates the seriousness of the problem now.

There is a missing emphasis—contextual issue of parliamentary system and federalism – Canada created
a unique model in combining the British and American systems, so this has implications for the way
Parliament works; this is only lightly touched upon here. The paper did not address federalism, and to do so would enhance the paper significantly.

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