A new deal for Parliament

Justin Trudeau’s plan for reforming Parliament and what else might be done
House of Commons
The Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings is shown through the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sunday, January 25, 2015. The House of Commons resumes sitting tomorrow after over a month of recess. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

A plan for a reformed Parliament has been available to anyone who wanted to claim it.

Five years ago, Conservative MP Michael Chong tabled a motion to redesign question period. Reform of the estimates, the process through which Parliament formally approves the expenditure of public funds, was explored in a 2012 report from the House committee on public accounts. In 2012, the Liberals tabled a motion to study establishing limits on the use of omnibus legislation; earlier this year NDP MP Peter Stoffer suggested a possible solution to such bills, though he might’ve taken the wrong approachIn 2013, Liberal MPs Wayne Easter and Joyce Murray revived the proposal of a committee to oversee national security operations—first suggested by a special committee of Parliament in 2004. NDP leader Tom Mulcair tabled a bill to further empower the parliamentary budget officer. Conservative MP Brad Trost proposed having the House elect the chairs of committees (that motion passed the House in principle in February 2014). And last fall, the NDP tabled a motion to empower the Speaker to cut off irrelevant or repetitious responses during QP.

Elements of those ideas, or at least the basic principles espoused, are included in Justin Trudeau’s plan for “a fair and open government.” So too is new oversight on government advertising, as proposed by Liberal MP David McGuinty; a limit on party advertising between elections, an idea championed by Liberal Senator Dennis Dawson; and reform of the access-to-information system, as proposed in bills from NDP MP Pat Martin and Trudeau himself. Of course, Trudeau would also follow through with his own Senate reforms.

Even as the 41st Parliament has marked a new high (or low) for lamenting about the state of things, the makings of a different Parliament have been taking shape. Perhaps simply because there are so many complaints, there is now no shortage of ideas for change. It is merely a matter of political will. (And perhaps, as evidenced by the Reform Act, some debate about the details.)

Is parliamentary reform now having a moment? That remains to be seen, of course. Twelve years ago, a survey of parliamentarians resulted in The Parliament We Want, a broad assessment of the need for reform. Many of the basic concerns still stand. So perhaps this is a culminating moment. Or perhaps we are merely repeating an eternal cycle of dissatisfaction. The Parliament we have is the result of centuries of reform, its state is an enduring concern. And that so many reforms have yet to be tried at least still allows for the seemingly distinct possibility of something better.

The three most inviting targets for reform now might question period, the committee system and the office of the parliamentary budget officer.

Restructuring question period might make the daily exercise a more useful forum. It’s our best stage, but it’s not being used very well. Allowing for longer questions and responses could provide for a better exchange and moving to a rotation of ministers could focus each day’s discussion. Requiring that every portfolio be covered by someone each day is a waste of time and effort. (If ministers avoiding controversies was a concern, we could implement something like the UK Parliament’s “urgent questionmechanism.) Not mentioned by the Liberals is something else Chong’s motion would have pursued: taking away at least some of the power of the party whips to dictate who asks questions each day. At present, the whips provide the Speaker with lists and the Speaker follows those lists in calling on members. If those lists were eliminated or limited, MPs could simply stand if they wished to ask a question and hope to be called on by the Speaker—hopefully providing some space for backbench MPs to freely pursue issues of interest.

House committees could be truly valuable outlets and resources and provide real tests of government legislation. But that might require reducing the ability of the whips and the minister’s offices to manage their work. The Liberals would have committee chairs elected by the House, parliamentary secretaries would be banned from sitting on committees (something the McGrath committee recommended in 1985) and committees would be better resourced (something recommended in 2003 and 2008). Both would provide House committees with greater independence from party whips—a parliamentary secretary questioning his or her minister at committee hearing is a ridiculous spectacle—but the Liberals don’t also propose having committee members elected by the House, something the British House has adopted for select committees.

The Liberals promise a “properly funded” parliamentary budget officer and so we might need to have a discussion about what is “proper”. The PBO’s current annual budget is $2.8 million, about a third of what is to be spent advertising the government’s budget. Unmentioned is the PBO’s access to government information.

It’s unclear for now what amount of freedom the Liberal commitment to free votes would amount to. Committing Liberal MPs to support a Liberal government on matters of confidence is fairly straightforward, but votes “that implement the Liberal electoral platform” is a potentially broad criteria; the longer the platform, the more votes that can be whipped. The “free vote” is a tricky notion. In theory, we might stand to accept the sort of semi-regular rebellions that the Brits have. It could be useful to set out that only matters of confidence—the budget, the estimates, the throne speech—would be whipped. But putting that into practice might be a dramatic change. If you change much of everything else about how the House operates, the notion of free votes might evolve anyway.

The Conservatives abandoned the system for reviewing Supreme Court appointees after the epic and historic mess of Marc Nadon’s appointment, but the Liberals would revive some kind of review. And all other officers of Parliament would also be “properly funded”—something that has been a particular point of concern with the information commissioner.

In all, there are ten points of parliamentary reform here, put into writing and committed to publicly and held aloft by a party leader for the cameras—the optimistic reformer could find reason to be hopeful at that. It’s more than either the Liberals or New Democrats offered in 2011. (It makes for an interesting comparison with the Conservative platform in 2006.)

What else might be done?

Last year, NDP MP Kennedy Stewart successfully convinced the House to pass a motion supporting the implementation of e-petitions, but a provision that would have allowed petitions to trigger debates in the House was rejected. Implementing such a mechanism could give the public a chance to directly influence the House agenda.

In 2013, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler proposed that constitutional analysis be released alongside every bill tabled in Parliament. Such analysis would at least inform the debate of legislation.

The NDP once proposed limits on when House committees could conduct business in camera. And a limitation on secret committee proceedings was also endorsed as part of a motion at the last Liberal policy conference.

Four years ago, some thought was given to drafting a Canadian version of New Zealand’s cabinet manual. Such a thing could set out the principles and parameters of government formation and the confidence convention.

In 2010, New Democrats proposed using a motion of the House to limit the Prime Minister’s ability to have Parliament prorogued and the Liberal promised “procedural limitations” in 2011, but an enforceable rule might require a constitutional amendment.

New Democrats have also proposed a ban on floor-crossing. (Though this is a problematic notion and I at least wouldn’t make it a priority.)

Independent MP Brent Rathgeber recently tabled a bill that would limit the number of ministers (or at least the number of MPs who can receive ministerial salaries, much as the Brits have done).

For good measure, the next government could commit that the fall economic update will be presented to Parliament.

(The structure of debate in the House might be the next frontier for reform proposals—underlined by the rampant use of time allocation. The NDP has proposed giving the Speaker some power to decide how much time should be spent debating specific bills, but debate might need a wider rethink. There are some ideas floating around. Simply enforcing the ban on reading from a prepared text might be a good first step.)

There are a few basic principles here that I think are probably worth pursuing: increasing the room for individual MPs to establish themselves as interesting and influential legislators, restraining the authority of party leaders, and increasing the amount of information and analysis that is available to Parliament and the public.

The goal might simply be to shake the system up a bit. To impose complication and nuance on the Talking Point Era (or at least to provide every opportunity for complication and nuance to bloom). To make Parliament something substantively more than the scene of tribal warfare. Lately I’ve wondered if our Parliament just seems a bit unevolved. As if the rest of society has become more interesting, complicated, open and responsive and Parliament hasn’t. The system still basically works. It’s actually quite a good system. The question might simply be whether the system can work better.

The current state of things can seem dire—a matter of tragedy and failure, crisis or decline. It’s probably not so easy as amending a few standing orders. Politics is a cultural matter as much as a system of rules. But if MPs are so concerned, and maybe if voters are willing to reward MPs who are so concerned, they have plenty of options for change and all of the power to pursue those changes.