What would an agenda for parliamentary reform look like?

A few ideas from an advisor to Justin Trudeau
The chamber of the House of Commons is seen during Question Period Wednesday March 27, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
(CP photo)
(CP photo)

To the discussion of parliamentary and democratic reform, you can add this paper from Robert Asselin, a University of Ottawa professor and adviser to Justin Trudeau, entitled “An Agenda for Democratic Reform in Canada.” The paper was not prepared for Trudeau or the Liberal party, but it might be a nice setup for whatever discussion is to be had ahead on political reform ahead of 2015. A discussion that might include the question of how much political reform will matter in 2015.

Among Asselin’s recommendations are a preferential ballot (which Trudeau endorsed during his leadership run) and a new appointment process for senators (which could conceivably fit with what Trudeau has proposed).

Here is the gist of the latter.

A new non-partisan advisory committee could be formed and recommend Senate appointments on merit to the Prime Minister. The advisory committee would consist of one representative per province and territory (13 people) and members would come from all walks of life. A similar process has been followed in British Columbia a few years ago when a citizen assembly was created.

But instead of being selected randomly, the members of the committee would be selected by an ad hoc House of Commons committee. No partisan affiliation would be allowed. Canadians selected to sit on the committee would do so for three years, and their mandate would not be renewable. The committee would submit a list of candidates to the Prime Minister for his consideration every time there is a vacancy. As per the recent SCC decision, the PM would have the last say on appointments.

This sounds something like the advisory committee Stephen Harper has established for the appointments of governors and lieutenants general.

In the wake of April’s Senate reference ruling by the Supreme Court, there was some debate as to whether Trudeau’s plan for a non-partisan selection process was feasible without a constitutional amendment. The primary question would seem to be whether that new process significantly binds the Prime Minister. Presumably, Trudeau could at least promise to immediately refer his plan to the Court for a verdict.

On question period reform, there’s much to be said for Asselin’s suggestions that we extend the amount of time provided for questions and responses and move to a system, as in Britain, whereby the Prime Minister is expected to be the focus once per week (this would be in line with Michael Chong’s proposals). Giving the Speaker the power to “ensure ministers answer questions” is perhaps a useful change if it means that the Speaker would ensure that a question asked of a particular minister was responded to by that minister, thus getting around the periodic practice of sending up some assigned spokesman to cover for a beleaguered minister. (Giving the Speaker any power to determine the quality of the answer is more problematic I think, theoretically requiring a high degree of subjective judgment. I have argued that the Speaker could be empowered to cut off a response that wanders off topic, just as he is currently empowered to cut off questions that aren’t relevant to the administration of government. Past that, you’re inviting tedious, unresolvable debates over whether or not a response qualified as an answer to the question asked.)

The easiest thing a government could do in this regard to make the House more relevant would be to actually have ministers make announcements of policy in the House of Commons.

Asselin also considers mandatory voting (let alone that it feels a bit weird from a moral standpoint to be forcing people to vote, I’d like to see some evidence that it would necessarily lead to a better situation) and the general notion of free votes (a lovely idea which, as Trudeau is finding, is tricky to sort out). More concretely, he recommends increasing the resources for MPs and House committees—something Adam Goldenberg argued for late last year. Goldenberg had thought that might be political untenable, though I suppose you could pay for some of it by getting rid of 10 or so cabinet ministers.

I suppose it should depend what MPs and committees might do with those resources. What use are those resources if MPs and committees don’t have greater independence and freedom to do relevant work that does not necessarily have to adhere to their parties’ interests? I’ve lately come to think that committees might be the most inviting targets for reform, at least if we imagine that committees are supposed to serve as relatively independent checks on the government and legislation. There was a small step toward meaningful reform in February when the House adopted a motion to study the election of committee chairs, but you’d have to go further than that, I think, to get committees that can meaningfully study issues, programs and bills. (I touched on it briefly over the weekend, but it might be emphasized again: we just made it through a spring sitting in which, despite any number of controversies and questions about the policy, no committee study was launched to hold hearings on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. That strikes me as nuts. But we do now have a report on the benefits of the oil and gas sector.) So in addition to borrowing their model for QP, we could also swipe the U.K. Parliament’s committee reforms.

Unmentioned by Asselin: Michael Chong’s Reform Act, any move to limit the Prime Minister’s ability to have Parliament prorogued, something to limit the use of omnibus legislation, something to manage debate in the House, increasing the budget of the parliamentary budget officerIrwin Cotler’s proposal for a legal review of all legislationThomas Mulcair’s proposal to update the mandate of the parliamentary budget officer, the drawing up of a cabinet manual or new rules to deal with dissolution and votes of confidence. Justin Trudeau himself has now put reform of the Access to Information system and the Board of Internal Economy on the table.

There are various arguments to be had here about the merits of these ideas, what could be done, what should be done, what would make things better and what would make things worse. All part of the eternal, futile quest for perfect democracy.

The upside of our current situation is that it provides a target rich environment for would-be reformers.