The economic update as presented to Parliament, 1994-2008

Mourning the loss of one measure of parliamentary accountability

<p>Former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin was in attendance for Jack Layton&#8217;s state funeral ceremony at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, ON. (Cole Garside/Maclean&#8217;s)</p>

Former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin was in attendance for Jack Layton’s state funeral ceremony at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, ON. (Cole Garside/Maclean’s)

It is perhaps a bit silly to mourn the loss of a tradition that dates to 1994, but it now seems unlikely that Jim Flaherty will ever again present a fall economic update to the House of Commons (today’s was conveyed via a news release, a video and then an awkward “Q&A” between Mr. Flaherty and Conservative MP James Rajotte before a paying audience in Edmonton) and that is a bit unfortunate.

Whatever else Paul Martin’s invention accomplished and whatever the original intent of the thing, it created some reason to put some focus on something that was actually happening within Parliament—the Finance Minister appearing before a committee to present information and take questions from our elected representatives. And there not many of those reasons remaining.

There’s Question Period, of course (and it is heartening to think that those 45 minutes have taken on new relevance over the last few months). And there is the annual budget speech (though I’m not sure how much attention anyone actually pays to the actual speech). And there are the periodic spectacles (the omnibus budget bill votes, the suspension motions against Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin). And, at least during minority parliaments, there is the odd vote result that can’t be easily predicted.

And that’s about it. The hundreds of other hours the House of Commons spends doing things each year are mostly ignored. There is blame to go around for that—most speeches that are given in the House by party leaders and ministers are ignored and I regret not spending more time watching the House outside of the 2 o’clock hour since I’ve been here—but we should be mindful of the fact that the primary stage for our elected democracy is now more often a staged announcement or, at its most improvised, a scrum. And so we drift further and further away from Parliament as a relevant exercise.

Should that worry you? Well, the House of Commons belongs to no one, but us. And so it is, or should be, less susceptible to the staging and management of any particular prime minister or party (or least less easily controlled). Consider Question Period. For 45 minutes, the Prime Minister can’t do much but take the questions of the leaders of the other parties (were he to stop responding or stop showing up entirely, there would be much consternation). We can fret about how QP is conducted on a daily basis, but we should still be rather happy that it at least exists. Were it to cease to be (without being replaced by a similar parliamentary exercise), it would be a great loss.

So today, the Finance Minister might’ve appeared before the finance committee. The other parties might’ve had a chance to test his presentation and state their own cases. Our elected representatives might’ve had a chance to question him. That seems like the sort of thing that we should desire and that would generally improve our governance. Accountability isn’t merely about the exercise of scrutiny and criticism, of course, but a useful way of ensuring good governance and improving upon it.

There are a lot of measures and changes that would improve Parliament—greater independence for MPs, greater independence for committees, greater independence and funding for the parliamentary budget office. All of those things would bring new relevance to the place. But so, if even only for a day, would the Finance Minister appearing each fall to deliver his economic update.

In Britain, statements by ministers is an important and relevant part of the parliamentary order—see here, here and here for interesting and copious background. A committee of the British House studied ministerial statements and issued a report in 2011 that set out a principle of “Parliament first.”

The Government must make important announcements to Parliament before they are made elsewhere. Mr Philip Hollobone MP, moving the motion in the debate on 20 July 2010, said:

The Chamber of the House of Commons should be the centre of political public life in our country. It should not be an inconvenience for Ministers to come here and tell the country about important policy: it should be an honour and privilege to keep the information to themselves until they have told Members of this House.[5]

We recognise that the Government has a duty to inform the public as well as Members of Parliament about its policies, and that it often chooses to do this by releasing information to the press. We nevertheless maintain that Members and their constituents are best served when announcements are made to elected representatives before they are made to the media. Parliament should be the centre of national debate and the place in which the most important announcements of government policy are made.

That “Parliament should be the centre of national debate” is a principle that should guide all of our thoughts about what the instituation is presently and what it could be in the future.