The future of Parliament

How to make the House of Commons relevant?

In a speech at Waikato University in New Zealand, John Bercow, speaker of the British House of Commons, considers the future of Parliament and looks to Estonia.

The increased intensity and speed that an e-democracy demands will travel beyond just one form of representation. It will and should have an impact on what and how we choose to debate. The single biggest change at Westminster with which I have been linked is the revival of the Urgent Question. The UQ is a device which allows any MP to petition me at the start of a parliamentary day to compel a minister to come to the chamber and answer an enquiry on an issue which has suddenly emerged. In the year before I became Speaker only two UQs were accepted and the instrument was dying. In my time in the Chair I have allowed numerous Urgent Questions and Parliament is much the more topical and hence more relevant for it. In the Parliaments of the Future, time allocated for the UQ or similar will, in my view, be automatic. The issue will be not whether but what new should be discussed. The historic concept of departmental questions held at fixed, often lengthy intervals will be antiquated. The notion is already meaningless in Estonia today. We will have to be far, far more flexible about what is debated and when across our whole timetable. And the dictum that the Government of the day should have control over virtually the whole of that business will seem astonishingly arrogant. New Zealand, I observe, is ahead of the curve on that score. Others including us must follow you. An e-democracy will demand enhanced democracy within a Parliament and well as between it and the outside world. Deference is not a quality which will have much purchase in the democracy to come.

To a degree, of course, all of this is speculation. It is not, I hope, speculation without some evidence. I have argued previously that the age of representative democracy is not dead and continuous direct democracy via daily polling will not put parliaments out of action and that continues to be my view. Parliaments will, though, be compelled to change and I think we can see through the example that already exists in Estonia, the direction of travel that our democracy is likely to take. We also know from history that societies, as I remarked, lead Parliaments as much as they are led by it. This time, crucially, it will not be possible for decades to pass before legislatures start to look and sound and think like the electorates which they represent. It will be a much faster process in the future. All of which, in conclusion, leaves me as an optimist about the place of parliaments in democracies. We can become the means by which a rightly more demanding public secures what it is entitled to expect from those who rule in their name.

In addition to putting a value on responsiveness, the urgent question also bestows importance on the forum of Parliament. It is the latter that has been slowly and quietly eroding and therein lies one of the great challenges for the House of Commons. Whatever the theories about modernizing our politics and making it more relevant, Parliament must be central to the solution. The answer shouldn’t involve moving beyond Parliament, but working through Parliament to make politics more relevant.

The House is not presently treated with emphasis or deference. Aside from Question Period, which most everyone reflexively regards as an unbecoming spectacle, and the annual budget speech, which is generally overwhelmed by the rush of budget analysis, the House is not the primary forum for speech and debate. When, for instance, was the last time the Prime Minister delivered a major speech there? Jim Flaherty hasn’t delivered a fall economic update in the House since 2008. Maybe it could be argued that that’s about reaching out to the public. Or maybe, as Joe Comartin has argued, it “demeans the role of Parliament and parliamentarians.”

At least until it is entirely replaced by holograms and Twitter, the House of Commons will remain the institution through which legislation is introduced, studied and enacted and the place in which we have gone to the trouble of providing each and every one of our elected representatives with a chair and a desk. On those grounds alone, it should be foremost in whatever the future holds.

And, on that note, here is Simon Lewchuk with an argument for participatory budgeting.

In other parts of the world, citizens are reclaiming their rightful roles in budget decisions. Participatory budgeting, introduced in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the late 1980s, enables people to be part of a democratic process to choose how to allocate public budgets. Ideas are shared and public expenditures are identified, discussed and prioritized in an open and democratic fashion. Everyone’s voice counts. The city of Guelph, Ont., has adopted a form of participatory budgeting in which neighbourhood groups can apply for grants for community projects. Citizens have worked together to allocate municipal dollars for breakfast programs in low-income neighbourhoods, language classes, community centre renovations and various social and recreational services.

The participatory process has also informed the Alternative Federal Budget, an annual collaborative effort of Canadian civil society organizations that provides suggestions on how public money could be reprioritized to pursue a more progressive economic, social and environmental agenda. The participatory budgeting experiments in Porto Alegre, Guelph, and hundreds of other cities across the world show that citizens want a seat at the budget table. Will our federal government continue to head in the opposite direction, concentrating power in the hands of a select few to make closed-door decisions, or will it engage Canadians with an open, participatory budget process?

Of everything in Mr. Bercow’s speech, I’m smitten with the phrase “a rightly more demanding public.” This, I think, is the something like the real answer. It is not so much that the public is apathetic, but that our politics is not sufficiently satisfying a demanding public.

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