Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Reform Act and a Parliamentary Culture Shift


Michael Chong’s proposed private member’s bill – his Reform Act – has received considerable attention since it was first announced, attracting high profile praise from the likes of columnist Andrew Coyne and equal measures of dismissal from, of all places, the federal New Democrats. As Coyne rightly describes it, should even some of its apparently rudimentary measures come into force, the bill could be nothing short of the first shot in a growing salvo. It could be the tipping point in a much larger spate of democratic reform. Importantly as well it refocuses public attention away from the distraction that is the Senate, instead focussing on the genuine democratic deficit in the House of Commons. Yes, the Senate is unelected, but its abolition would contribute little if anything to enhancing our democracy. Something more necessary is required.

The bill could prompt a much needed culture shift within parliament itself. One need only look at a recent slate of reports from Samara Canada to understand the fundamental problem that needs to be addressed: parliamentarians have little sense of their job. Indeed, as the title of one report indicates, it’s a ‘job with no description’. The pastiche of roles and identities, ranging from partisan roles to providing basic constituency services, points to the most troubling aspect that “only a few MPs mentioned that the role involved holding government accountable for its decisions” (Samara:22).

Here there is a ‘chicken/egg’ paradox. The bill may help spur the creation of a kind of political culture that fundamentally reorients (or, more accurately, restores) the basic understanding of what a member exists to do. In short, it could prompt members to identify first and foremost as parliamentarians, not as partisans or members of discrete geographic entities with disparate interests and functions. This would require a collective acknowledgement that the primary function of Members of Parliament is not to write or alter legislation or work to advance the party’s agenda, but to hold the government to account and represent one’s constituency while doing so. With few exceptions, those on the government benches have devoted their precious resources in Question Period to lobbing softballs at ministers. This is a waste of resources and makes a mockery of Parliament as a democratic institution.

With few exceptions, Conservative members of the House are failing at their most basic constitutional role. Identifying primarily with the governing caucus, and fully cowed by party discipline, government backbenches have lost any sense of their role. Contrary to their imaginations, they are not ‘in government’ and, as such, their job is the same as every other member who does not sit at the cabinet table. Of course, this is a delicate proposition given that it is routine for a parliamentary secretary – not in Cabinet and not in government – to stand up in the House of Commons and speak on behalf of the government. Paul Calandra is not responsible to the Commons. If the Speaker refuses to act as a guardian of the privileges of the House, Standing Orders should be amended to force in fact what has been lost by convention and practice: that the Ministry stand and account for its actions before an elected assembly.

Largely as a result of partisanship (which, it must be stated, has a positive role to play in Westminster politics as it relates to holding governments to account), the Opposition has fared better at fulfilling its constitutional responsibility. With no pressure to self-regulate speech in the interests of promotion or career furtherance (coupled with a desire to make the government look bad), opposition members have been free to fulfill their jobs. Although, as I have posted previously, the Official Opposition has frequently abused its constitutional role and the use of Question Period to indirectly attack and hold the former Chretien and Martin governments to account. As with government responses, opposition questions should be directly solely to and be entirely about government policies and actions. Rather the NDP has, until the Senate scandal had focused its attention, used Question Period as an electioneering tool to slander and attack the third party. Both sides of the aisle then have to account for their failure to protect the principles of responsible government.

With this bill an irony emerges: the very bill meant to emancipate members from the dominance of their party leadership may induce members to vote against their own interests. As has been intimated, there is a possibility that the NDP may whip its caucus into voting against the bill (“it’s an internal party matter”) and the Government House Leader may very well do that same. The psychology of party discipline has meant that the fear of challenging the party leadership has acted to erase the very real power that members have in the House. Party discipline is, in effect, the stuff of party, not parliamentary, politics. Members are always free to vote, they simply face consequences (see Pepall’s Against Reform). MPs may vote against their own interests through the fear of party discipline even though voting for the bill may take all but the bark out of it.

Chong’s bill has great potential, but it should be accompanied by a reciprocal expansion of the discourse about our political institutions, particularly Parliament (genuine reform of the House, not superficial and hyperbolic populism about the Senate) and political parties. Indeed, the role and place of parties is at the heart of this debate. The utility of parties is apparent. They help form governing coalitions and, as such, help stabilize government. One need only look at the instability of governance in the United Province prior to Confederation to understand that a total lack of formality and form in the House is equally as bad as overt dominance by the party leader. (See, for example, the ephemeral Premiership of one George Brown). Yet the stability that has accompanied the application of party government has become, in many respects, a straightjacket that now simply serves to bind parliamentarians in real (and occasionally imagined) ways.

Parties exist in strange ether. They are once public and private; a hybrid that often ill fits a democracy. In essence they provide particular groups – groups with their own rules of operation and membership – preferential and near exclusive access to our democratic institutions. Individuals operating outside the party system lack any plausible ability at election to the House of Commons. As a result they have become gatekeepers of Canadian democracy, gatekeepers with little accountability and a declining membership. [At this point the reader may be tempted to say: “well, people should just join parties, problem solved”. At a time when even quadrennial voting is becoming a challenge one suspects that demanding more active political involvement in parties is unlikely to be a workable solution.] If parties are to remain privileged – indeed, dominant – institutions in our politics they need to be made more accountable and open. More to the point, they should not be allowed to dominate – by fact or threat – the political life of Parliament beyond what is necessary for a government to function. Unfortunately the partisan and political needs of parties have been conflated with the needs of governments to function.

In short, while laudable and necessary, Michael Chong’s proposed legislation – on the off chance it passes – should not be considered a revolution in and of itself. Rather it should be considered only the first shot in a much more broad series of reforms and changes. It must coincide with a collective awaking of parliamentarians as parliamentarians and mindful of their genuine and pressing constitutional responsibility. If the bill cannot change parliament’s culture it will simply be a means without a realizable ends. As long as the government’s benches continue to view themselves incorrectly as members of government they will be incapable of fully exercising their duties as MPs.

There is something almost fundamentally Canadian about this entire debate. Until very recently the focus has been on the Senate as if the existence of that chamber was the greatest impediment to Canadian democracy. Few really consider how democracy would be served by way of an eraser. Moreover, the path to reform taken by the NDP, the government (half-heartedly) and a growing number of premiers seeks an impossible path to a reform with negligible at best but likely catastrophic changes. The irony is that the changes most likely to positively impact the functioning of our democracy are the ones that can be made with the least amount of legislative or constitutional vigor. In all cases they should require some degree of all party consensus, but ultimately a simple majority vote will be enough.


What has remained clear after decades of aborted and truncated reforms is that change must come from below, from the rank and file caucus members. It most certainly will not come from the top. The trappings of power and the imperatives of governance work against the prospect of reform. We should be honest about this, not simply lament a politician’s change of heart once in the Prime Minister’s chair. After all, the interest of government runs counter to demands for greater accountability, the very function empowered MPs fulfill. Chong’s is the first step and should be accompanied by a greater focus on the role of parties more broadly. It should also be focussed on making simple but important changes to the Standing Orders so as to better make use of key resources like Question Period. These changes, more than any piece of legislation or protracted constitutional debate, are most likely to pay dividends. The bill articulates what should be a given in our parliamentary institutions: the Members of Parliament are, first and foremost, members of Parliament. It is a call to get back to basics. 

Works Cited:
John Pepall. Against Reform. UTP.
Samara Canada. Welcome to Parliament: A Job with No Description.

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