Martin is explicit in assigning blame. He laments for those who surround party leaders, the “fairly young, ambitious, rapidly partisan individuals who often treat MPs with utter disdain.” The incentives, he says, are backwards. “Rabid partisanship is rewarded,” he says. “Overweening and excessive party discipline has disempowered members of Parliament and forced them to pay utter homage to the leaderships of their party, instead of their true bosses, which are the people that sent them there.”
There are, by Martin’s telling, two particularly worrisome results of the system as it is: the important debates it does not allow Parliament to have and the untold number of individuals it discourages from taking part. “We’re sending a very sad and sorry message to the bright and the young,” he says, “that their skills are not going to be used to the best of their abilities if they go into federal politics.”
Change, if it is ever to transpire, would need to start with those questions about who and what an MP is supposed to be. Since 1970 it has been a requirement of the Elections Act that any candidate seeking to stand for a political party in an election must receive the signed endorsement of that party’s leader. Chong, whose proposals for question-period reform are being studied by a parliamentary committee, would start there. “The current situation is at the root of the imbalance between not just the executive branch and the legislature, but also the root of the imbalance between party leaders and their caucuses,” he says. “If you know that the leader may not sign your papers in the next election or may in fact kick you out of caucus, that’s going to colour your judgment about whether or not you’re going to support the party line on a particular vote.”
The theory follows that moving the power to authorize candidates from the party leader to the constituency or a regional authority would leave the MP less beholden to the leader and more likely to speak freely. If MPs were more likely to speak freely, more free votes would have to result. And if fewer votes were preordained by party lines, debate would become more meaningful, both as an expression of individual views and as a means of influencing others. At once, the individual MP and the House as an institution would become more relevant.
Other reforms could follow, but ironically any change may ultimately depend on the will of MPs who are now so apparently disempowered. “It’s not a matter of us being impotent,” says the NDP’s Paul Dewar. “It’s a matter of us caring enough to do something about it.”
At 5:30 p.m., Feb. 3, the House moves to private members’ business—an hour is set aside each day for the consideration of such bills. In this case, the bill up for discussion is C-507, a proposal of the Bloc’s Josée Beaudoin that would restrict federal spending power along a strict interpretation of the Constitution Act. The Speaker has ruled the bill exceeds the scope of private members’ legislation and absent a royal recommendation—essentially the authorization of the sitting government—it will not be allowed to proceed to a final vote. However unlikely that recommendation, debate is allowed to proceed. What follows then might be considered even more moot than usual.
Conservative Jacques Gourde expounds at length on the government’s economic stimulus as a testament to positive federalism, Liberal Paul Szabo takes the opportunity to promote the benefits of umbilical cord blood preservation. Apparently a national public cord-blood bank would be an initiative worth pursuing, but not—he seems to suggest—something that could be achieved if the restrictions in C-507 were ever made law.
Daniel Paille, the dramatic Bloc frontbencher, rises here to enliven the chamber with a sovereignist cri de coeur. “As long as the people say that they are willing to wait for a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum, we will be here, because we were elected by people who asked us to be here,” he proclaims. As he goes on, a teenage page walks up and down a nearby aisle, getting an early start on the cleanup.
As the clock passes 6 p.m., the visitors’ galleries are entirely empty, save for four police officers. A motion to begin adjournment proceedings is soon thereafter passed. But before the House can conclude with its business, it moves to the so-called “late show”—a sort of postscript to question period that allows members to pursue the government at greater length on issues of particular concern. In this case, the result is a recitation of rote talking points, three Liberals and three Conservatives taking turns to stand and repeat their party lines on employment insurance, crime and Internet access. The Conservatives read theirs from prepared sheets of paper.
It is a wholly surreal half hour. With a motion to adjourn already adopted, the population of the House dwindles to as few as four MPs. As the clock nears 7 p.m., Jean-Claude D’Amours and Conservative Mike Lake are virtually alone, surrounded by hundreds of green and brown chairs, speaking blandishments only for the sake of each other. “This government,” Lake finishes, “will always act in the best interests of consumers, increase competition and increase the uptake of technology on behalf of Canadians when it comes to the Internet.”
With that said, the Speaker announces the House will stand adjourned until the next morning at 10 a.m. A little less than nine hours have by then been committed to the official record. To what end it is difficult to say.