By Aaron Wherry - Friday, April 12, 2013 - 0 Comments
Under the heading of “Governing in an Inclusive and Fair Canada,” the New Democrats have a number of resolutions to consider this weekend—I’m in Montreal and will be here through Sunday—on proportional representation, open government, government advertising and evidence-based policy. But the most interesting resolutions might be a couple that deal with parliamentary reform.
First, from the riding association in Sudbury.
5-47-13 Resolution on Prorogation
BE IT RESOLVED THAT The Federal NDP oppose the unilateral prorogation of Parliament in Canada without the consent of a 2/3 majority of elected members
And, more comprehensively, from Hull-Aylmer.
5-54-13 Resolution on Transparent Democratic Process
WHEREAS New Democrats believe in a fair, accountable and democratic parliamentary process that Canadians deserve;
WHEREAS New Democrats believe that the Canadian parliamentary process does not provide the adequate checks and balances in order to permit opposition parties to hold majority governments to account
BE IT RESOLVED THAT: These policies be added as a new section 5.3 to the Policy Book of the New Democratic Party with all subsequent section renumbered accordingly
a) All omnibus bills shall be limited in scope
a) All legislation should go to the appropriate committees
b) Moving committee proceedings in camera shall require the consent of two thirds majority of committee members
3) House of Commons
a) An NDP government shall respect the Parliamentary tradition that bills be debated for as long as it takes for every Member to speak once, or until debate collapses
i.) The use of a time allocation motion shall be permitted for no more than one piece of legislation per sitting
Implement those principles on prorogation, omnibus legislation and time allocation and you would have a very different—better? worse? more unwieldy? more democratic?—Parliament from the one we’ve had the last six years.
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 3:21 PM - 0 Comments
In this week’s print edition, I have 1,200 words on the case of Mark Warawa and the issues his situation has raised. For that piece, I spoke to a few MPs, including Conservative MP James Rajotte, chair of the finance committee. Here is an edited and abridged transcript of our conversation.
Q: What’s your general feeling about the situation?
A: Clearly, I believe members do have the right to speak. The challenge is that, I think from the prime minister’s point of view, he wants to have a caucus and a party that’s not perceived as were during my first term, where the messaging was very sort of all over the place. He wants a very disciplined, consistent message. And that’s, frankly, in the 2000 to 2002, 2003 period, that’s what members of the media were telling us, is you’ve got to start having a consistent message and you can’t have members who are sort of having different views on all the different topics. So I think it’s a challenge because you don’t want to be perceived in that vein, but you obviously want to allow freedom of speech for members. It’s a fundamental right for citizens, you want to allow that for members.
So I think we all have to look and have, within a broad tent political party, which any party to form government needs to be a broad tent political party, you have to allow for different views on some different topics. Obviously on things like a budget, you would expect all members of the caucus to either support the budget or, if they can’t support it, they’d have a tougher decision to make. But on other issues we are going to have to allow for debates within caucuses, within parties. And, frankly, I think we’ve had that over the last number of years. But every time that happens it can’t be seen as somehow being disloyal. Mark [Warawa] would say to you, very strongly, that he’s the most loyal person to the prime minister. He just has a different view on this one issue that’s very important to him.
I think that’s one issue. The other big issue for me is, I think we have to look at, frankly, questions, statements, speeches, all of it, and say, ‘Is this the best that Parliament can do, that we all can do?’ That’s a huge, fundamental issue. And that’s not a Conservative debate, it’s frankly a debate for all parliamentarians and all parties.
Q: Do you generally think there are some issues that need to be dealt with in terms of the party whip and statements and all that kind of stuff?
A: I may phrase it a little differently. I would say that, I think there are issues, I mean if you look at how we’re handled in terms of, say, voting. I actually think the one, two, three-line system is pretty good for me. As a committee chair, I have a fair amount of freedom there. And even on three-line whips, it’s ultimately up to the member themselves whether they stand or sit at a certain point in the vote. But on the three-line system, I think the voting is fairly good. And I think as the Globe and Mail found out, we actually have, even though it’s a very high percentage in terms of the caucus voting together, we actually have more freedom than the other parties. Which I think is contrary to what most people think.
Now when you get to statements, speeches and questions, it’s an issue of reforming Parliament … in the sense of, when you watch our Parliament, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this a substantive exchange of views? Is this showing Parliament at its best? Is this really putting pressure on the government to answer serious questions?’ Statements by members, in my particular case, I’ve never had a statement rejected, so I can’t speak to Mark’s personal experience and I’ve always been able to speak on local issues. But I do support him in the abstract in terms of members right to speak.
On Question Period, I think that’s an even bigger problem than statements, because I just think it’s become so over the top and I just don’t see much substantive dialogue occurring at all there. So that’s where I supported Michael [Chong]‘s motion very strongly and I think the British question period is, frankly, much better than ours and we should try to move towards that system. And then on speeches even more … most of the debates in the House, candidly, are not good debates. There are some good debates, but they’re very limited. And, again, if you go to the British House of Commons, you watch a debate, it’s not Churchill every day in the British House, but there is an exchange of views and you get a sense of the different view points and it is more of a debate. I would actually, for my own personal perspective, I’d like to see more changes in that area. Where the minister and the spokespeople of the various parties lead off the debate, but if you want to participate in a debate, you should have to be in the chamber for that entire debate. They should be time limited, as they are in Britain, say, okay, there’s three hours for this bill and if you want to participate, you apply to the Speaker, you go on a list and they want to be sure everybody gets a chance, so you may get three minutes, you get may get six minutes, you may not get your full 15 minutes, but you can’t leave the chamber for half an hour. If you leave the chamber for half an hour, you have no interest in the debate and your name’s crossed off the list. I explained our system [to the British Speaker], where you come and read a speech and you answer two questions, you leave, obviously some members try to do more than that, but that’s an awful lot of what happens and he just said, ‘That’s not a debate, why do you do that?’
And that’s where Mark has raised some fundamental issues. But it’s more about how Parliament operates and can we improve it so that the activities in the chamber actually very much influence policy and decisions.
Q: I always come back to the question of, can you possibly make the debate more substantive if people already know how the votes are going to go? If the vote isn’t really in question, can the debate matter?
A: It’s a fundamental question. So the government introduces a piece of legislation, obviously at second reading, it’s on the principle of the bill, but to me, if you had a more substantive debate, you could actually highlight, say, five, seven, eight, ten issues that need to be addressed at committee … there you’d obviously have to ensure that at committee that you’d have to a full hearing and that members can bring forward amendments to legislation to address certain concerns. That has to go hand in hand at that point, but less so at second reading stage than at committee and report stage and then obviously final reading. Members have to feel that their concerns are being addressed.
Q: Yeah, because that’s the other thing. I can remember talking to an opposition MP recently whose major complaint was the fact that the government side never accepts amendments. Now, I don’t know, you guys could maybe counter that the amendments weren’t very good … it does seem like a complicated problem to unravel.
A: It is complicated and it is certainly linked to how much they can influence a bill. But to me, if the debates and the speeches were more substantive and meaningful… say there was a three-hour debate on a certain bill, say the budget bill, and there were 27 suggestions put forward in the second reading debate and then put forward as amendments at committee, then obviously if the government rejected all of them, then they’d actually have a stronger point in saying, look, we actually made a real issue here to put them forward. Right now, again, my own personal perspective, you’re not hearing a lot of substantive input at second reading. We were debating a technical tax debate, I was asking basic questions of the members opposite and I just had a sense that they didn’t even know what I was talking about. Whereas, if you had a more focused debate, say you had it on a finance issue, you’d have probably the finance committee there for the entire three hours and then those who spoke, you’d know—if you were speaking to a budget bill, the finance committee’s there, minister’s there, all the key spokespeople are there, you’re not going to stand up unless you really know your subject area.
But it is fair to point out, it does have to go in then with, if members raise something substantively, will there be at least a willingness to discuss, debate and review those amendments seriously.
But I would say during Question Period, my advice to opposition members is stand up and ask a very calm, sincere, short, simple question. Because if the minister doesn’t answer that it’s more obvious to you, whereas if they stand up and bluster away, then the minister can stand up and do whatever they want, essentially.
Q: Do you think there’s any chance of MPs working across the aisle on this, to change things?
A: I hope there is. I know some members of the opposition have used this, Mark’s motion and the statements, as it’s internal Conservative politics, but they have to really see it as beyond that. And they have to see it as, it’s all parliamentarians, it’s not just within one party. And if you change SO31s, if the Speaker says, yes, okay, I am going to take over SO31s or if Michael Chong’s motion for Question Period was adopted, and the Speaker took over, say, half of the questions, that affects all of the parties. That’s a fundamental change.
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, May 4, 2012 at 4:57 PM - 0 Comments
In the House, the prime minister and government have considerable control over day-to-day operations. This allows governments not only to set the agenda, but to carry it out with ease. The prime minister commands the steadfast loyalty of his MPs, largely through a carrot-and-stick approach; co-operative MPs might be rewarded with cabinet posts or coveted committee positions, while rogues can be — and at times are — punished with removal from caucus or even barred from running as a candidate for the party in future elections. All of these are vestiges of prime ministerial power. The party caucus has little leverage with which to counterbalance the prime minister’s power because party leaders are chosen (and replaced) by the party at large, rather than by the caucus. Thus, the government’s MPs have no effective mechanism through which to stand their ground against a very powerful leader or effectively represent his or her constituents.
In a rebuttal, F.H. Buckley argues that the Canadian system is preferable to the current American system.
That Canada’s current economic situation is better isn’t necessarily an argument for our Parliament (as one wag joked on Twitter, it’s actually an argument for adopting China’s system of governance). That the Westminster model is more efficient has been noted by various observers over the last few years as the U.S. Congress has descended into dysfunction. But a simple either/or debate oversimplifies matters. The American system isn’t inherently dysfunctional: one of its biggest problems is a rule that didn’t exist until 1975. (The Senate is ripe for reform.)
Buckley concludes with a nod to Ruth Ellen Brosseau. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 2:00 PM - 12 Comments
Last month, Mark Jarvis wrote here about potential parliamentary reforms as part of our series on the House. Shortly thereafter he asked if I had any thoughts on what he’d written and eventually I got around to writing something down. In the interests of continuing the discussion, here is the email I sent to him last week.
Let me state from the outset that I am not a professional constitutional scholar. Or even an amateur constitutional scholar. I am merely paid to put on a suit most week days and spend inordinate amounts of time watching politicians more closely than is probably advisable.
My woeful inadequacies thus acknowledged from the outset, I will happily offer a few thoughts.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 11:52 AM - 3 Comments
A British committee set up in the wake of all that unpleasantness over MPs’ expenses, comes back with some suggestions.
“Achievable” but radical change to rebuild parliament’s independence from the executive, including a new body of elected backbenchers responsible for organising Commons business, is proposed today by a prestigious select committee set up by Gordon Brown.
The report also suggests that the public should be a given some direct say over what MPs debate, through devices such as e-petitions. Prime minister’s questions would be shifted from Wednesday to Thursday afternoon to liberate more time for backbenchers on Wednesday. It calls for Commons select committees to be streamlined and given more independence from the government so they are able to scrutinise Whitehall departments more thoroughly. Their chairmen ought to be elected by the whole house in a secret vote, rather than effectively agreed between the party whips, it says.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 11:37 AM - 6 Comments
If the government won’t answer your requests in Question Period, leave.
Frustrated by Premier Dalton McGuinty’s refusal to hold public hearings on the controversial 13 per cent HST, the 25-member Progressive Conservative caucus stormed out of the Legislature’s daily question period today shortly after it began.
“You have lost touch,” Conservative Leader Tim Hudak told McGuinty before the stunt took place, accusing the Liberals of being afraid of a public backlash over the tax. ”If Premier McGuinty is going to show that level of contempt for taxpayers by forcing through the largest sales tax grab in the history of this province without any kind of public hearings . . . we see no point in proceeding with question period today.”
By kadyomalley - Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 10:11 PM - 0 Comments
Hey, remember a few weeks back, when Halifax Chronicle Herald reporter Steve…
Hey, remember a few weeks back, when Halifax Chronicle Herald reporter Steve Maher and I took a road trip to the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University for a panel on parliamentary reform (and also do some spectacularly politically geeky sightseeing)?
Well, the final version of Dr. Tom Axworthy’s paper, Everything Old is New Again: Observations on Parliamentary Reform, has been posted to the CSD website — complete with a full summary of the comments, critiques and general observations that arose during our discussion. The full report is available here, but I’ve taken the liberty of copypasting some of the highlights from the panel recap after the jump. See if you can pick out what ITQ had to say: