Parliaments around the world: lessons from abroad

Procedural Changes

Don't like how easy it is to prorogue Parliament? Make a new rule. Think there are too many rules? Make a rule about rules. Dusty old rulebooks might be more relevant than you think - at least that's what our contributors had to say.  From slight to sweeping, we got tons of interesting suggestions for procedural changes that could have a huge (positive?) impact on Parliament.

Parliaments around the world: lessons from abroad

by User Not Found | Feb 07, 2013

Throughout February, we’ll be posting an idea-a-day on the theme of “Redesigning Parliament.” We've asked academics, think-tank leaders, politicians and Samara volunteers to send us their ideas, and there was one topic that came up a lot - political parties and their control over MPs. According to a Globe and Mail article today, party discipline might be more strict in Canada than in any another functioning Parliament. In response, today’s post comes from International Parliamentary Advisor, Kevin Deveaux. He shares some of the best ideas he's seen in Parliaments around the world that could give citizen voices more presence, and push MPs to get off the party script.

Parliaments around the world: lessons from abroad

Canada’s Federal Parliament is firmly based in the traditions of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, but it is important to know that other parliaments that are based on the same system have evolved and the House of Commons could learn from recent changes to their systems.

A good example of this is the second chamber, known as the Federation Chamber in Australia, where it was created in 1994. A second plenary chamber is created to allow for further debate with regard to matters that are generally noncontroversial, thus freeing time in the main chamber for the matters that are more contentious. In practice, this allows MPs to have more time to put their opinions on the record and to make statements about various matters, including those related to their constituency. Decisions in the chamber must be unanimous and all matters are referred back to the main chamber for final decision.

In Scotland, among other jurisdictions, citizens can submit e-petitions that will be automatically sent to the Public Petitions Committee for debate and possible further action. A petitioner produces an online petition and provides background information that allows those for and against the petition to respond. If accepted, the committee will discuss the details of the petition and decide if the parliament or the government requires any action.

A third tool that is common in Europe is interpellation. More than a question period, it is an opportunity for one or more MPs to require a Minister to appear before the House to respond to a series of specific questions and allows for a debate amongst all MPs. This is a tool of oversight that avoids the theatrics of QP and ensures a greater degree of accountability by the government.

There are countless other examples of procedures and tools that make the parliament more effective and reflective of the citizens it represents, but the examples of reforms noted above are simple and have found a place in systems similar to our own while allowing for greater citizen engagement and government accountability.

Kevin Deveaux is the President of DIG Consultants based in Halifax. He is the former global advisor to the UN on parliaments and political parties where he supported the development of more than 70 national parliaments. He was also an MLA in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly from 1998-2007.

More Great Ideas on Procedural Changes

Thoughts on Redesigning Parliament by Brian Boyd

Stop the Assembly Line by Michel Kelly-Gagnon

Provinces and Territories need a voice by Remy Sansanwal

Responses from Samarans

"Punish bad behaviour by ejecting MPs & bar them from entering the HoC for a period of time. Barring would also mean a loss of pay." - Ken Szijarto

"Idea number one - ban written speeches, except for the budget. This includes for QP."
- @journo_dale

"There should be more cameras in the H of Commons, to include other members (like the hecklers)."
-Annabelle Twilley Richardson

"Create a House (and a Senate) Business Committee of backbenchers to allocate time with a certain amount dedicated to government business and to private members' business. Government ministers and backbenchers would 'bid' for time in open hearings after which time would be allocated subject to a vote of the House/Senate. Increases ability of parliamentarians to act independently.

"Get rid of members/senators statements. They are pointless. Parliament means debate and discussion not lecturing.

"Make prorogation occur at regular intervals and take it out of the hands of the executive. No one should have the power to stop parliamentary scrutiny at will, but parliament should keep some semblance of a time limit for legislation to put pressure on the government." -Leon

"I would like to see the following parliamentary reform. The Government's MP salaries and pensions be directly determined by the Auditor General's willingness to issue an "unqualified" annual report on the financial affairs of the nation. By this measure it is to be hoped that the "whip's" dominion over the caucus will be diminished and true accountability would be the outcome." - Erik Andersen

"I would like to see improvement to how politicians debate. Among what this requires is the shared idea that debate is important because it weeds out bad ideas in favour of better ideas. I'd like to see it explored in more depth how collaborative dialogue can be valued and implemented in the House of Commons and what implications this has on the party system but as well on our democratic vitality as a whole." - Mark McInnes

"Adopt a 'constructive vote of non-confidence' as used in Germany - this requires an explicit vote of non-confidence rather than treating a particular bill as an issue of confidence.  Explicit motions allow the opposition (and even members of the government) to vote down a bill without necessarily bringing
down the government.  It forces the government to actually deal with the merits of a bill and not play a game of brinksmanship." - Antony Hodgson

"In Redesigning Parliament, I would like to take away the stigma of coalition governance. I do not mean the actual merger of parties as most Canadians think of when it comes to coalitions. Coalitions should be an informal component of the Government and of Parliament, especially with Canada's multi-party system. Many parliamentary systems throughout the world function on coalitions and Canada itself was founded by a "Great Coalition...In short, Parliament and Canadian democracy could benefit by ending the stigma behind parties "working together"...By bringing back coalitions, parties and  work together rather than against each other which just might reinvigorate interest among Canadian voters."
- Clement Nocos

"Bills should be constrained in topic and scope. Parliament cannot effectively make a decision on a large collection of disparate issues. Especially when a limited time frame is imposed."- Jason Skomorowski

"Question period is embarrassing. There is no real debate, and the heckling and childish behaviour is just silly. They might calm down if Question Period was not televised, and if the Speaker could impose financial penalties (on either the Member or the Party) for unparliamentary behaviour."
- Jennifer Cameron

"If (a Mixed Member Proportional Representation electoral system) was coupled with the system used in Finland where elections precipitated before the end of the four year mandate only result in a mandate for the balance of the original term, we would have a better shot at eliminating opportunistic engineering of elections and have more productive government." - Geoff Kemp

"...I would also change election funding rules to discourage the influence of big private donors by increasing the public funding portion. I believe that a more publicly-funded, multi-party Parliament would provide the best pre-conditions for a more honest & democratic system." - Ray Lorenz

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