Restoring Parliamentary Supremacy

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.

Restoring Parliamentary Supremacy

by User Not Found | Feb 23, 2013

In today's Redesigning Parliament post, professor and author Maxwell A. Cameron says it's time to enforce/create rules that remove power from the Prime Minister's Office and ensure it stays in the hands of individual MPs.

How might we redesign parliament for the 21st century? We can begin by asking what we expect or want from parliament. My own view is that parliamentary government is not well understood and, therefore, it might be wise to elucidate the principles and aims that are already inherent in our institutions, and then see if we can make them work better.

The essence of our system of government is captured by the phrase “parliamentary supremacy.” Today, however, parliament is anything but supreme.

Parliamentary supremacy is the idea that parliament is the source of all legislation.  Where our system and presidentialism differ is that the executive branch is selected by the parliament. In principle, this means that the executive is embedded within a larger, and more important, collegial body. But over time the tail has come to wag the dog.  Power has gradually been concentrated—first in the cabinet, and now, increasingly, in the office of the Prime Minister. The main source of this inversion of power is the modern political party.

Today, parliament is a pathetic semblance of its former self. It is an electoral college that chooses the government, which then governs with scarcely any concern for parliamentary debate or procedure. MPs are well-trained "yes" men and women who do what their party leaders tell them. They have little say over committee assignments, few free votes, and, what is worse, they devote precious little effort to legislation.  

The inversion of power has come about because parties—which are increasingly PR firms devoted to permanent campaigns for office—control MPs from the moment they are nominated until the day they retire from public life. MPs are more accountable to their party leaders than to the voters. And voters are fed up. 

So, if our aim is to restore parliament to some semblance of its former glory, what kinds of measure might we adopt? To restore the supremacy of parliament would require the empowerment of ordinary MPs. There are many measures that could move us in this direction. They include more free votes, more opportunities for ordinary MPs to submit legislation, more power in the hands of MPs to decide committee assignments and distribute other perks, more power to select the cabinet and remove the leader, and more influence in decisions like prorogation. 

The corollary would be less power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Less power to use confidence votes to discipline the house and caucus, restrictions on the power to dissolve the house, elimination of the routine use of time limits to shut down debate, tough rules to stop the abuse of omnibus laws, less influence over perks, assignments, and appointments, and less control over nominations. 

The bottom line: parliamentary supremacy, the cornerstone of our system, demands that we clip the wings of the office of the Prime Minister. The alternative is a slide toward elective autocracy.

Maxwell A. Cameron is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at UBC. He is the author of Democracy and Authoritarianism in Peru (St. Martin's 1994), and co-author of The Making of NAFTA: How the Deal Was Done (Cornell, 2000). Between March and June 2006, Cameron served as political advisor to Lloyd Axworthy, Chief of the Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States in Peru. In 2011 he convened a public conversation at UBC on “Why don’t (more) good people enter politics?”

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

Other Themes