Parliaments around the world: lessons from abroad

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Thursday, February 07, 2013 View Count = 1160

Parliaments around the world: lessons from abroad

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.

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