Decentralize power, refocus on citizens

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Saturday, February 16, 2013 View Count = 1250

Decentralize power, refocus on citizens

On Monday, you read Steven Lee’s summary of the Citizen Voice theme. Today, we hear from Lee again, summarizing some of the responses we received to our Redesigning Parliament question: What's the biggest challenge facing Parliament in the 21st century?

Since the time of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, parliament-watchers have been concerned about power being centralized in the office of the Prime Minister. Increasingly, they warn, power has shifted away from the House of Commons and into the cabinet, and from the cabinet eventually solely to the advisors around the PM. The Harper majority government has pushed centralization further than most of its predecessors. Time allocation, use of “in camera” in committees, omnibus legislation, misuse of Member’s statements, decline in ministerial accountability, and prorogation have all hindered or hurt the House of Commons' and MPs’ ability to do their jobs. 

Centralization of power was a concern expressed by many who responded to Samara. Carolyn Bennett, Liberal MP for St. Paul's in Ontario said:

            “The greatest challenges facing Parliament in the 21st century are the
             increased powers of the Prime Minister and the executive branch and
             their refusal to permit Parliament to do its job of holding government
             to account. ... A decade ago Audrey O'Brien, now Clerk of the House of 
             Commons, lamented that government treated Parliament as a 'minor
             process obstacle'.”

Hedy Fry, Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, expressed similar concerns that Parliament “is at risk of being redundant and irrelevant due to increased power in the hands of the executive...”

The centralization of power may have been the most repeated concern, particularly among the MPs who responded. According to the Samara report,"Who’s the Boss?" MPs are perceived as being creatures of their political parties rather than hard-working public servants. Yet MPs also say that they want to shape events and exercise power on behalf of their constituents and values, not merely carry out the “ceremonial” role of parliament. Many MPs expressed concerns about the Prime Minister and other party leaders/whips exerting undue control over their caucus. A number of citizen submissions echoed their concern.
Clearly, the sentiment is widespread – if political parties are calling the shots and even MPs as citizen representatives feel they are not being heard, then things look even bleaker for the citizens themselves. To have a truly representative parliament, citizens need to know that their messages to MPs are not disappearing into an abyss of centralized control.

In the coming week, watch for Redesigning Parliament suggestions on how to use the rules and conventions governing the House of Commons to put the power back in the hands of individual MPs.

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