Procedure with Caution: On Redesigning Parliamentary procedures

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013 View Count = 1462

Procedure with Caution: On Redesigning Parliamentary procedures

Today's post on Redesigning Parliament is by Samara's Jane Hilderman

The purpose of reform of the House of Commons.... is to restore to private members an effective legislative function, to give them a meaningful role in the formation of public policy, and in so doing, to restore the House of Commons to its rightful place in the Canadian political process.”

If you think that this quote was drawn from a recent op-ed calling for much-needed changes to how Parliament works, you’d be mistaken. In fact, it dates from 1985 – more than a quarter-century ago. Here’s the truth: concerns about the effectiveness of Parliament and the MPs who serve within are not new. And the list of committees struck and reports issued on the subject is long. Procedural changes in the House of Commons have been touted as the cure-all to the problem of Parliament’s perceived ineffectiveness. These rules have been tweaked numerous times and yet still Canadians are deeply unsatisfied with the performance of MPs and the way Ottawa handles issues.

Like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, the House of Commons hasn’t gotten serious about the real source of trouble: the accumulating influence in the party leaders and their offices, and particularly in the Prime Minister’s Office. As a result, the average backbench MP—who represents the vast majority of Canadians—has struggled to do his/her job well.

The next few posts over this week will feature a number of procedural reforms that would address the imbalance of power between MPs, their party leaders, the PM and Parliament. There are four areas that our contributors have suggested need attention:

1) Enabling MPs to better scrutinize legislation and expenditures of Parliament.
The use of omnibus bills that are often long, complicated and crammed with legislative changes across an array of fields—from crime to the environment—makes the work of MPs and committees, tasked with reviewing impacts of such a bill, all the more challenging. Can we establish limits on the contents of omnibus bills, or better limit their use?
Under a majority government, Time Allocation and Closure motions are being used with greater frequency to move contentious legislation through the House faster. Both procedures limit the amount of debate on a bill, which means that not all MPs have a chance to raise their concerns. Could more restrictions be created, such that a minimum amount of debate time must lapse before time allocation or closure motions are proposed? Or perhaps their use should require a 2/3 majority vote?

2) Enhancing public accountability of Parliament
The fundamental role of an MP, including backbench government MPs, is to hold government (i.e. the Prime Minister and Cabinet) to account. This cannot happen effectively if there is limited access to Ministers for questioning beyond the theatre of Question Period, nor can Canadians be assured it has happened if it’s not visible to the public. An iPolitics investigation found that committees on average spent 18% of time behind closed doors in 2011. Are there creative ways Parliament, including its committees, can improve both accountability and transparency?

3) Formalizing constraints on the House calendar
To help ensure an equal playing field in sports, a common set of rules is agreed to and written down for referees to uphold. But in politics, many conventions have never been formalized in the same way. For example, there’s no maximum amount of time a Prime Minister and Governor General can wait to resume Parliament after a general election. If Canadians want predictability regardless of who holds office, it’s time to codify the rules. Later this week watch for guest blogger Mark Jarvis, who will share some suggestions on how to limit current grey-areas—such as proroguing—which are prone to abuse.

4) Changing the (dis)incentive structures
When asked what turns them off politics, Canadians quickly point to the bad behaviour of MPs during the House of Commons proceedings, from disruptive heckling to speeches laden with repetitive party-approved messaging. The lack of decorum is often placed at the foot of the Speaker, who could technically discipline blatant offenders, but even he would be hard pressed to end the empty partisan rhetoric. So who can stop it?
Former MPs suggest it’s the party itself that wields these carrots and sticks that cause the bad behaviour. Guest blogger Kelly Blidook’s will offer two changes that can re-set the equilibrium between MPs and their party leaders, including the capacity to trigger a leadership review.


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