Revitalizing Parliamentary Power

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Thursday, February 21, 2013 View Count = 1174

Revitalizing Parliamentary Power

Mark D. Jarvis, award-winning co-author of Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government gives us his ideas on restoring democracy by limiting the governing party's power.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Parliament in the 21st century?

I think the biggest challenge facing Parliament is demonstrating to Canadians that it is an effective institution. Samara’s recent report “Who’s the Boss?” found that “only 36% of Canadians were satisfied with how MPs do their jobs” and that Canadians gave MPs failing grades on their effort to hold government to account. There are a number of reasons for Parliament’s poor accountability performance, but perhaps the most disconcerting is the powers that governments hold over the actual operations of the House of Commons.

These powers include the ability to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament; to set and manipulate the House agenda, including limiting scrutiny of government legislation; and, various carrots-and-sticks used to command the loyalty of backbench MPs. This is not simply about politics or even personalities. Almost all recent prime ministers have used these powers to inhibit MPs from ensuring that the government is accountable to the citizens it serves. What it is about is the erosion of our democratic institutions and the effect on democratic governance.

What change would you propose to “redesign” Parliament, and the way it works, so it’s more relevant to Canadians?

These are real challenges, with real consequences. But workable solutions do exist. In our Donner Prize-winning book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, we propose some firm, clear rules that constrain Prime Ministers’ power over the practices governing confidence and the summoning, proroguing and dissolving of Parliament: establishing a deadline requiring that the House be summoned no less than 30 days after an election; fixing election dates every four years in a manner that removes the discretion of both the Prime Minister and the Governor General unless two-thirds of MPs vote to dissolve the House early; adopting the "constructive non-confidence" system*, and requiring a two-thirds majority to prorogue the House of Commons. We also advance some modest proposals that would reduce the ability of Prime Ministers and their governments to dominate parliamentary and political party structures and procedures.

*With "constructive non-confidence" votes if a government loses the confidence of the House the Governor General must consult with the Opposition to see if an alternative government can be formed before calling an election. 
 - This explanation has been paraphrased from Mark Jarvis' article here

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