Restoring Parliamentary Supremacy

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Saturday, February 23, 2013 View Count = 4009

Restoring Parliamentary Supremacy

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?”

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