Restoring the proper balance: Rajotte on the Reform Act

Blog Post

Leadership Wednesday, December 10, 2014 View Count = 1713

Restoring the proper balance: Rajotte on the Reform Act

Michael Chong’s Reform Act, 2014 is currently being studied by the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs committee. The hope of those who support the bill is that it will be returned to the House with all possible expediency to get it passed into law before the writ drops for the next federal election in 2015—a point at which any legislation that has not made it to royal ascent will die. In the spirit of drawing attention to the work of that committee and the potential for a passed Reform Act, we are here republishing MP James Rajotte’s speech in support of the bill at second reading. It’s a classic for anyone interested in the past and future of our Parliamentary democracy.

RajotteMr. Speaker, it is my pleasure today to rise to speak very proudly in favour of the reform act introduced by my friend and colleague, the member of Parliament for Wellington—Halton Hills.

At the outset, I would like to commend him for the substance of this bill and the substantive debate that he has caused both here in the House of Commons and across the country, as well as the manner and the process that he has followed in presenting his reforms. He presented a first version of this bill last year and sought meaningful input from members of Parliament and Canadians across the country. In fact, I can personally attest to the fact that he came to my constituency and engaged directly with many people in the riding. It was an excellent example of real citizen engagement, and I want to thank him for that.

After receiving all of the input, he proposed two different sets of amendments. One he proposed as reform act 2014 and the second, I believe, he proposed on September 11. It is my understanding that the government, as well as members of the opposition, will be supporting the bill. He made a real effort to hear constructive criticism of the bill. I know there are people who were supportive of this legislation and wished that he had kept it in its original form, and I say to him that he has shown some courage and real flexibility in trying to get a piece of legislation that can be supported by a majority of the members of this House and, hopefully, a majority of the members of the Senate as well.

To review the reform act itself, it proposed three main reforms: restoring local control over party nominations, strengthening caucus as a decision-making body, and reinforcing the accountability of party leaders to their caucuses. The purpose of these reforms is to strengthen Canada's democratic institutions by restoring the role of elected members of Parliament in the House of Commons.

The proposals in the reform act would reinforce the principle of responsible government, something I will return to over and over again in this speech. It would make the executive more accountable to the legislature and ensure that party leaders maintain the confidence of their caucuses, something that has existed since Parliament began.

If one wants to review, especially on the Conservative side of the House, an excellent example of party leaders having to maintain the confidence of their caucuses, one only has to go back to perhaps the greatest parliamentarian of all time, Winston Churchill, who became prime minister during World War II, a period in which someone else held a majority of the seats of the House of Commons. A Conservative government had the majority of seats in the House of Commons and Churchill was not party leader, but that change was made, and I think for all of our sakes it was much better. That is certainly a historical example, especially for Conservative parliamentarians.

    Responsible government, as we know, is the principle that the executive council, the cabinet, is responsible and accountable to the elected legislative assembly, the House of Commons, not the appointed governor. This was a change that was made in Canadian history.

Much of this debate has focused upon the present-day situation or the concentration of power that has occurred over the past 40 years, but I want to commend the member for Wellington—Halton Hills because he has tried to say that this is a fundamental realigning of Parliament, that one has to go beyond the present personalities and circumstances of today. We all have our present-day debates, but we need to think fundamentally of the relationship between the executive and the legislative. This is something that has, frankly, perplexed political thinkers since the advent of political activity and political organization, since people started distinguishing between the different roles that the executive and legislative, or those who dispense funds and those who raise funds, ought to have.

 Why is it so important to restore the proper balance between the executive and the legislative? Why should we care about responsible government? In my view, democracy is the best form of government, to turn around one of Churchill's phrases, and parliamentary democracy is the best form of democracy. However, in order to truly be a parliamentary democracy, it must be both representative and responsible. It must be representative in that the legislative branch, members of Parliament, must be duly elected and accountable to their constituents. It must be responsible in that executive branch, the cabinet, the government, must be accountable to those legislators. It requires those two absolute functions.

 If one surveys the early histories of Parliament, as I have done recently, especially excellent works like J.R. Maddicott's The Origins of the English Parliament, which I recommend to everyone in this place and across the country, one will see that the powers of the executive, meaning the king or queen, during the early Parliaments actually existed outside of Parliament.

Parliament started as sort of a council of advisers, some from the property classes, some from the ecclesiastical classes, and even at that time they started two important functions that we continue today. That is, they started challenging the sovereign with respect to the raising of money, taxes, most often to fight wars, and with respect to the review of spending.

These two essential functions that Parliament still fulfills today, in terms of ways and means motions and the estimates process, actually started centuries ago in these early parliaments. However, at that time the executive power actually resided outside of Parliament with a king or queen. What happened over time was that these executive powers moved, in effect, from the crown to the advisers of the crown, the privy councillors, as they are still called today, and over time to ministers of cabinet and the prime minister within the legislature.

This was a very fundamental change that occurred over many years. Is this wrong? Some may perceive there is an actual problem with this. In fact, the Americans, in my view, saw this as a problem and chose a different system. They opted for a different system and very formally separated the executive—the president and the administration—completely from the Congress, which is the Senate and the House of Representatives.

 It is very straightforward to ensure formal responsibility between the executive branch and the legislative branch. It is also simple to ensure that American citizens have more than one vote and can split their votes. They split the votes between a vote for the president and a vote for a member of the Senate or a member of the representatives.

As we know, Canadians have one vote. They have a vote for their member of Parliament at the federal level. I do not see having the executive within the legislature as a problem. In fact, I think it is a benefit. I think one of the beauties of the parliamentary system is that it is organic. As Edmund Burke would say, it's one of the advantages of the parliamentary system. It can respond to situations. It is a benefit to have the executive residing within the legislature.

What needs to happen then is responsible government. All parliamentary democracies must ensure, with this real transfer through the history of executive power from the sovereign to the privy council, the cabinet and the prime minister, that we have responsible government where the executive resides within the legislature and is responsible to the legislature. It is much more complicated than the American system. I think it is better than the American system, but we must ensure that responsible government applies.

In my time remaining I want to address some of the concerns that have been raised. It is very difficult to do so because some of the concerns were raised by people who have raised issues about political parties. I think members of all political parties have raised concerns about MPs possibly usurping some of the role of political partisans in terms of selecting or deselecting leaders. However, the role of caucus, in terms of having responsibility for the leadership, has always been there throughout history. My view is caucus members will respond to it in a very meaningful way.

I was in a situation in my first term in Parliament where we had a very destabilizing situation. It would have been helpful in fact to have a set of rules to guide us in how to deal with that in a much quicker way.

Second, I appeal to those who say the bill has been amended too much and not enough has been retained from the original bill to pass. The member for Wellington—Halton Hills has introduced a piece of legislation and has tried to be as constructive as he can to get support from all political parties so it has near unanimous support to pass in the House.

I therefore ask all members of Parliament to support this important bill to redress the imbalances that have occurred over decades in our country. The powers of the executive have grown and the strength of the legislative branch, unfortunately, has diminished. We need to restore the proper balance between the executive and the legislative. A true parliamentary democracy requires representative institutions, but it also requires responsible government. We need to honour these fundamental traditions of our parliamentary democracy.

James Rajotte is the Member of Parliament for Edmonton—Leduc. To find out more about the Reform Act, check out our page all about it.


On the Samara BlBlog logo representing the letter 'o'g

360_square