Samara Speaks on Parallel Chambers at PROC

Blog Post

Happening Now Monday, April 08, 2019 View Count = 1623

Samara Speaks on Parallel Chambers at PROC


The Samara Centre for Democracy was invited to speak before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (PROC) on April 4th, 2019. The committee studies and reports on the rules and practices of the House and its committees, electoral matters, questions of privilege, MP conflicts of interest, internal administration of the House, and services and facilities for MPs. It is currently reviewing whether a parallel debating chamber would be beneficial for the House of Commons.

The Samara Centre's Research Director, Dr. Mike Morden, and Senior Research Associate, Dr. Paul EJ Thomas, delivered the following remarks to presiding members of the committee. (Check against delivery.)

Thank you for the opportunity to address this committee.

My name is Michael Morden, and I’m the Research Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy. Next to me is Dr Paul EJ Thomas, our Senior Research Associate. As you may know, the Samara Centre is an independent, nonpartisan charity that is dedicated to strengthening Canadian democracy through research and programming.

We want to thank the committee for undertaking this study. Doing so reflects its commitment to stewardship of our Parliament and our democracy. This includes examining issues which are not on any political front-burner, but which deserve contemplation because they hold the potential for incremental improvement of our institutions. That’s a role we also want to play.

The Samara Centre supports the creation of a parallel debating chamber. We would also like to encourage the committee to keep the following objectives in mind when designing such a chamber:

  • That it advances a clear value proposition, by not solely duplicating the business and character of the Main Chamber;
  • That it empower backbench MPs by providing greater control over the agenda and substance of debates;
  • By doing so, that it makes Parliamentary debates more relevant and accessible to ordinary Canadians; and
  • That it may be used as a platform for experimentation, in order to improve the state of debate in Parliament overall.

We know that members may have already reviewed the brief that we submitted last month, and so would like to save the bulk of our time to address your questions. I will open briefly by describing the Samara Centre’s interest in this proposal. Paul will then speak about the model of a parallel chamber which we think is best suited to improving the life and work of the Canadian Parliament, and to strengthen its ties to citizens.

The Samara Centre has since its founding conducted exit interviews with former Parliamentarians after they retire or faced electoral defeat. A central theme of this work is the strong sense among MPs that extensive party control over most facets of parliamentary life hinders their ability to independently advocate on issues and meaningfully influence Government policy and legislation. We argue that such limitations have important implications for the overall health of our representative democracy.  

In our most recent round of interviews, undertaken after the 2015 general election, we were also surprised and troubled to discover just how dismissive former MPs were of parliamentary debates.

We took up this theme again in 2018 when we collaborated with the All-Party Democracy Caucus to survey current MPs. The questions asked where Members felt more and less empowered to do the work of democratic representation. The strongest finding was th that debates were the domain of parliamentary work where MPs felt they made the least impact. Indeed, two-thirds of the MPs who responded were dissatisfied with the state of debate in the House, and just 6 percent identified debates as an aspect of parliamentary work where they felt empowered to influence policy or legislation.

We have also observed, as others have, an increase in partisan conflict over time in Parliament—reflected most simply in the recent and sustained spike in use of time allocation.  That conflict reflects the legitimate desire of opposition MPs—and we would hope, all MPs—to debate and deliberate on Government business while also advancing issues independently. It also reflects the legitimate desire of Executives of all party stripes to advance Government business. That tension will not resolve itself organically, and could conceivably get worse.

Finally, consistent with the views of MPs, our ongoing surveys of ordinary Canadians have repeatedly found the perception that MPs do a better job of reflecting the views of their parties than of their constituents. We want citizens to see themselves more closely reflected in Parliamentary debates.

In short, we see four overlapping problems which a parallel chamber could help to resolve:

  • Disempowered MPs who, because of party control, are hampered in their ability to represent their constituents;
  • Persistent unhappiness with the quality of parliamentary debate, even among MPs;
  • A parliamentary time-crunch; and
  • An enduring disconnect between Canadians and their Parliament.

Models of parallel chambers

I would like to begin by again expressing the Samara Centre’s gratitude for being invited to testify before the committee today. My colleague Dr. Morden has spoken to some of the challenges facing the House of Commons. I will now focus my remarks on how a parallel chamber could be designed to help to respond to these concerns.

As Deputy Speaker Bruce Stanton described in his remarks there are two precedents for parallel chambers that can serve as inspiration: the Federation Chamber at the Australian Parliament, and Westminster Hall at the British Parliament. Both are supplementary chambers, with neither being used for recorded divisions, and both meeting only on days when the main chambers are in session.

The Federation Chamber is used for a variety of parliamentary business, including constituency statements, members’ statements, and debates on uncontentious pieces of legislation. Rather than adding new functions, it serves as what Mr. Stanton called an “adjacent lane” for House business, with most of its functions also occurring in the main chamber. Moreover, decisions regarding what business is debated in the chamber are taken by the party whips.

In contrast, Westminster Hall proceedings are distinct from those in the main British House of Commons. Westminster Hall is used exclusively for adjournment-style debates, which can be 30, 60, or 90 minutes long depending on the issue being addressed and the number of members wishing to speak.

The debates are selected through four different mechanisms, all of which are driven by backbench members. Individual backbenchers can apply for debate to the Speakers’ office, which holds a ballot of applications once per week. They can also apply to the Backbench Business Committee, a committee of backbench MPs that schedules a portion of the debating time in both Westminster Hall and the main chamber itself. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of the chairs of the various Standing Committees, can also schedule debates on committee reports. Finally, the Commons’ Petitions Committee can schedule debates on petitions receiving over 100,000 signatures.

However they are chosen, as Sir David Natzler noted, a fundamental characteristic of Westminster Hall debates is that a Minister must attend the sessions and respond to the points made. This requirement allows the debates to be much more influential than is possible through members’ statements.  Importantly, such debates need not always be explicitly critical of the government. Indeed, Westminster Hall is regularly used for debates that mark symbolic days, such Holocaust Memorial Day, World Cancer Day, or International Human Rights Day. Such general occasions allow Parliament to be responsive to the concerns of citizens without being centred around a particular issue.

Although the Federation Chamber has created more opportunities for Australian MPs to raise concerns from their constituents and participate in legislative debates, we believe that modelling a new parallel chamber along the lines of Westminster Hall would better respond to the challenges the facing the Canadian Parliament.

While is not possible to exactly duplicate Westminster Hall in the Canadian context, the Samara Centre nevertheless recommends:

  1. That any Canadian parallel chamber be designed for the benefit of backbench members, with backbenchers being able to schedule business independently from the party whips;
  2. That participation in the debates in a Canadian parallel chamber similarly be free of control by the party whips, with no lists developed to schedule interventions by members;
  3. That much of the debating time the new chamber be devoted to general debates like those in Westminster Hall, with ministers being required to attend and respond to the points made;
  4. That the topics for such debates could be chosen from applications by individual members, the reports of parliamentary committees, or petitions from the general public;
  5. That the chamber be a vehicle for further procedural experimentation.

At a time when both citizens and MPs are questioning the value of parliamentary debates, the creation of a parallel chamber devoted to hearing from the diversity of Canadians through their elected representatives could help to empower both Canadians and parliamentarians themselves. It could help make backbench Members more central to Parliamentary debates, and Parliamentary debates more central to political life in Canada.

We thank you for your attention and welcome any questions you may have.

Listen to their full remarks here.

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