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Legion Magazine – May/June 2001 « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

Legion Magazine – May/June 2001

In the aftermath of the grand mandate Jean Chrétien got from electors last November there was much to be heard or read on the imperative there be parliamentary reform. Politicians of all parties got into it; so did the political scientists and those who report on Parliament and the federal government. It would please me if this big flush of concern should lead to a more effective Parliament. My scepticism runs deep, however, based on the past record of both reforms introduced and those proposed which have not been made.

The broad allegations which seem to preface so many calls for reform shift around, for example, from an insistence that Parliament is a bore, to Parliament as a waste of time, to Parliament having become little more than the puppet of the prime minister.
Parliamentary reform was hardly a prime issue in the last election. Nonetheless, it began to swell post-election, this time centring less on the public’s disrespect for MPs or their fall into significance to the vital question of power. The power of the prime minister.
Rather suddenly critiques of this power exercised by one person were being sounded by some MPs from each federal party and by some respected, retired mandarins of high rank. The illustrations in their critiques were generally tied to Jean Chrétien, then widened into assertions and rebuttals of the general premise that too much, untrammelled power in Canada was now vested in, and exercised by him. It is charged that government centred in Ottawa, based on a cabinet of ministers answering regularly to Parliament has become government centred almost wholly on the prime minister and his office.

Naturally the incumbent, Jean Chrétien, a few of his ministers, and most—but not all—of those behind them in the House have not accepted this thesis of a prime minister’s excessive power. Even if this were so, they argue that by twice re-electing the Chrétien team, the people approve the powers he commands and uses. Certainly the voters seem to have rejected propositions, first advanced by the Reform Party in the 1993 election and carried on by the Alliance led by Stockwell Day.

The Alliance posits: (i) making most votes in the House “free” ones, i.e. in essence, not always forcing government MPs to hew to the party line; (ii) installing a process through which constituents may recall their MP to justify stances he has taken in the House; (iii) using national referendums to decide legislative directions for hard issues like legal abortions, capital punishment, and homosexual rights to same-sex marriages;
(iv) reforming the senate by moving from senators picked by a prime minister to ones elected by provinces.

My experience in Ottawa tells me none of such propositions will come in my life-time. Yes, talk about what is right or wrong in our parliamentary system—and notably about the senate—has never faded out since Confederation itself. On the other hand, in those 133 years the system in itself has never come close to causing a crisis which threatened a prime minister who had the backing of a majority of the MPs.

As I read our history the “abuse” of Parliament by a government has only once been a prime factor in swaying an election result. This came in 1957 over the alleged highhandedness by the Louis St. Laurent government in squelching the pipeline debate by enforcing closure on opposition remarks. C.D. Howe, a veteran minister of renown, was determined to get under way the big project of a gas pipeline from Alberta to eastern Canada. He got what he wanted but at the high electoral cost of losing power within a year to the Conservatives and John Diefenbaker.

After this crash and the surprising ascension there were no real reforms designed to stop any further use of closure. In 2000 the Chrétien government used it some 70 times.
Through the subsequent decades various reforms of Parliament have been proposed, from huge ones requiring constitutional changes such as an elected senate, to minor ones like installing electronic voting in the House. A lot of reforms which have been made were minor although in sum they have much altered how Parliament works, in particular in ways that touch both each MP’s resources and the capacities of party caucuses.

Consider these changes since 1957. No more night sittings. A parliamentary calendar for the year which sets out breaks and holidays. Each MP now has his or her own office suite on the Hill, with a staff of two or three, and with a fully subsidized, manned office in his or her riding. Each caucus has funding to maintain a research staff and a press officer for its leader. The Library of Parliament has gone from zero researchers to more than 70 full-time, highly qualified ones. MPs, first-time ones who had just a half-day secretary, now have a generous entitlement to air passes and long distance phone service, computers, Internet access, cellphones, fax machines, etc., and printing services which reproduce and mail newsletters of MPs to their constituents.

Through these decades the pay of MPs has also been bumped up until it now is almost seven times the 1957 rate, and though the job is notoriously insecure there is a very generous pension plan once an MP holds office for six years.

Most of these changes have enabled MPs to work more effectively, first of all in hearing and processing constituents’ requests. They have the ability to gear into information data and research most useful in committee work or in addressing the pros and cons of legislative proposals and spending programs.

The media figures underline the transformations in the coverage for Parliament, something which has concentrated ever more focus of party leaders, less to cabinet ministers, and much less to mere MPs and what they say or think.

In 1957 there were just over 80 journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, none of them representing television. Today the press gallery has almost 400 members, over half of them of the electronic media. One should note that the videotape available since 1979 from the televising of House proceedings which is distributed live on a national cable channel is much used in small bits for TV newscasts and commentaries. The telecast proceedings, however, has never had a sizeable, regular viewership. It is doubtful more than 200 people in all of Canada regularly reads the daily Hansard. It is not that the media mob are not around Parliament; it is because most of their “takes” or reports are about leaders, ministers, and the partisan exaggerations of the question period and scrum.

The House now sits some 130 days a year. The buildings seem much like big office towers from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; that is, busy during the hours of sitting days, with MPs, their staffs, and the large service corps of guards, guides, messengers, librarians, reporters, etc., and the small swarm of personal apparatchiks of some 35 ministers. At any time of the year, however, after six p.m. the several buildings of Parliament are largely empty, much of them locked up, especially on weekends. Veteran MPs and senators have noted how the fixed schedule, no night sittings, and free flights home have cut the close association among MPs as a whole which developed in parliaments where MPs spent so much more time on the Hill and within the chamber.

Another factor in the deterioration of association and a shared parliament among MPs has been the decline in what were known as “safe” seats for a particular party. Since the Chief’s huge election sweep in 1958 we have had three others, the last one in 1993 knocking out over 200 MPs. Swoosh, and away went so much in institutional memory and useful understanding of government.

Unquestionably, the reforms most advocated by experienced MPs are for changes that enhance the role of House committees and extend their reach. Many are dour about the emptiness of public interest or excitement during debates in the whole House on bills or estimates but they have little specific to recommend to remedy this compared to what they suggest for the reach and roles of committees.

To bring both genuine listeners and keen contributors into debates of the whole House would seem to need two rather draconian rules and an immense wrench in the schedule of the prime minister and the other party leaders. The quorum needed for debate to go on could be jacked up to 75 or more MPs and a minimum presence of three or more ministers. Most significant would be considerable attendance of leaders during debates, and ever since the first government of Pierre Trudeau there has been little of such presence and a leader’s day is micro-managed with the premise that House time is a waste of precious time.

Just to mention such proposals for change starts me chuckling at the crippling objections they would meet. Thus reformers have more practical salvations for empowering MPs with fulfilling work. These lead away from the House itself to enhancement of roles for the standing committees of the House—and of any special committees needed.

Some quirky factors have been in play in the recent indulgence in parliamentary reform, in particular what seems a hardening myth, most notably in Western Canada, that Jean Chrétien and his close, non-elected advisers exercise an extraordinary control over ministers and backbenchers. Thus there is little regard for the policy ideas or criticisms coming from opposition MPs and restive or protesting Liberal backbenchers are labelled “whiners” or “disloyal” or “nervous Nellies.”

As one who has talked House reform for four decades I now believe a more effective Parliament—not government, not cabinet, but Parliament—cannot be achieved through tinkering, and it is hopeless to think a majority of MPs will join and collude in insisting on changes which curb a prime minister’s power.

It is tempting but unfair to lay most of what is allegedly wrong with Parliament on the Liberals, and on Jean Chrétien. They and he didn’t create massive technological changes and almost instant global awareness, nor the profusion of diverse interests, entertainments, and recreations which captivate so many, diverting them from giving priority to partisan politics and Parliament. The Liberals have not been alone in emphasizing the leader and his or her paramountcy over cabinet and mere MPs. Events, data, news, discussion flowing inexorably in a world with the Internet, 24 hours a day, have figuratively left behind an institution founded on and still using the pace of one speech after another. Who cares any longer about long speeches in a large, almost empty chamber?

When fresh visitors see the empty seats in the House they ask: Where are the MPs? The defenders stress how hard MPs work, especially in committees and at ferreting in the bureaucracy on their constituents’ behalf. Of course, the worth of House committees seems reasonable to the unknowing, and it is true that participation in them has less of partisan clichés and grandstanding and is more pragmatic and better prepared for than for what goes on in the big chamber. For most backbench MPs the parts they can play in the committees, seem more immediate, purposeful, and positive than listening to one debater after another in the House.

Nonetheless, committee work is often stilted by the round of questioners, timed and by party, and chairmen have trouble keeping a consistent line of questioning that has been shaped by a committee’s research staff. A watching brief is kept on most committees by the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office for anything which could hurt the government. Further, the reports of committees, including those recommending government actions are almost always what MPs of the governing party approve. Rarely do they represent matters approved by the whole committee and almost as rarely are most major recommendations carried out by the government.

Source: BY DOUGLAS FISHER, LEGION MAGAZINE

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