[Democracy Watch Logo] [Op-ed]

Parliament has problems, but not the problems many commentators claim it has

Set out below is a op-ed by Democracy Watch Coordinator Duff Conacher which was published in the October 2, 2010 issues of the Waterloo Region Record, and the Guelph Mercury.
To see another Democracy Watch op-ed on the same issue, click here

Many commentators have recently made exaggerated and inaccurate claims about Parliament’s problems.

Some don’t realize that parliamentary rules are going through a long-overdue clarification, while others are unjustifiably concerned about the influence of political parties and Officers of Parliament.

Yes, Question Period needs reform -- but the problem of Cabinet ministers not fully answering questions is almost impossible to solve (because of the difficulty of defining what a "full answer" is), and the other problem of MPs acting up would be solved if the Speaker of the House of Commons would do his job properly and penalize MPs who violate existing rules that prohibit heckling or acting in other unreasonable ways.

The more important problem with Parliament  is that the Prime Minister especially, but also opposition party leaders, have too many powers with too few checks.

To solve this problem, MPs should pass a bill amending the Canada Elections Act to set out rules for democratically run elections for riding association executives and election candidates that Elections Canada enforces, including rules that prohibit party leaders from appointing executives or candidates (with few exceptions) -- (NOTE:  The federal Conservatives promised to make these changes in their 2006 election platform -- To see Democracy Watch's December 2009 Report Card on the Conservatives' 29 broken democracy reform and government accountability promises, click here).

As well, MPs should pass a bill amending the Parliament of Canada Act to give MPs in each party caucus the power to choose their members of each House committee; making it clear that Cabinet staff can be called by any committee to testify; defining “confidence votes” as only votes on government spending and other very significant issues, and; limiting the PM’s power to prorogue Parliament.

These changes will empower MPs and riding associations by giving them more independence from party headquarters.  While they already have a much greater say that some commentators claim they do (Donald Savoie being the leading example), this further decentralization within parties will help ensure MPs and leaders exercise their powers democratically.

Despite the claims of Prof. Savoie and some other commentators, however, MPs role in holding government accountable should not include enforcing laws, especially good government laws.

As has been seen at committee hearings during the recent minority governments examining the Adscam sponsorship scandal, Mulroney-Schreiber affair, various RCMP scandals, the Guergis-Jaffer affair, and the access-to-information disputes, MPs have widely varying standards of evidence and judgment usually based on the party they represent.

But during the Chrétien and Mulroney and other past majority governments, committees almost never investigated government scandals because MPs from the ruling party who controlled the committees blocked hearings from happening.

So while MPs holding hearings has sometimes usefully focused attention on bad government situations, in recognition of the clear need for independent, consistent, non-partisan and quasi-judicial enforcement of key good government rules, many Officers of Parliament have been created in the past few years.  As a result, these Officers do not have too much power nor have they overridden any of the proper roles of MPs (two claims Prof. Savoie repeatedly makes).

In fact, most of them have little in the way of enforcement powers, which is an ongoing problem because everyone in federal politics knows that while they may be found guilty by an Officer of violating rules, they will face no penalty (so, some conclude, why bother following the rules).

So another key step is for MPs to pass a bill amending the Access to Information Act to give the Information Commissioner the power to order the release of any document if it is in the public interest and will not result in harm to the safety of any person (as the Conservatives promised in the 2006 election -- for details, click here) and giving the Commissioner (and the Ethics Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying, Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Auditor General, Parliamentary Budget Officer and Procurement Ombudsman) the power to penalize violators of the laws and codes they enforce (and, in every case, require them to identify the violator publicly -- as the Commissioner of Elections already is empowered and required to do). 

This bill must also require all of the Officers of Parliament to issue guidelines that set out clearly the lines drawn by each rule they enforce, so that everyone in federal politics will know what is permissible vs. what is prohibited (many of the Officers, especially the Ethics Commissioner as Justice Oliphant noted in his report, have neglected to issue such clear guidelines, leaving everyone covered by the rules in legal limbo -- To see details about the Ethics Commissioner's weak enforcement record, click here).

As well, the bill must give the right to anyone to challenge any of the Commissioners' rulings in court (currently, for example, the Ethics Commissioner's rulings cannot be challenged even if she makes major factual or legal errors).

If MPs make all these changes, minority and majority governments will both be more efficient as less House, Senate and committee time will be spent on process and law enforcement disputes, and everyone will know clearly what the federal good government standards are.

So MPs, how about kick-starting a broad-based, multi-partisan effort to make key changes that will bring Canadians, finally, much closer to having the good government they were promised in the Constitution 143 years ago? 

If you are successful, you will not only empower yourselves, but also improve Canada’s democracy in many key ways.

For more details, go to Democracy Watch's Clean Up the System page