The ParlCent Blog
Sign up to the ParlCent Blog to leave comments and questions on issues you care about, and to stay updated about the state of democracy in Canada and abroad. You will also be the first to know about upcoming Parliamentary Centre events and publications, so don't wait!
Sign up to the ParlCent Blog to leave comments and questions on issues you care about, and to stay updated about the state of democracy in Canada and abroad. You will also be the first to know about upcoming Parliamentary Centre events and publications, so don't wait!
28 Jan 2020
We are pleased to announce our new project “Parliamentary Reform in Armenia”. This initiative will provide strategic support to the National Assembly to develop and put into practice an inclusive and accountable internal governance strategy.
Gender equality and the inclusion of youth and people living with disabilities within the parliamentary administration are important aspects of the project, as well as the establishment of a link between parliamentary staff and civil society.
The project is possible with the support of the PRO-DEM Fund of Global Affairs Canada.
26 Sep 2019
By Dr. Rasheed Draman
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges faced by humanity today. Whether one lives in Africa, Europe, Asia or the Americas, severe environmental impacts occasioned by changes in climatic conditions, are becoming visible and real on a daily basis. From floods and droughts in the South to severe winter storms in the North, increasingly unpredictable weather conditions have wrought havoc on wealthy and poor nations alike. These conditions are playing a fundamental role in shaping natural ecosystems and the human economies and cultures that depend on them.
In this context, what initially appeared as manageable problem has evolved into a global crisis that needs to be addressed urgently. Today, climate change is a threat to international development – it causes poverty, affects food security and puts the global economy at risk. Because it can no longer be left to scientists alone, we at the Parliamentary Centre believe Members of Parliament (MPs) are at the forefront of the fight against climate change.
In every democratic dispensation, parliaments perform several important functions, with lawmaking, oversight and representation among the key ones. In Africa, as in many other democratic settings, oversight and representation are the two functions that citizens value the most. When citizens vote on keeping the same representatives or not, key considerations revolve around how well they have performed the dual role of holding the Executive accountable for the resources they have been entrusted with, and how well they have served their constituents.
The latter consideration is a major one. Citizens are interested and curious about what their representatives have done to better their living conditions and promote their community’ prosperity. Because climate change hinders both of these, citizens are increasingly concerned about what their representatives have done to mitigate its impacts.
The extent to which climate change affects us depends on where we find ourselves on the map. As with most things, the hardest hit population groups are also the poorest. The inhabitants of developing countries, who are predominantly farmers, depend on rain-fed and rudimentary mechanisms for tilling the land and earning a livelihood. Those people are far removed from negotiations in Copenhagen or Cancun and, through no fault of theirs, are at the receiving end of the actions of global polluters. Their living conditions can only improve if policies change, if policy makers and elected officials around the world take serious action.
Environmental issues have to be thoughtfully debated, regulated and, most importantly, resources have to be put on the table to mitigate its impacts. Globally, it is estimated that hundreds of billions of dollars are required annually for global adaptation and mitigation efforts. This is why Parliament’s role is critical in the fight against climate change.
What role would parliament play?
Parliaments are in a position to heavily influence the distribution of public funds, international aid, green investment funds, and other resources to programs that address climate challenges both nationally and internationally, to ensure they are properly allocated. There are a number of mechanisms parliament can employ to scrutinize the Executive regarding budgets, procurement, programs, and policy implementation. Scrutiny of climate-related financing can be done either ex-ante or ex-post through parliamentary select or standing committees, such as Public Accounts Committees (PACs), enquiries, question periods, debates, and committee hearings. Independent information can also be obtained through Parliamentary Budget Offices, which also play a role in government oversight.
There are clear advantages to utilizing environmental audits in oversight activities. If a government has signed an international climate change agreement, such as the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol, Parliament can ensure governmental policies comply with the commitments and targets set by the agreement. Parliament can also oversee the government by scrutinizing climate change-related budgets and examining whether resources are being used effectively, efficiently, and in accordance with relevant laws, regulations, and standards. A particular subset of this effort is the scrutiny of financial allocations and expenditures as they relate to efficient and effective use of climate change-related aid.
The legislative process also allows parliament to have a significant influence on climate-related policies, particularly climate-smart development policies, by inscribing targets and objectives into law. At the same time, certain bills can affect climate change mitigation efforts by gutting legislation putting limits on CO2 emissions, for example. Such bills must be prevented from becoming law with sufficient oversight from MPs and the public. Other adaptation policies can encompass risk analysis and communication, disaster risk reduction, climate migration, and coordination with relevant Millennium Development Goals.
Climate change policies can include the promotion or development of energy-efficient projects, the transition of energy from fossil fuel-based to renewable sources, and investments or subsidies provided to the public sector in order to promote climate-friendly research and technology (low-emission cars, solar powered electricity or wind technology, for example). Parliaments can also strengthen public or private insurance schemes to improve disaster preparedness in the case of extreme weather events.
Ok but what does that mean concretely?
Parliaments are central to policy making and the enacting of laws, but their ability to fully play their role requires an understanding of their duties and obligations. This has been a challenge most African parliaments.
It is true that parliaments need support to build their capacity, but there are a number of "simple" measures that can be taken by all to help safeguard the environment. The following are a few recommendations to help them in their role to promote effectiveness of environmental policies and laws.
Make funds available for further research and education in environmental degradation and management.
Ensure the implementation and compliance with all international environmental conventions to which their countries are signatories.
Strengthen the role of key stakeholders such as the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and corporate bodies in environmental policy making and implementation.
Involve and draw on the experiences and knowledge of women to ensure that environmental programs and policies are gender sensitive.
Actively participate in all international events on protecting the environment. In the case of African parliaments, it would help them mainstream environmental issues into sustainable development.
Insist that their governments prioritize international sustainable development commitments.
If not signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, parliaments should encourage their government to do so and ratify it, to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
Push for legislation that encourages the development of environmentally-friendly products and use of green methods of production.
African parliaments should encourage their governments to join and implement the United Nations Convention to combat Desertification (1991).
Set up independent monitoring bodies towards the enforcement of environment policies and laws.
The role that we envisage for parliaments within the fight against climate change stretches across national, regional and international levels. It should be clarified that, ultimately, the capacity to mitigate and to fully adapt to climate change lies with the public, but parliament plays an essential role in representing their short and long-term interests, leading the public in change, promoting green policies, and holding the Executive accountable.
We urge MPs around the world to take a keen interest in the climate crisis and to hold their governments into account. They should ask their governments ratify the various international accords on climate change, and they must demand action. We hope parliament will rise to the challenge in order to mitigate what has clearly become a threat to global development and, eventually, humanity.
22 Aug 2019
By Peter Dobell
Being an MP, or any job involving lots of stress and high expectations, can be physically and mentally taxing. What follows is a condensed version of Occasional Papers on Parliamentary Government number 9, from November 1999. In it, our founder Peter Dobell explores the stressful lives of MPs and details some of the ways MPs can build healthy relationships with the necessary stress that accompanies their position. Part 2 to come!
The job of an MP is unique. Beginning with the emotional high generated by winning a seat in an election, it offers a life that can be interesting and exhilarating. Since Parliament is the focus of national attention and the forum where issues of national and international importance are regularly debated, it opens the door to a life with wide dimension. For those who like verbal battle, the daily question period can be satisfying and very stimulating. In sum election to the House of Commons holds the prospect of challenging new career combined with an exciting lifestyle change.
Most newly elected MPs soon discover, however, that the life of a Member also brings a whole series of unanticipated pressures. The time demands of the job have increased with the growth of government during the past few decades and they are now extreme and unremitting. Two additional developments of the postwar world have contributed materially to this situation. The arrival of jet aircraft in the 1970's suddenly made it possible for all MPs, event those representing remote parts of the country , to return to their constituencies over the weekend and their voters now expect them to do so. Those representing areas closer to the capital even find themselves pressed to return to their constituencies for important events during the week, after which they frequently have to hurry back to Ottawa.
The second development that has added significantly to time demands experienced by MPs has been the decision taken by the House around 1980 to fund offices in each Members' constituency. This was an important decision, reflecting the enormous expansion since the Second War in social services provided by government. With this growth has inevitably come delays or errors in the delivery of services and the growth of justified or unjustified public expectations, all situations that have fueled the flood of inquiries directed at the constituency offices of Members. Polls show that fifty percent of the time when citizens find themselves in difficulty with some government program, they turn to one of their elected representatives - federal or provincial - for advice and help. For some Members, work for their constituents has become a principal source of satisfaction and self-worth and the activity that validates their job. For almost all Members this relatively new demand on their time is virtually endless, occupying them when they are in Ottawa as well as in their constituencies.
The consequence of these two developments is added work and frequent travel by air or by car. When the House is in session, Members representing constituencies in the east start calling early in the morning and those from the west have to be in their in the evening in order to deal with issues raised by their electors. When the House is not in session, MPs are usually in their local offices or travelling with their constituencies. As a result, there is no let up.
The transition to the life of a Member of Parliament presents its own challenge because parliamentary politics is a hard job to prepare for. There is nothing else quite like it. Lawyers with court experience have some advantages, in that they are accustomed to verbal confrontation. Those who had worked previously fri a Member have been exposed indirectly to the lifestyle and are accordingly better prepared to face the constraints of the job.
The late Dr. Hans Selye of McGill University, a founder of the study of stress, recognized that individuals need stress to reach the highest levels of their capacities. But he also concluded that too much stress, without relief in the form of down-time, is harmful. At the very minimum, it can impair the quality of a person's performance by causing him or her to become irritable and quicker to take offense, which can in turn lead them to be unnecessarily combative. More seriously it can damage personal relationships, lead some to seek solace in alcohol or drugs, and can even affect overall health in a variety of ways.
In that spirit this issue of Occasional Papers on Parliamentary Government offers MPs a number of suggestions that could help them to manage stress. Some are addressed to Members and others to the institution of Parliament.
Advice to MPs from Knowledgeable People
Note: To enhance their immediacy, many of these words of advice are expressed in the second person.
Exposure to stress is a fact of the life of a Member. Bear in mind that the impact of stress is cumulative, so that the effect of the job as a tendency to sneak up on you unexpectedly. Accordingly, within the constraints of your work, try to organize your life so as to reduce the accumulation of pressure and to find ways to give yourself some relief.
Just as the effect of stress is cumulative, so the ways to manage it are several varied. Each of the following suggestions will do some good, but alone they are not adequate to give you substantial relief if you are experiencing stress. The more of the suggestions that yo u can incorporate into your life, the greater the relief they will provide. Naturally since genes differ, your physical and emotional vulnerability will vary from that of your colleagues. Besides, Members who have already faced stress in a previous profession will probably have developed some habits for managing it.
In the light of the above observations, the following suggestions are offered.
Your Physical Well Being
Get exercise on a regular basis. Your lifestyle as a member is essentially sedentary: sitting at lengthy meetings or at your desk; moving about the Hill by shuttle bus; spending hours ion aircraft breathing stale air. Doctors consider that exercise is not only good for the body, it also helps greatly to relieve stress. The two most obvious ways to get some exercise on the Hill, already practised by a number of Members, are walking to and from your office, or to work out regularly in a gym. While these activities take time, those who take the time to exercise find that they are more productive at work, and in this way make up for the time lost. Those who work out in the gym may also form friendships with members of other parties, something that the set-up of the House lobbies and the seating arrangement in committees does not encourage.
Eat as regularly as possible, choose healthy food and cut back on the coffee. Following this advice may be even harder than exercising regularly. Breakfast meetings are now a common practice; lunch may be picked up on the run, often consisting of fast food that is cholesterol-inducing and calorie rich; and dinner may either be another sandwich at a meeting or picked up late in the evening. As a result many MPs put on weight, as well as clogging their arteries, possibly increasing the risk of heart attack.
Select healthy food at meetings preferably fresh fruit and vegetables. On days when you are not attending a meeting over breakfast, eat well. The same holds if you are not a dinner meeting; take the time toi eat regular meals. And try to avoid eating late in the evening, since late evening meals can affect your sleep, an unhealthy situation for a profession where you are often short of sleep.
The easy availability of coffee at committee meetings and in the lounges behind the Chamber represents and undesirable temptation. You may also take it to help you to stay if you are short of sleep. However, coffee is a stimulant, hardly necessary in a job that already generates substantial adrenalin. So, resist it. Even juice can add to the calories you ingest. Press instead for a glass of water.
In next week’s issue, we will look at the importance of family life in the functioning of an MP and explore helpful ways for MPs to go about organizing their. We also examine some of the resources available to MPs. Check us out on Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter for more interesting content like this.
20 Aug 2019
Member of Parliament, Shan State Hluttaw
Daw Khin Htar Yee never planned on becoming a politician, but her desire to help her uncle drew her into the world of Myanmar politics. Following the end of the military dictatorship in 2010, she worked on the transition towards liberal democracy with her uncle, who registered as a candidate for the the Kyar Pyu Party in the Theinni Constituency, Northern Shan State.
Today, Daw Khin Htar Yee is herself an elected member of parliament, representing the people of Theinni in the Shan State Hluttaw like her uncle did. She is part of the Shan National League for Democracy, the party with the second highest number of seats. However, Daw Htar Yee is one of only eight female MPs in the Hluttaw - a mere 5.8% of the 137 parliamentarians.
Access to unbiased information and analysis on various issues is fundamental for parliamentarians across the world to effectively perform their functions. Yet, this is proves to be quite a challenge for all parliamentarians in Myanmar, at both the national and regional level, but especially for sub-national legislature members from remote constituencies like Daw Khin Htar Yee.
Daw Khin Htar Yee was not aware of the nature and value of parliamentary research until she took part in a practical training on parliamentary research along with other parliamentarians and parliamentary staff. Facilitated by the Parliamentary Centre and the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation (EMReF), the training took place in September 2017 with the participation of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. This was her first exposure to legislative research methodology, including essentials skills such looking for information online.
Shortly after the training, she did not hesitate to use her newly-acquired expertise to conduct research on her own. When the Shan State Hluttaw introduced a by-law that would determine the roles and functions of Shan State Municipal Development Committees and the way they are elected in Fall 2017, Daw Khin Htar Yee took the initiative to conduct a comparative study of how similar issues are handled in other parts of Myanmar.
Recognizing the importance of having a well-informed position would not have been possible for Daw Khin Htar Yee if she had not attended the training facilitated by the Parliamentary Centre and the EMReF. The rough equivalent of municipal councils in Canada, Shan State Municipal Development Committees play a major role in local governance. Thanks to the work of Daw Khin Htar Yee, the legislation passed has allowed for stronger and more effective municipal committees.
Did you enjoy reading this article? If so, help us continue our work by donating to the Parliamentary Centre.
17 Aug 2019
By Nicholas Leiper
In 2018, the Canadian Government introduced a bill that would require any organization seeking funds from the Canada Summer Job Program to verify that they respect sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion. Scott Simms was the only government MP who voted against his party’s guidelines on the issue. This eventually cost him his position as Chair of the Committee on Fisheries and Oceans and the $11 000 salary increase that came with it. Why? Because of a phenomenon known as “party discipline”.
Party discipline is the umbrella term used to describe the influence of political parties in individual MPs’ decision-making processes. The level of party discipline varies from nation to nation and from system to system, but, by and large, any nation that has political parties can be described as having some level of party discipline. After all, parties are more or less useless if their members do not follow their certain guidelines.
For an example of extreme codified party discipline, look to India. The 52nd amendment of the Indian Constitution forces Members to adhere to the rulings of their party whips, effectively mandating party discipline by law. MPs who cross the line and vote against their party’s official stance are disqualified from Parliament. What’s more, the act takes away MPs’ right to leave their party voluntarily and to vote against their former party’s orders should they have been expulsed.
That being said, for less extreme examples of party discipline, look no further than Canada. Several academics, like the University of Toronto’s Richard Simeon, have gone on record claiming that Canada’s level of party discipline is unrivaled by other parliamentary democracies. “We are worse than the Australians, and much worse than the British, in terms of giving MPs the ability to act and somehow make a difference.” (Globe and Mail)
To showcase the level of party discipline Canadian MPs deal with, an unnamed Liberal MP described how he felt he had less power than some non-elected officials. Citing the Chief of Staff and Principal Secretary's regular appearances in caucus meetings, he explained that “Trudeau might have forgotten if someone spoke at the mic and said something he didn’t like, but those people have long memories”. (National Post)
In Canada, whips are the disciplinary figures who make sure MPs toe the party line, leveraging positions of influence or sometimes party membership to ensure its mandate is respected. Whips are a staple in many parliaments around the world and have come under fire on several occasions.
Those in favour of strict party discipline generally argue that is essential to the functioning of a responsible government. The argument suggests that parties must have the ability to consistently pass legislation so as to avoid votes of no confidence. While this is true in some ways - a government that cannot act isn’t much of a government at all - it also suggests that minority governments are worthless. It seems to imply that a party must be able to easily have its way with the legislature in order for our democracy to function, but is this not inherently undemocratic?
In my opinion, the Canadian party system is beginning to serve itself as power has been so centralized, limiting the choices Canadians can make. Ultimately, governments need to start listening. In Canada, there is a broad sentiment that none of the parties really appeal to most voters needs and wants. Maybe you’ve heard it echoed after a long sigh come talk of the next election. The question we should be asking ourselves as Canadians is whether we want to be supporting parties who can’t possibly represent the entire nation at once or specialized representatives. While the ideal democracy offers unto each citizen the opportunity to choose a custom suit, Canadian party discipline is forcing them to shop off the rack.
15 Aug 2019
By Peter Dobell
For many years, the Parliamentary Centre has provided insight to many of the world’s democratic institutions. For the past two weeks, we published the first parts of a document written by our founder, Peter Dobell, after the election of a minority parliament in 2004. While part 1 discussed the characteristics of a minority parliament, part 2 covered the problems one must face. This final installment will cover some of the solutions Mr. Dobell suggested to remedy these issues.
Measures to Facilitate the Work of Committees
While all parties in the minority parliament, government and opposition alike, will have to exercise restraint if the House of Commons is to function effectively, leadership must come from the government side. As Prime Minister Martin has said, it will be important to demonstrate to opposition Members that they are “making a difference”. Given the ingrained inter-party tension, aggravated by hostilities generated during the last election, it will take time and solid evidence to convince Members of the opposition parties that a change has taken place and that they are able to make a contribution. Government Members will find it no less difficult to exercise restraint and to share decision-making with opposition Members.
Committees will be particularly important to the effective performance of the minority Parliament because they will be the workhorses where many of the accommodations will have to be worked out. They will have to innovate. There are no precedents to be examined for lessons because during the Pearson and Trudeau minority government committees had not yet become the bodies that review virtually all bills. The suggestions that follow can be broken down into two lists - innovations not requiring changes to the Standing Orders and those that would require the amendment of Standing Orders.
Innovations that do not require changes to the standing Orders
Committees will function better if Members are appointed for a minimum of two years so that they become familiar with their committee’s area of responsibility and can plan their work schedule over a longer period. They should be able to accomplish more and committee reports should also gain in quality and credibility.
Committees will be more effective if they elect competent chairs with the skills to build a consensus in favour of judicious amendment of bills. Effectiveness of chairs would also contribute to the chances of those bills securing majority support when they reach the house. This role is so important that special training might be offered to chairs.
When legislation is referred to committee after first reading, it is important that the responsible Minister engage all Members of the committee rather than only members of the government caucus. It should also be borne in mind that it will take time and sensitivity on his or her part to overcome the suspicious of opposition Members.
Parliamentary secretaries could serve as an important channel of communication for committees with their department, securing important information and other forms of assistance. Although, in a majority Parliament, parliamentary secretaries have times been criticized for exercising a controlling role in committees, in a minority Parliament they could contribute significantly by promoting improved communications with their departments.
In addition to referring bills to committees after first reading, it would be helpful if the government returned to a practice common in the 1970’s of preparing green papers (a paper reviewing a problem that outlines without taking sides alternative approaches to address it) and referring them to committees. Committee reports could become an effective way for a Minister to determine how the four parties reacted to the issues described in the paper and accordingly what kind of bill should be acceptable to the House. Since in such cases Cabinet would not have taken a public position, government Members would find it easier to think independently and opposition Members would not have a government position to attack.
Committee reports would be more informative to the interested public if they indicated with adequate detail where members were in agreement and where they differed and the reasons for these differences. This practice could also reduce the incentive to issue minority reports.
Government and opposition Members of Candian parliamentary committees normally sit on opposite sides of a hollow square, replicating the confrontational environment in the House. In some Westminster parliament committee members sit at random, which promotes a more collegial environment. Sitting at random could improve relations in committees in Ottawa. Relaxing the formal procedures for sharing of time for questioning witnesses - procedures that impede productive lines of questioning - could also enhance committee effectiveness.
Web-casting of all committee proceedings would generate publicity that would be welcomed, particularly by the opposition Members. The increased public would also have immediate access to committee proceedings.
Committees in a minority Parliament will consider it important to review departmental estimates carefully. The Government Operations and Estimates Committee of the 37th Parliament prepared a helpful guide. The review of estimates has been a neglected area of committee activity, where performance needs to be greatly improved. Training might also be useful here.
If committees produced annual reports as British committees do, they would have to review and assess their performance. This should help with planning for the future. They could also learn from the experience of other committees.
If committee reports come to carry more weight with government, committee workloads will increase. It may become necessary to schedule some committee meetings on Mondays and/or Fridays.
Innovations that would require new Standing Orders
The lack of media attention is a disincentive for committee work. Committees could gain significant public notice if they were offered the right to ask for an hour’s debate in the House on Wednesday at 1 pm. (This time was allocated to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments to be used if it was concerned that a regulation was inconsistent with enabling legislation and that officials were resisting modifying the regulations. The entitlement has only been used a few times in two decades.) To encourage cooperation, this opportunity should only offered to a committee that has adopted a report by consensus.
If the Government were ready to see some committees, in addition to the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by opposition members - an established practice in the British House of Commons, in Québec’s Assemblée Nationale and in the Senate - the opposition would regard this step as a demonstration of a genuine change in approach. To have maximum impact, such an initiative would best be recorded as a change in the Standing Orders, to apply also in a majority Parliament. It would be necessary to include a procedure for deciding which committees would be chaired by opposition Members.
With five political parties in the 37th Parliament the need to relate representation to the number of seats held by each party led to large committees, obliging many Members to serve on two or more of the 20 standing committees that now exist. As a consequence they often found it difficult to participate fully in each committee. Although with only four parties the size of committees can be reduced, if the number of committees remains the same or is increased, MPs may again find themselves appointed to two committees. However, if the number of committees was reduced and their areas of responsibility enlarged, with their broader mandates covered through the establishment of several smaller subcommittees, it would be feasible for Members to sit on only one committee. The improved attendance that this would make possible could enable committees to have more productive work plans.
Committees will have to learn how to conduct their business more expeditiously. It would be useful if a study of best practices of the Canadian Parliament and other legislatures could be undertaken and assessed, and an advisory manual written. Courses might also be prepared.
An Enhanced Liaison Committee
Given the greater responsibilities that committees must assume in a minority Parliament, they are certain to face numerous challenges through discussion of them among committee chairs and by looking to the Liaison Committee to make proposals for overcoming difficulties and improving performance.
The liaison Committee of the House of Commons was formed in 1985. Composed of the chairpersons of all standing committees, its chair is elected from among its members. Although it was anticipated that the new committee would become a source of proposals for strengthening the work of committees, in practice its main activity has been allocating among standing committees the block of funds provided annually by the Board of Internal Economy.
It is noteworthy that during the past decade the responsibilities of the British House of Commons Liaison Committee have been substantially increased, in response to a widely held desire to improve the work and contribution of parliamentary committees. The British Liaison Committee is composed of the chair of the committee and the chairs of 34 British ‘select’ committees (equivalent to standing committees in Canada), approximately one-third of whom are opposition members. It is now the principal instrument for analyzing the evolving needs of committees and for recommending ways to improve their performance. To this end it has:
Laid down the principal responsibilities of committees,
Called upon committees to make annual reports,
Commented on the adequacy of government responses to committee report and on the quality of cooperation received by committees from government department.
Proposed more productive working practices designed to enable heavily burde3ned committees to accomplish more,
Called for increased resources for committees, and
Suggest ways in which committee work could be made more accessible, including the use of webcasting
Given the current situation in the Canadian House of Commons, two specific changes could help ensure that its Liaison Committee would be able to play a constructive role making proposals for strengthening the work of standing committees.
Membership: Some way should be found to engage members of the opposition parties in the work of the Liaison Committee. If it were decided that some of the committees of the Canadian House should be chaired by opposition members, the problem be solved. Alternatively, some opposition vice-chairs of committees could be appointed to a sub-committee of the Liaison Committee, as was done during the 34th and 35th Parliaments.
Full Time Chair: The Liaison Committee needs a full time chair. If the Canadian Liaison Committee were to receive a larger mandate, it would be important that its chair not also be responsible for chairing a standing committee. The workload of standing committees are already onerous and likely to become more so in a minority Parliament. To be effective the chair should have had substantial previous experience as a committee chair. Moreover, he or she should be recognized as a senior and well-respected parliamentarian. As well, could the chair be elected, like the Speaker, by secret ballot of the whole House?
At a time when committees will have an expanded role shaping and influencing legislation, enlarging the mission of the Liaison Committee could be a striking and imaginative way of providing advice and support to committees. Electing the chair by the whole House would further strengthen the Liaison Committee's mandate and dramatically demonstrate the significance being accorded to it.
The challenges faced by the 38th Parliament are enormous. With another election lying somewhere over the horizon, the three opposition parties are naturally motivated to advance their own agendas, while also exploiting any opportunities to discredit the government. For its part, the government will look for ways to improve its public image. In this environment constructive inter-party dialogue will not be easy. Yet the Canadian public has determined that the 38th Parliament should not, as its recent predecessors be dominated by the government. Instead it has given each Mp a power they have not had for 30 years. Will these recently empowered MPs find ways to collaborate in committees with colleagues from other parties? By working together in committees will they be able to find accommodations that could make this Parliament a model for the future.
11 Aug 2019
By Mathilde Raymond
In this week’s Civic Literacy blog post, we are looking at terms and phrases heckled in the House of Commons : unparliamentary language. We will explore old and recent insults, insinuations, epithets and allegations that have been made in Parliament over the years. If you like this article and find it interesting, follow us on social media for more content like this every Saturday!
Here is the deal: a parliamentarian says something naughty, the Speaker forces them to apologize and retract their statements, and they are given immortal fame when the naughty thing they said is added to a list of unparliamentary terms that runs more than four pages long. Since the first recording of parliamentary debates in 1867, exactly 106 terms have been deemed “unparliamentary” - and under every legislature, new terms are added to the list.
According to the House of Commons Procedures and Practices, “in dealing with unparliamentary language, the Speaker takes into account the tone, manner and intention of the Member speaking; the person to whom the words were directed; the degree of provocation; and, most importantly, whether or not the remarks created disorder in the Chamber”. This means that language deemed unparliamentary one day may not necessarily be deemed unparliamentary the following day.
Hansard archives present many examples of unparliamentary language, such as “deliberate falsehood” (1961) or “dishonest answers” (1968), which are creative ways MPs have found to accuse their opponents of lying (it is forbidden by House of Commons procedures to accuse a sitting Member of lying). Other examples are rather biting comments on the character of other MPs. Some of my favourites include “honourable only by courtesy” (1880) and “inspired by forty-rod whiskey” (1881).
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was famous for his antics and, in 1971, muttered what would become a well-known verbal refrain and kind of cheeky slogan for him – both for his detractors and his admirers. During a particularly heated Question Period, Trudeau mouthed what the Opposition understood to be the words “Fuck off”. When pressed by journalists on exactly what he said inside the House of Commons, Trudeau answered the phrase: "fuddle duddle." As the event took place before the televising of House of Commons proceedings, there is no film or video proving who was right. Today, the "fuddle duddle" incident remains a popular moment of Canadian politics.
In recent years, using unparliamentary language has also been used as a strategy for MPs to raise awareness about issues of concerns. Asking a question about the Trans Mountain pipeline, NDP MP Romeo Saganash accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of not “giving a fuck” about the rights of Indigenous peoples. During a speech about her home province of Alberta, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel compared the government's treatment of Alberta to "a fart in the room that nobody wants to talk about or acknowledge." In 2016, Bloc Québécois MP Simon Marcil, used the word "bullshit" to qualify the government's cheese policy in Quebec. Members of Parliament know what makes the news. Sometimes, dropping the f-bomb is the little extra push needed to bump their speech from a simple column to the headlines.
For more examples of unparliamentary language, check out this list from iPolitics. Follow us on social media to see more content like this one. Next Saturday’s post will focus on the role of Whips in parliament. Stay tuned!
08 Aug 2019
By Peter Dobell
For many years, the Parliamentary Centre has provided insight to many of the world’s democratic institutions. Last week, we published the first half of a document written by our founder, Peter Dobell, after the election of a minority parliament in 2004. Part 1 of Making Minority Parliaments Work covered the characteristics of minority Parliaments. This portion will cover the challenges a minority parliament might face.
A few major challenges will have to be faced and, if possible, resolved by the House Leaders even before the House opens. Achieving the necessary agreements will be difficult due to tensions generated during the election.
The election was called before the budget estimates had been approved. With an election pending the House agreed to grant interim supply, but only to December 31st, 2004. In exchange for this concession the opposition had insisted that after the election the parties would negotiate and agree on special procedures for approving supply, a situation that in a minority Parliament gives opposition parties considerable leverage. Examination of the estimates, which too often in the past has been a mere formality, is apt to take on special significance given the political focus on financial accountability. Most standing committees, not just the Public Accounts Committee, are likely to focus attention on how government spends the taxpayer’s money.
The election of committee chairs presents another challenging issue. A resolution passed in the 37th Parliament provides for the election of chairs by secret ballot, a measure of potential significance. It has particular value in a minority Parliament where genuinely elected and respected Chairs could play an important role in building consensus. Surprisingly a last minute amendment to that resolution specified that chairs should come from the governing party. With an opposition majority in every committee, how can it be assured in an election by secret ballot that only government Members are elected as chairs? Moreover, might the Martin Government decide, as the Trudeau Government did in 1972 when it lacked a majority to offer some committee chairs to the official opposition? If this happened, would the opposition decline the offer as it did in 1972? In that event, would chairs be offered to Members of the smaller opposition parties? Faced with these choices, agreements will have to be negotiated before committees are formed in the first couple of weeks of the new Parliament and the resolution amended.
Prime Minister Martin made a commitment before the election to engage committees in an unspecified way in reviewing appointments to the Supreme Court. The proposal was referred to standing committees in the last months of the 37th Parliament but no decisions were taken. Today, reaching agreements on new procedures will be difficult.
With two vacancies on the Supreme Court that had to be filled quickly, an experiment was undertaken in August of this year. Although the relative party representation on the special committee established to review proposed appointments will probably become the process for reviewing the appointment of Justices to the Supreme Court represented a special challenge, it is doubtful that the procedure adopted in August would gain cross-party support for considering any senior appointments.
Party discipline represents a particular challenge. The instinct to each party will be to band tightly together. This reaction works in a minority Parliament if the government has an alliance with opposition party that sufficient votes to produce a majority. But if there is no working partnership that will produce a majority and the government - 20 votes short of a simple majority - has to angle for support from Members more than one party, it might be more effective to relax party discipline on non-confidence bills. It should also serve to raise the profile of MPs in their constituencies.
A necessary change in the culture of the 38th Parliament - a much greater readiness to look for accommodations - has been forced on it by the results of the election. While reaching agreements with the opposition will be difficult enough, it will be rendered more difficult by the media. It profits from conflict and will therefore dramatize problems whenever they arise. If bills are defeated - a risk in a minority government with current combination of parties - the tendency of much of the media will be to focus on the government’s failure to carry the day rather than to acknowledge the increased influence of Parliament and MPs.
The uncertainties characteristic of minority Parliament could pose some novel challenges for Senators. If the opposition parties in the House were able to combine to significantly amend a bill in a way the government dislikes, it might urge Liberal Senators to defeat it. By contrast if the government thought it politically important that an amended bill be adopted, its message to the Senate would probably be to refrain from making any amendment that upset the carefully negotiated compromise. WHat is certain is that more than in the past, the Government House Header in the Senate will have to be intimately involved in planning and reviewing the progress of legislation through the House.
Thank you for reading the second portion of Making Minority Parliaments work by Peter Dobell. The Third and final portion will be published soon and will cover various solutions to the amalgam of issues to be faced by minority Parliaments. Follow us on social media for more content like this!
07 Aug 2019
By Mathilde Raymond
Think about our democratic system like a big company. Structurally, they both have a vertical hierarchy. Managers and MPs are the links between the people they represent and the executives. They both rely on productivity for growth, with fresh new ideas and bold innovation driving progress. Yet, just like it would damage a company, a toxic culture can erode our democratic system by diminishing its inclusiveness and stifling creativity and innovation.
A work culture is toxic when employee suggestions are discarded, when a company core values do not serve as the basis for how the organization functions, and when there is little or no interaction between employees and management. Eventually, a toxic work culture will teach even the most passionate and motivated employees that their inputs are not valued, and they will go quiet. According to the Samara Centre for Democracy, rates of civic engagement and activism have been steadily going down since 2014, meaning that Canada is exhibiting symptoms of a “toxic political culture”. Canadians think their opinions do not matter, and they are sick of it.
Despite popular belief, the disengaged are not the uncaring, unknowledgeable silent majority so often denigrated. They are concerned about what goes on in their communities and many used to participate actively in the democratic process, but they have learned from personal experience that engagement was futile. Like employees, Canadians who have been pushed to the point where they no longer feel included in the system will not go the extra mile. They have accepted their powerlessness.
Some disengaged Canadians blame an unresponsive political arena that does not address the issues that matter to them. This lack of responsiveness is then perceived as proof that the system does not want to include them because their concerns are not on the Order of the Day. It seems that no one is listening to them, that their participation is useless. Others’ disappointment with politics is rooted in a sense of what democracy should be. When a company’s core values do not serve as the basis for how the organization functions, employees become frustrated and angry about this discrepancy. The same applies to Canada, where politics would be a lot more attractive if it better matched the values associated with democracy. Instead, it is seen as distant, boring, and overly-complicated.
Overall, this toxic political culture leads to rarer interactions between citizens and their elected representatives. The political class is then viewed as other, a separate group of ruling individuals who using the people to serve their own interests. Canada is now in a vicious cycle where a growing number of Canadians chose not to participate in the democratic process. They disengaged because the political system has failed to serve them in a specific way, and the political system does not serve them because they are disengaged. So, what’s the cure?
Company managers will tell you, you cannot fix a toxic culture by imposing vision and mission statements. It takes more than some catchy phrases to create a great work culture. Everyone involved in the democratic process then has a role to play in reinvigorating our political system, from grassroots civil society organizations to Parliament. The goal for any solution should be to address the three key symptoms of a toxic political culture listed in this article: responsiveness, inclusiveness, and participation.
At the Parliamentary Centre, we recognize participation in social media and in the signing of online petitions show a yearning to change the system… online. Indeed, the online space provides an opportunity to connect vastly more people with their elected representatives and to ensure they have their say in the democratic process. Developed in partnership with Bang the Table Canada, our new engagement site EngageParl is a tool to drive inclusive, transparent, and measurable civic engagement to empower collaborative learning, discussion, and debate.
Robust democracy requires real public participation. By giving every Canadian a better opportunity to have their say on issues that are important to them, our mission is to enable online participation as a fundamental pillar of well-functioning, healthy 21st century democracies. Citizens are the heartbeat of democracy. If the heart stops beating, what will happen?
03 Aug 2019
By Nicholas Leiper
In this week’s educational blog post, we aim to explain the frequently mentioned, but rarely explored, phenomenon of filibustering. In this article, we examine the general idea and goal of a filibuster and its implementation in Canada and in the US. If you find this article interesting or helpful consider following us on social media for more content like this every Saturday.
In the runup to the American Civil War, a handful of pro-slavery Southerners began illegal privately funded military expeditions into countries at peace with the United States. Their objective was to overthrow Central American governments in an effort to create more slave states to shift the American political balance in their favor. The name given to this practice was filibustering. At its heights, filibuster William Walker managed to install himself as dictator of Nicaragua from the summer of 1856 to the spring of 1857.
Today, filibustering has taken on a whole new meaning, referring to the uncodified manipulation of parliamentary rules to delay the passing of a bill. More often than not, this constitutes the “talking out” of a law via long-winded speeches or the introduction of countless amendments in the house. Put simply, filibusters constitute the opposition’s best attempt to annoy the government into conceding and giving up on a piece of legislation.
Since no two parliaments are exactly alike, there are many different ways of going about this. That in mind, all filibusters aim to use up as much time as possible to delay a bill. Usually, in the Canadian parliament, the Opposition will introduce countless motions and debate for as much time as possible. For instance, in March 2018, the Opposition introduced 260 motions in an effort to force the Prime Minister’s national security adviser to testify about his trip to India, forcing the House of Commons to vote for more than 18 hours.
While this is the contemporary definition of a filibuster, “talking filibusters” were commonplace in the American Senate up until the 1970s. Essentially, a senator would take advantage of Senate rules, which forced Senators to discuss one issue at a time. The most infamous example of this was seen in 1957 when Strom Thurmond spoke for 24 hours straight in an effort to delay the passing of the Civil Rights Act. While this style of filibustering was put into the popular imagination by films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it rarely takes place.
Most parliaments have some way of ending a filibuster. In the US Senate, it takes 60 senators to invoke cloture, limiting the debate to another 30 hours and forcing a vote when the time is up. Considering there are 100 senators, it is worth noting that 41 unified senators could delay a vote indefinitely. In Canada, filibusters can be brought to an end by votes of closure but usually fizzle out when the public grows apathetic to the issue at hand.
Canada has seen its fair share of filibusters including the 1956 pipeline debate. An interesting example of a time-sensitive debate, the Trans-Canada pipeline needed to begin construction in early June 1956. When the bill was brought before the House of Commons in May of the same year, the Opposition attempted to delay it passed the construction deadline. Ultimately, the Liberals invoked closure on the debate, but it remains one of the most famous filibusters in Canadian history.
I hope this article has been an interesting and educational read, for more examples of Canadian filibusters check out this article from the Globe and Mail. Please consider following us on social media for more content like this. Next Saturday’s post will focus on the role of Whips in parliament. Stay tuned!