Parliament: a dysfunctional institution

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

The new Liberal government in Ottawa has promised a revised electoral system to replace the current first-past-the-post method. Ontario is prepared to move to a weighted ballot system for municipal elections. All of this is done for two reasons: to improve voter turn-out and to have a more representative body in our parliament and legislatures. Many democratic countries have replaced the first-past-the-post system with some form of voting that attempts to ensure a more representative legislative body. Notwithstanding Arrow’s paradox, these systems do seem to result in a more representative body. However, there is another problem with the Canadian parliament that needs even more reform: the behaviour of elected members of the House of Commons and appointed members of the Senate.
The past few years have witnessed a serious deterioration in the
performance of members of parliament to the point where one could question the commitment of elected representatives to a meaningful effort at
providing government for our nation. Question
period has become an entertainment challenge rather than an inquiry
into government policies and actions where personal invective has replaced critical inquiry. Parliamen-tary Committees are closed for no other reason than some members do not want their behaviour open to the public.
Budgets, which are executive matters, are voted on as part of an omnibus bill that includes several hundred pages of legislative changes. The government then uses closure to force passage of the bill.  The result is legislation that has not been properly vetted and debated. Increasingly, legislation has been driven by
narrow ideological demands rather than by considered responses to social needs. Committee reviews are restricted with MPs adopting strategies that
deliberately frustrate specialists where the presentation may disagree with pre-conceived ideological positions of committee members.
In short, parliament has become a dysfunctional institution. Until this is changed, no amount of adjusting the way ballots are tallied is going to be successful. First, give the Speaker more power to enforce meaningful debate. Then make committees open. If some level of confidentiality is required, the need for a closed meeting should be made public at least three days before that particular meeting. Division of executive and legislative matters should be strictly enforced. Omnibus bills that mix executive and legislative matters must be disallowed. Closure also must be limited – create a rule that closure cannot be used more than once per sitting and is restricted to legislative matters only, i.e., it cannot be used on executive bills.
Changes in the voting process may make our government more
representative, but the real need for reform is in the behaviour of members of parliament and conduct of parliamentary business. Proper process is essential.