True parliamentary reform

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Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise of having the last first-past-the-post election now appears to be fraught with problems. However, if he is genuinely interested in reforming parliament, there are a number of actions he can initiate and complete before the next election. What our elected representatives do once they get to the Commons may be more important than how they got there. There is an immense area for improvements in what they do.
The problem isn’t new. In 2003, a parliamentary committee on reforming the Commons noted, among other issues, that “Parliament has lost its ability to scrutinize government activity”. Scrutinizing implies conducting a detailed, critical examination.
What was an issue in 2003 has become a crisis in our current parliament, and a main culprit of this is the omnibus bill. These bills usually come in the form of budgetary bills.  Budgets relate to the executive functions of parliament and, as such, can be presented in less than 25 pages (50 pages for the bilingual version). However, especially since the beginning of the previous Harper government, budget bills have included numerous amendments to legislative bills, making them more than 300 pages in length. Combined with closure, i.e. limitation on the time for review and debate, these bills have become law without the necessary
critical review by the appropriate committees. The result is often court challenges of some aspect of the bill after it has been passed by parliamentarians who do not know the details of it.
One can hope the current government will alter this process, but, until it can present a budgetary bill in less than 25 pages, the ability to scrutinize by parliament or the public at large remains limited. Further, the 25 page limit can be applied to most acts (executive or legislative) proposed by the government. This may limit the ideological bent of many bills, but will result in better legislation.
A second need is a reform of the appointment to, and operation of, house committees.  Committees are small groups of parliamentarians who examine specific matters in greater depth than is possible in the House of Commons; they report conclusions of those examinations and recommendations to the House. Committees undertake studies on departmental spending, legislation and issues related to their mandate. Too often, committee meetings are held in camera – closed to the press and public. In a more public environment, party whips would have less influence on committee members to “toe the party line”. The significant issue is that the committees exercise their true value in reviewing and testing government legislation. Open, public committee hearings are the best method of obtaining optimal value from their activities.
Question periods are a third arena where reform is needed. Originally intended as an open forum to hold the government to account on issues of importance, the 45 minute period has degenerated into an exercise of 30 second quips for public broadcast. The Speaker should have the authority to call out irrelevant questions and answers with the insistence that civil rules of true argumentation be followed. At the very least, a modicum of decorum is required.
Most elected politicians complain about the poor turn-out at election time. If their concern is genuine, their first act must be that of changing what they do
into a truly democraticinstitution. Specifically, if Prime Minister Trudeau is
genuinely interested in making parliament a better reflection of the needs of Canadians, he can start immediately with reforms of the operations of the House and a more open parliament.