Parliamentary Reform Begins with Parliament

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Appeared in the National Post

Legislatures have as their main purposes, first, the setting of broad policy (through the imposition of laws, taxes and expenditures) and, second, the oversight of government in its execution of those purposes. Our Canadian legislatures achieve the first, but largely fail in the second function.

In a democracy, legislatures are also to be representative of the governed. They may be wise or not, and consistent or not, depending on the general wishes of the voters, but they must at least be representative. Canadian legislatures often fail this test because one person, the first minister, normally dominates them.

As well, in a parliamentary democracy, legislatures are expected to furnish the senior personnel of government. This function is nominally discharged -- ministerial posts are invariably filled and salaries drawn -- but many of the personnel are clearly inadequate by any private-sector standard. A strong public service and a few talented elected people can generally make the system work. But, as representative institutions, our legislatures are very imperfect.

In a complex modern society where big government significantly affects the lives of ordinary citizens, this matters. And, naturally, the bigger the government, the more it matters. Surveys in 2002 showed very clearly that most (70%) think there is corruption in federal and provincial governments.

Regional alienation is endemic at the federal level. Waste and inefficiency are widely assumed as the natural order of things governmental. There is a lack of trust and so little apparent representativeness to the system that most citizens assume there is little they can do about any given issue. Consequently, they opt out. Thus, we see a decline in voting participation (now below 60% at the federal level, and falling) and a rise in what the public-choice theorists call rational ignorance -- the chilling view that it is not logical to waste one's time on that which one can do nothing about.

So, the system does not work well. Our society is in tolerable shape in spite of our legislatures, rather than because of them. Thus, the constant call for parliamentary reform.

The direction for useful parliamentary reform can be gleaned from a consideration of three of the following words: representative, oversight, and adversarial.

A main reason why Parliament is not representative today is because our MP or MLA, the only person we can directly influence, normally has virtually no power. We remain at the primitive, democratic stage one, wherein the only important purpose of members is to be counted to determine who shall be the first minister, which worthy (with senior advisors) thereafter makes all important decisions until the next election.

Government members may be afforded influence over marginalia; opposition members may wield some influence through the power to embarrass, but their combined effects are trivial. Count the column inches devoted to the policy views of backbencher Member X. The answer is almost always zero. Must it be so? Count the column inches devoted to the views of Congressman X in the United States. The answer is many. The press has it right. The answer to the problem of representativeness is simple: It is the empowerment of the ordinary member.

The technical means of achieving this empowerment include, above all, a reduction in the disciplinary carrots and sticks available to the first minister, which range from appointments (to Cabinet and elsewhere, such as committee assignments) to such minor but personally important things as foreign travel or desirable office space. Finding the best balance is a matter for much thought. For example, in some countries the government caucus chooses the Cabinet, leaving the first minister only the assignment of tasks. Members, not the first minister, should undoubtedly choose committee chairmen; this change has finally been forced, at least on paper, in Ottawa. It remains to be seen how it actually works.

Of first importance in achieving representativeness is a severe narrowing of the doctrine of confidence so that members are genuinely free to vote as they wish on many more measures than they now can. In addition, the iron grip of the government on the management of House business, and especially the work of committees, needs much loosening, with the power shifted to ordinary members.

That said, a sense of balance must be retained. We must guard against the creation of 301 (or however many, in the provinces) political entrepreneurs, trading favours and log-rolling for pet projects, trashing the treasury, and over-regulating the country in the process. The idea behind reform is certainly not to create bigger government. That would fly in the face of the fact that the best and easiest democratic reform is indeed smaller government.

From that point of view, a major virtue of the present system is that of overall responsibility. A government still must bear the responsibility for that overall direction, which implies the tools to do that job. For example, a relaxation of the rule that ordinary members cannot propose expenditures (only the Crown has this prerogative) would lead to disaster, unless at a minimum the same measure raised taxes or reduced other expenditures to compensate. So, the lesson here is that the balance of power must be changed to increase representativeness, but it must be done with caution.

No such restraint is required in reforms connected with the words oversight and adversarial.

Oversight is the monitoring function of elected representatives vis-à-vis the work of government. Tax monies are to be voted for such and such. What exactly is the plan? How will results be measured? Who is responsible? And, after the fact, did it work as planned?

Most citizens believe that between Parliament and the Auditor-General such oversight is routine and effective. It is not. Committees lack staff resources, continuity of membership, and expertise to do their jobs at the political level. Even when they try to do their jobs, they are often ignored. The reports of the Auditor-General are embarrassing, nothing more. No one is fired, basic policies are seldom changed, no consequences need flow.

Committees do not cut the budgets of under-performing departments or programs and, in the intensely partisan atmosphere of the legislature, the main object of a committee's majority is to protect the government, not the public. It is as simple as that, and that is what needs to be changed. Permanent and wide mandates for committees, expert research staff, control by the committee of work plans and choice of chair, and the development of an actual practice of amending legislation and cutting budgets would make an enormous change in the culture of government, much for the better.

And, of course, fundamental to oversight is access to information. The pervasive practice of secrecy by the Canadian government is its best weapon in the control of debate. Policies are always presented as the only logical thing to do; alternatives that may have been debated internally are suppressed. Results, when reported, are almost invariably selected to put the best face on things. Yet a huge amount of information exists within government that would be a great help in assessing the formulation and execution of policy. Committees already have in theory and in law all of the powers required to extract most of the information they need from government if they could ever give up their assumed role as defenders of the government instead of the taxpayer.

Finally, there is the word adversarial. Outside of politics and the courtroom -- two famously unproductive venues -- our whole society is built on the co-operation of voluntary transactions. This co-operative mode includes the idea of competition, but we try to set the rules so that the competition benefits markets rather than rigging them.

In Canadian legislatures, the opposite applies. Governments, of course, are based on coercion rather than voluntary transactions. But worse, legislatures in the Westminster system are based on destructive competition. To be able to achieve anything, one must be in government and preserve that position at all costs; to gain government, one must destroy the one currently in place. In a vicious cycle, this forces our representatives constantly to choose sides, to contest rather than co-operate, and to distort and misrepresent issues to the public in the pursuit of advantage. That is the system and the lion is not about to lie down with the lamb. However, there are some things that can be done to mitigate these facts.

Some of the above recommendations that would allow representatives to act as free men and women and wield real power in many situations would inevitably cause the gradual formation of associations and coalitions across parties in various policy areas. But the main driver of the adversarial system is the rule of winner takes all. Where there is no second prize, the competition is single-minded and ugly, and the public is forgotten. A key parliamentary reform is the development of second prizes. These already exist in minor ways: the opposition is entitled to set the subject for debate on a few selected days and parties are entitled to designate their own committee members.

There should be much more, however. For example, the official opposition party normally has received the support of at least one-third of Canadians, and together, the opposition parties generally have over half of the vote. Why should not the leader of the opposition have the right of appointment of some small fraction of the members of various boards and commissions, as is the practice for the minority party in the United States? Quite apart from anything else, nothing readies a group for government like genuine experience and responsibility beforehand. Why should not certain non-partisan (or so one would hope) committees of Cabinet, like those responsible for CSIS and the RCMP, or national defence, include an opposition member, subject to standard confidentiality rules?

Clearly, in today's political climate, such things are unthinkable. Given the current immense concentration of power in the first minister, this will change only as a result of a great leader or, more likely, the gradual reforms insisted upon by empowered ordinary members over time.

In the end, parliamentary reform is the simplest thing in the world. All of the power to achieve it lies within Parliament; it need only decide.

This is an excerpt from the book Fixing Canadian Democracy.

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