Andrew Coyne: Fridays off? Here’s how to really reform Parliament, starting with limiting PM’s power

Andrew Coyne: Fridays off? Here’s how to really reform Parliament, starting with limiting PM’s power
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So the package of Parliamentary reforms the Liberals were preparing to ram through over opposition objections will no longer include measures to automatically curtail debate on government bills or limit speeches in committee or shutter Parliament on Fridays. Instead, House Leader Bardish Chagger informs us, the government will simply invoke time allocation curtailing debate, not automatically and across the board, but one bill at a time more often.

Well of course. When your notion of Parliamentary reform is things that will make life even easier for the government in a system that has no equal in the democratic world for executive control of the legislature when the problem you think needs fixing is not the inability of the peoples elected representatives to hold the government to account in any meaningful way, but the governments inability to speed through whatever legislation it likes then of course that must inevitably be the result.

Only let us have none of this nonsense about the government having no alternative now but to use time allocation, or that it needs to, or that it regrets it in any sense but that a permanent system of legislative programming, as originally proposed, would have spared it the bother. It is doing so not because it has to, but because it wants to, which was the point from the start.

What would a package of reforms look like that was genuinely intended to make the government more accountable to Parliament? It would start, reasonably enough, by reducing the powers of the government over Parliament. Rather than allow government to decide when debate had gone on long enough, for example, it would assign that power to the Speaker as the Speaker, in the best of the governments current proposals, would be empowered to divide omnibus bills into separate parts, to be voted on separately. (Perhaps it will be applied to the current such exercise, the budget bill.)

Rather than give the government sole power to decide when to prorogue the House, it would make such decisions subject to a vote of the Commons, with a supermajority required to ensure bipartisan support. (The current proposal is merely that the government should be required to declare its reasons.) A similar constraint might be imposed on its power to dissolve the House. We might also place limits on the confidence convention, under which the government can designate any bill it likes as a confidence measure the gun at the head by which governments ultimately ensure compliance.

I say government, but of course I mean the prime minister, whose control over any government is near absolute. So a genuine reform plan would also reduce some of his personal prerogatives, beginning with the number and range of offices that are his sole purview to appoint, to be doled out as rewards for obedience: notably, it would halve the size of the cabinet, and with it the number of parliamentary secretaries assigned to each minister.

It would likewise seek to reduce the powers of party leaders over ordinary MPs: by restoring the convention that leaders are elected by caucus, and removable by them; by eliminating the power of the leader (or designate) to veto the nominations of party candidates, in favour perhaps of a vote of the caucus or riding association presidents. MPs thus liberated, it would be possible to have more genuinely free votes on everything. (There would still be confidence votes, of course, but MPs are capable of deciding for themselves whether a matter is worth the fall of the government; MPs who go back on a platform promise can likewise answer to their constituents, not the party whip.)

A more powerful Parliament, whose debates were less scripted, whose votes were not foregone conclusions, would presumably be of greater interest to the public

A sincere effort to reform question period would have no need to set aside particular days when the prime minister would answer all questions: it would simply insist that he, and all ministers, answer questions when put to them, rather than fob them off on some junior, as is the current practice. It would ban the reading of either questions or answers. It would empower the Speaker to rule not only that a question is out of order, but also an answer.

A more powerful Parliament, whose debates were less scripted, whose votes were not foregone conclusions, would presumably be of greater interest to the public. So would a Parliament that was not so determined to make its deliberations as dull, obscure and unpleasant as it can. So in place of the current fixed television cameras, with their Soviet-era restrictions, let more cameras into the House, with greater latitude to roam, to capture reactions and otherwise present a more accurate picture of the proceedings. Take out the desks, with their schoolboyish associations, in favour of the more deliberative tone encouraged by British-style benches. Move the two sides of the House closer together: its harder to blow raspberries at someone when theyre in your face.

And of course, the reform without which all other reforms fail: make the House more representative. So long as we are governed by 39 per cent majorities, so long as we preserve the current system of institutionalized minority rule, whichever party is the beneficiary of the game of chance our elections have become bet everything on the split votes, winner take all will have little interest in co-operating with or otherwise attending to the interests of the others. But then, they will have even less interest in reforming the system that put them there: not even if they were elected on an explicit promise to do so.

And thats the catch. Having won power, no party is likely to agree to changes that would reduce either its power or its chances of winning it. Which is why in place of real reform we get proposals for electronic voting and Fridays off.

Topics: Full Comment , News

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