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Ron Landes

Report of the Special Committee on Reform of The House Of Commons, document tabled in the House of Commons, June 18, 1985, 124 p.

In his classic mid-nineteenth study The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot described the British Parliament as "nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people." If this description ever rang true for the Canadian House of Commons, it would not do so for very long after the adoption of the various changes recommended in the Report of the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons. The role of the individual legislator would be greatly' magnified, as a result of variations in the nature of the confidence convention and party discipline. MPs would actively participate in the policy, process, scrutinize order-in-council appointments, and review the details of delegated legislation. Such tasks would certainly counter the view of backbenchers once expressed by former Liberal MP Phil Givens who said: "The average Liberal MP is as useless as teats on a bull." The enhancement of MPs' roles and participation would have the ultimate result of returning Parliament itself to centre stage in the political process. Or so the Report would have us believe.

Crucial to an understanding and assessment of the Report is one's view of the nature of parliamentary sovereignty,. While few would disagree that the Canadian Parliament has lost much of its reputed power in the modern era (at least since the development of a fairly rigid pattern of party discipline in the House of Commons), it is more open to challenge just how much Parliament ever really, produced legislation on its own, that is. its centrality in policy making. This point is crucial, for the Report is predicated on the assumption that something that has been lost (possibly our political innocence?) can be regained through internal reforms of the House of Commons. The following passage is illustrative of this outlook: "The purpose of reform of the House of Commons in 1985 is to restore to private members an effective legislative function, to give them a meaningful role in the formation of public policy and, in so doing, to restore the House of Commons to its rightful place in the Canadian political process" (p. 1 emphasis added).

I think it can easily be argued that Parliament is more significant in 1985 than ever before. In comparison to earlier times, Parliament now sits longer and passes more legislation in more areas of social and economic policy, than ever before. Moreover, the House of Commons played a particularly significant role in the constitutional reform battle of 1980-1982. Similarly, we should not forget the defeat of the minority Progressive Conservative government in December, 1979. While such actions are obviously, not everyday occurrences, these examples should at least belie the apparent necessity. for holding an immediate wake for parliamentary, government in Canada. Do we really want to return to the halcyon days of Mackenzie King's vaunted consultations of Parliament.

What has happened and been forgotten in this Report is that power between institutions is relative. Parliament may have declined in relative, not practical terms, while other institutions, particularly the political executive and bureaucracy, have gained. If this assertion is true, then internal reforms of the House of Commons will not likely, reassert Parliament as a central actor in the policy process. For example, MPs assumed an ombudsman role in recent decades because public expectations of their tasks changed, not because they, were out of something to do on Parliament Hill. The public's perception of Parliament will likely, have more to do with institutional survival than procedural tinkerings of parliamentarians.

As a result of its misconception about the reality of parliamentary sovereignty, the Report has a second weakness, namely, a rather idealized view of the potential role of the individual citizen in the political process. Parliament is seen as a conduit through which the mass public can participate in policy, development. However, what evidence exists seems to suggest that the public neither cares what Parliament does nor pays much attention to it. Parliament's attentive public seems to be excruciatingly small. As a result, procedures designed to allow easier access of the public to Parliament, such as the proposed changes for the receipt of public petitions (pp. 44-45), will likely be used primarily, by special interest groups and not the general public at all.

A supportable proposition about attitudes toward Parliament might be phrased as follows: oppositions adore it, governments seek to make it more efficient. As Wilfrid Laurier once put it: "Reforms are for Oppositions. It is the business of governments to stay in office."

As the usual party of opposition in federal politics since 1921, a pattern perhaps dramatically shifted by the September, 1984 election, the Progressive Conservative party has made a habit of proclaiming the need to strengthen Parliament. Finding itself in power has created a problem for the Tories: Is the political will really there to enhance the powers of the Commons? One suspects that the longer the Conservatives are in power, the less likely the chance for that political will to be in evidence. After the success of the Liberal and NDP attacks on their first budget and the reversal of the Tories on their planned de-indexing of old age pensions, the Mulroney Government might come to the conclusion that Parliament is already strong enough. A government or opposition perception of the value of Parliament depends on which side of the green aisle they sit.

The real crux of parliamentary reform is how to convince the government of the day to give up some of its own powers. There are likely few examples in the history of government of a party in power voluntarily relinquishing its grasp on government. To increase the power of the average MP in policymaking and of Parliament in total is to adopt reforms which will likely reduce, in relative terms, the pow6rs of the Prime Minister and cabinet. It seems unlikely that the trends of recent decades toward "presidentializing" Canadian parliamentary practice can be reversed by good intentions and more active backbenchers.

The Report stresses attitudinal changes on the part of the government, opposition, and individual MPs in relation to two key areas: confidence motions and party discipline. Attitudinal change is necessary, but not likely sufficient, in this respect. The proposals do not explain, for example, how we are to get out of the practice of rigid party discipline in the first place. Which develops first: a relaxation of party discipline or attitudinal change? Good intentions do not necessarily make either good politics or adequate reforms.

As long as party discipline remains a government decision, effective parliamentary reform will be illusory. For example, even under present practices, a free vote does not automatically mean that party discipline is not implicitly involved. Thus, the suggestion that the Speaker of the House of Commons should be chosen by a secret ballot (Report, p. 100) may not be effective in taking the real power of choice away, from the Prime Minister and returning it to the House. After reading the report one is left in agreement with a current assessment of parliamentary reform in Britain. "The history of parliamentary reform is littered with good intentions left unfulfilled ......


Ron Landes, Department of Political Science, Saint Mary's University,  Halifax

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Vol 8 no 3

Last Updated: 2020-03-03