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Conrad Winn

Institutional Reforms For Representative Government, Peter Aucoin, Research Co-ordinator, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1986, 159 pages.

This is a difficult book to assess. It has many of the ingredients of success. It is an outgrowth of the fruitful and generally successful research and publications programme of the Royal Commission on the Economic Union. The title of the volume pinpoints two vital issues, institutional reform and representativeness. The research co-ordinator is a respected public administration specialist at Dalhousie University. Three of the four contributors are major scholars John Courtney (Saskatchewan), William Irvine (Queen's), and Vincent Lemieux (Laval). The fourth contributor, Peter Dobell, is a long-time observer and participant in parliamentary affairs. Judged individually, each of the four chapters is good to very, very good. However, the value of the book as a whole seems to be a little less than the value of the sum of its parts.

Professor Courtney, a known advocate of a large House of Commons, provides a broad, systematic overview of the issue of the "Size of Canada's Parliament." He discusses the question of Parliamentary size from the vantage of Canada's obligations to under-populated regions of the country, British political experience, representativeness, the autonomy of individual MPs, the size of the Commons chamber, the style of Parliamentary debate, and the actual financial cost of a larger Commons.

In a chapter entitled "Some Comments on Parliamentary Reform," Peter Dobell offers a personal view on selected aspects of free votes in the Commons, private members' bills, the role of the Opposition in Commons' committees of inquiry, and the benefits of horizontal committees.

Professor Irvine, a long-time known advocate of proportional representation, offers a clear sighted encyclopedic overview of the many proposals for electoral system reform in Canada. This will be a useful source for many years to come. But, Irvine can be faulted for downplaying the powerful cross-national literature critical of the impact of PR on the renewal of party elites and the effectiveness of government. Even if Irvine is in the end right, it might have been helpful to show why his opponents (mainly non Canadian) are wrong.

Professor Lemieux provides an elegantly written and well organized overview of referenda both abroad and among the Canadian provinces. This too will remain a useful source of baseline information and thought for some time to come. If Lemieux can be faulted, it can be for not enough attention given to the process by which referendum questions are worded. He does note the similarity between polls and referenda, but misses the opportunity to explore their interplay.

It is difficult to know to what extent the authors and research co-ordinator should be commended or faulted because it is unclear under what constraints they laboured. The book would have benefitted from a strong introductory chapter explaining why these four themes were selected from among the myriad of potential issues in institutional reform. The mandate of institutional reform and representativeness could lead to many studies of Parliament alone, not to mention studies of public service appointments and accountability, the powers of regulatory agencies, the mass media, freedom of information, lobbying, citizen-government relations, and so forth.

A strong introductory chapter might also have explained why the authors were chosen for their particular tasks. Three of the contributors were already parti pris on at least some of the issues which they explored. Would the book have been more useful to readers if it had contained structured rebuttals?

A strong introductory chapter might also have shed light on the mode of analysis which contributors were expected to adopt. Were the chapters to be written for an audience of specialists or a lay audience? At least two of the chapters were suitable for specialists while one of the chapters had some of the character of an undergraduate primer. Were the chapters to be rigorously structured around specific reform issues or were they to be discursive essays? Were the chapters to be systematically cross-national or essentially Canadian with occasional British or American anecdotes? Answers to these questions might have made a good book still better.

Conrad Winn, Professor of Political Science, Carleton University

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 9 no 2

Last Updated: 2020-09-14