C. E. S. Franks, The Parliament
of Canada, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1987, 305pp.
The publisher's prologue to The
Parliament of Canada reveals that a recent Gallup poll found that a majority of
Canadians had little or no interest in Parliament. Having read this book, I
begin to understand why.
In his introduction, C. E. S.
Franks identifies four functions of Parliament: to make government
(establishing a legitimate government through election), to make government
work (voting it funds and resources), to make government behave (acting as a
watchdog) and to make an alternative government (allowing the Opposition to
make its case).
He then goes on to record various
features of Canadian society that limit Parliament in fulfilling these
functions. Such limitations form essentially the first theme of the book and,
indeed, underpin the remaining chapters. But there is a second theme: that the
parliamentary system works better than the literature would lead one to
believe. "There is a vast difference between growing pains and the death
throes some observers claim to see in looking at the Canadian Parliament"
(p. 8). The literature on reform, we are told, emphasizes a Parliament-centered
model, conflicting with the reality of an executive-centered system. Such a
Parliament-centered model, the author believes, is both unachievable and
undesirable. Some reform, he concedes, could strengthen Parliament in
fulfilling its functions (he argues most notably for an enlargement of the numerical
size of the House of Commons) but he considers that radical reforms pressed for
by many observers swim against the tide of political reality and against the
need for responsible government. Furthermore, the proponents of reform miss the
point that Parliament does not actually do such a bad job. "By comparison
with most other political systems it has a very good record indeed" (p.
Unfortunately, so strong is
Professor Franks in demonstrating the truth o his first theme that he destroys
the credibility of his second. The nature of the political system - with party
voting and a fickle electorate - combines with the small size of the House of
Commons and government patronage to produce a party-dominated House, Members
serving for short terms (voluntarily or otherwise), concomitantly lacking much
experience, and - with a view to future preferment - voting loyally as their
whips demand. "The end result is that the average MP does not stay long in
Parliament, and frequently does not enjoy his stay while there. The backbench
member is all too often an unhappy, underpaid, overworked, and anonymous foot
soldier in the battle between the parties" (p. 258).
The picture Professor Franks
conveys - too convincingly for his own purposes - is a House (the Senate is
dealt with in one short chapter) which the government largely ignores (Prime
Ministers Trudeau and Mulroney, for example, rarely making contributions) and
in which the clash between Government and Opposition is gone through for - none
too appreciative - public consumption. Exceptional cases of parliamentary
influence noted by the author, such as the inquiry into the RCMP security
service, are lost in the swamp of parliamentary ineffectiveness portrayed by
the rest of the text.
Indeed, to reinforce his depressing
picture, the author contrasts Canadian with British experience. "The
British House of Commons is a far more independent-minded and - acting body
than the Canadian House" (p. 24). That is true, though Professor Franks
rather enthusiastically overstates the case, an overstatement derived from an
apparently shaky factual knowledge of British experience: by-elections are not
always called "immediately" upon a seat becoming vacant (p. 61),
candidates who win marginal seats do not, after some time in the House,
"gain candidacy in a safe seat" (p. 75) and the convention concerning
confidence did not change in the 1970s (p. 140) - behaviour changed, not the
convention. There is also reference to the British House having 640 members (p.
60), but as the author gets the number right (650) on three other occasions we
may assume a typographical error.
But it is in discussing
parliamentary reform that the author slips badly. There are two principal
errors. First, Professor Franks appears to assume that there is a sharply
dichotomised choice between an executive-centered and a Parliament-centered
system. Any significant accretion to Parliament's power is assumed to threaten
the capacity of the government to govern. The Special Committee on Reform of
the House of Commons, the McGrath Committee, is berated for its failure to
appreciate this point.
Second, in advancing his own
limited proposals for reform, Professor Franks fails to explain how such
reforms are to be achieved in the face of the executive-dominated system he has
so convincingly sketched.
On both points, the McGrath
Committee was far more perceptive than Professor Franks concedes - and, indeed,
more perceptive than Professor Franks. On page 140, the Special Committee is
condemned for failing to appreciate that in Britain a behavioural change among
MPs preceded an attitudinal change. The Committee did no such thing. It was
very much aware of the sequence and the relationship of the changes. I know
because I was the person who drew them to the Committee's attention. Members
recognised that they could not induce the behavioural change witnessed in the
British House (the product of a phenomenon peculiar to Britain), but what they
could do was emphasize that no effective change was possible unless there was a
change of attitude on the part of Members of Parliament. Attitudinal change is
a prerequisite for effective structural and procedural change. Such recognition
escapes Professor Franks in advancing his own proposals for change.
Nor can I find anything in the
Special Committee's list of specific recommendations that would have the effect
of creating a Parliament-centered political system. he Committee was seeking to
make the House a more effective policy-influencing legislature - not elevate it
to the status of a policy-making one. One can make the government listen and
behave, to an extent not previously witnessed this century, without having to
make oneself the government.
Professor Franks has written an
important book that makes for depressing reading. The McGrath Committee
produced a report that was more optimistic - and, as a practical contribution
to debate, far more important.
Professor Phillip Norton, Hull University (Great Britain).