John Reid is a former Minister of
Federal-Provincial Relations. This is a revised version of a presentation to the
Second CPA Parliamentary Seminar in May 1990.
The first thing we have to
understand is that the Executive is alive and doing very well. This is not
surprising because the Executive in all political structures tends to be
full-time and reasonably selected. It tends to have a higher quality of people
in it than the people who make up the average of the public service and of the
legislators. It also has access to an enormous amount of technical expertise
and has the ability to shrug off an enormous amount of the work which most
members of a legislature have to do – look after constituents.
When I was a Member of Parliament I
would spend about 70% of my time looking after the cares and woes of the people
who elected me. That meant I had maybe 30% of my working time to devote to
national issues and to my country. I suspect that for most people in
legislatures that is about right. It means that the amount of time, that
members of the legislature can bring to bear to national issues is
significantly less than that of the Executive. So I think the first point is
that Executives have adapted much better to the changes in technology, to the
changes in society, to alterations in the way things are done than have
My second point is that legislators
tend to be their own worst enemies because of the way in which they come to be
legislators. We come out of elections which, in effect, are battles between
individuals, between parties, and occasionally even of ideas. The result is
that when we come back to the legislature, we tend to fight those battles over
again and we continue to fight them until we are ready to go into the next war.
Since we spend so much time in mock battles, great harm to the public esteem of
legislators is done by us. A very difficult lesson for legislators to
understand is that we do not stand as high as public servants because they know
what we really do.
Third, the kind of people who join
legislatures are not experts. Very few experts in anything get elected to
legislatures. We are generalists. What we hope to bring is a certain amount of
common sense to the discussion of public policy. We are not capable of taking
on the experts in a highly technological society on their own grounds. We like
to spend enormous amounts of energy fighting each other and we do not really go
about equipping ourselves with the necessary to education to understand what is
going on. For example, if we are making decisions in terms of the environment,
how many legislators can say they understand the necessary biology, physics and
chemistry? Most obviously cannot. The people who come to legislatures always
tend to be people who are not capable in a technological sense. The nature of
the beast attracted to politics and who has what it takes to get elected is
going to have to be somebody with a wide range and a broad scope. So the
capability of members of Parliament is not going to be as extensive as that of
the civil servants who we hire because of their expertise or of members of the
Executive who are forced to put more time into studying these issues.
What we do is not talk about the
issues. We talk about the battles, the artificial battles that we have
sometimes created between ourselves and other parties. So we drop in public
esteem and we transfer power to the Executive and to the public service.
The fourth point I want to make is
the changing nature of our society and how we are now being hit by so many
outside forces beyond the capabilities of our governments and our legislatures.
We do ourselves enormous harm because we go about promising things that we
cannot possibly provide. For example, I went through the policy pronouncements
of the candidates competing for the recent Liberal Party Leadership. I came to
the conclusion that fully 90% of the promises made by these candidates cannot
be met because of the Canadian Constitution. Yet they go out and they campaign,
then they cannot do what they promised to do. The same applies to all the other
parties in Parliament.
The Executive tends to be much more
realistic in terms of what they can do and much more precise because they are
constantly bombarded by their limitations. On the other hand one of the
functions of politicians and legislators is to be the dreamers of a society, we
have to say what the dreams are, what the general goals are. The Executive and
the civil servants are the ones that have to give substance to those dreams.
If there is not this significant
upgrading of individuals and the institutions of legislatures, the role of
Members of Parliament will become much more peripheral than it is now.
The last point is that the problem
comes down to how legislators function. We function primarily to do a number of
traditional things. For example the first function of any legislator in a
parliamentary system is to select a government. The second thing is to control
that government as much as you can. And the third thing is to ensure that our
parties survive, that we can form a government and ensure that there is debate
and discussion of the alternatives.
Our dilemma is that the demands of
society that we are living in go far beyond those limited functions. If
legislators want to take a greater role, it means that they have to begin to
equip themselves in a different way. I see very little signs of this taking
place. If you want to be successful, to be able to grapple with the Executive,
to be able to take some of the policy formation away from the Executive, away
from the public service, and to participate in the public debate, you have to
find a way of significantly upgrading your understanding of the facts and your
understanding of the underlying assumptions.
It can be very depressing to sit
with an expert in a subject and have him go through a parliamentary debate in
which you have participated and for him to show the factual inaccuracies not
only in your own comments but those of other people. So there is a significant
upgrading that has to take place and it will not be easy because of the kind of
lives that Members of Parliament and Members of Legislatures live.