Most observers consider that
modern Parliaments have three main functions which are identified as the
legislative function (including participation in the making of public policy
through lawmaking and parliamentary enquiries); oversight (carried out mainly,
but not exclusively, by the “loyal opposition”); and representation
(which allows members to address the problems of their constituents and promote
their interests). One unfortunate feature of modern life is widespread
disillusion with the process of government, with the institution of
Parliament and with the way Parliamentarians carry out these functions.
One aim of the Commonwealth
Parliamentary Association is to counteract this attitude by developing
strategies to strengthen parliaments and their members. This is done in
part by providing opportunities for legislators to meet to discuss
parliamentary issues at regional conferences and seminars, parliamentary
workshops, post-election seminars, study groups and of course the Annual
International Conference which will be held this year in Canada.
Another objective is to
assist members in their capacity as members of a particular profession.
Parliaments are governed by a series of seemingly arcane orders and rulings,
which are often daunting for a newly-elected MP (and for some who have been in
Parliament for a long time). Parliament is the only institution composed of
members who enter with no specific educational requirements, who receive little
or no formal on-the-job training and who must immediately make complex policy
decisions in the face of rival demands from all sectors of domestic society and
the wider world. Parliamentary support staff, while expert in other
disciplines, often take on legislative posts with little specialized training -
sometimes without even the support of experienced colleagues.
Parliaments are able to offer basic training for newly-elected MPs, either by
mentoring or by arranging special introductory seminars. Others, notably
the Parliament of India, produce handbooks explaining various parliamentary
practices and procedures in an easily-digested format. But many Commonwealth
Parliaments lack sufficient staff and resources, and are unable to provide such
orientation. Endeavouring to fill this gap was a primary focus of my
activities during my nine years as Secretary General of the Association.
For example, after eleven
years of military dictatorship, an election was held in the West African
country of Ghana in 1992. Two hundred members were elected to the new
Parliament, of whom only two had previous parliamentary experience. A
request was sent to the CPA Headquarters in London to assist the neophyte MPs
by providing them with training to help them deal with the duties they were
undertaking and to introduce them to the intricacies of parliamentary practice
As the then new
Secretary-General of the CPA, I assembled a team of experienced
parliamentarians from around the Commonwealth who travelled at CPA expense to Accra. A seminar was conducted over four days during which the visitors spoke about
how their own parliaments worked and fielded many questions from the
newly-elected MPs. This sharing of experience, for which the CPA is
well-noted, was designed not to tell the Ghanaians how to conduct their
affairs, but rather to make them aware how parliaments function in other
jurisdictions so they could adopt or adapt those processes and procedures to
meet their own needs.
It was a source of great
satisfaction that many members of the Parliament of Ghana told me how much they
had benefited from the Seminar and how helpful it was to them as they embarked
on their parliamentary careers. The Ghana Seminar became the first in a
long series during my term. Parliamentarians everywhere benefit from
learning that there are ways other than their own to achieve desirable
goals. The CPA is the vehicle through which parliaments and individual
parliamentarians can expand their knowledge.
We have held seminars or
conferences on the role of committees in improving the accountability of
government, on the relationship between Parliament and the Judiciary, on the
relationship between Parliament and the Media; on the interface between
Parliament and the Executive, the Role of the Opposition and many others.
Efforts to enhance the
representation of women in Parliaments and Legislatures and their participation
in CPA activities and outreach programmes for youth are also features of recent
Association activities. All of these efforts are brought to the attention of
members through a substantial programme of publication and the use of modern
means of communication.
In short, participation in
activities of the CPA can only improve the performance of individual
parliamentarians and help them achieve the desirable goal of being better
representatives for the people who have elected them. I encourage
Canadian legislators be they federal, provincial or territorial members, to
take advantage of the opportunities afforded them by the CPA and whenever
possible contribute their skills and their knowledge to the improvement of
parliamentary government in the Commonwealth.