The minority government elected on June 28, 2004 will force everyone to
rethink how the parliamentary system works. This article looks at some
new realities facing legislators, standing committees, parliamentary and
governmental officials, lobbyists and everyone who deals with Parliament.
We have to start by remembering that old adage: you have to deal with things
the way they are, not the way you wish they were. This is especially true
in a minority Parliament, with all its intrigue and tension, political
posturing and real drama. Historically, the country has muddled through
its share of minority governments, but none in recent times. Thus our elected
officials have only theoretical knowledge and zero practical experience
about how to handle this situation. So the potential for misunderstandings,
improper reactions and even out-and-out political blunders in our nations
capital is considerable.
Even so, it now appears that all of the official parties represented in
the House of Commons have concluded that the electorate actually meant
it when they gave none of the above a decisive mandate for the 38th
Parliament. Making it work at least for awhile- is now everyones stated
intention, and that may well break new ground for our democratic system
in this first part of the 21st century. It will certainly not be business
Five realities of minority Parliament
First, the last election never really ended, and the next one has already
begun. This has always been the case for a few political operatives in
Ottawa but now it is truly the prism through which everything should be
viewed. MPs and political parties have one eye on the business of the government
and the other on the business of campaigning. Since the next election can
happen at any time (either by connivance or by accident), votes, policy
decisions, press releases, statements, motions and Bills will frequently
have both a policy and a partisan raison dêtre.
Secondly, all MPs want to be part of the next government, but they do not
want to be blamed for forcing an election. This is the political equivalent
of everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Political
parties and MPs will be pushing for their ideas and policies harder than
usual, but they will always be thinking about the electorates reaction
to their decisions. Push too hard and there could be an election, and if
that happens, the writ could be nailed to your political coffin.
Third, backroom deals and tradeoffs will be standard fare on this minority
diet. This is a consequence of the second reality, and added to that (for
the same reason), any decisions that can be made at the executive level
will be made there privately rather than in the messier and more public
route of Parliament. That is why we have already seen executive deals on
Health care funding and equalization payments. Addressing the democratic
deficit may have been an interesting political discussion during the last
campaign, but the reality is that executive decisions are less likely to
be derailed than Parliamentary debates and votes. That is why the opposition
parties united to try to force a vote on the Missile Defence system- they
know that the Executive can sign international agreements and Accords without
Parliamentary input, but they are trying to keep themselves in the game
by forcing some decision making into the House.
Fourth, Private Members' Business, Motions, and Supply Days (when the Opposition
Parties supply a resolution for debate and vote) actually matter, because
they are not easily stopped by the government. In fact, Private Members'
Bills and Motions can be even easier to get through the House than government
orders, because much less time is required to debate those items before
the vote is called and the decision taken. This is especially true on
issues involving process, or non-money bills. The Opposition loves them
because they generally transfer power to the House, and away from the Executive
branch. The government hates it, but if they do not have the numbers to
stop them, they can only sit and scowl as they make their way through the
Fifth, politics makes strange bedfellows, and strange Parliamentary couplings
can occur at any time. One of the first press conferences held in the
new session was an all-opposition affair to announce their collective support
for a Private Member's Bill they believe will help fight organized crime.
They did not even try to get the approval of the government in advance
of the announcement, choosing a public display of intentions as their
way of throwing down the gauntlet. Watching the three disparate Opposition
parties working so closely, obviously and publicly together may take some
getting used to, but it is a sign of things to come.
Implication for those who deal with Parliament
Besides the general voting public (who simply want their elected representatives
to help them when help is required) there are three groups who should keep
these new realities firmly in mind when they interact with the House of
The first is the bureaucracy. While Canada benefits hugely by having a
professional and non-partisan civil service, a minority Parliament will
be a new experience for many of them. They are used to having a Minister
and Department who listens to their expertise and advice, and when necessary
acts upon it. But taking action will be difficult now, and there are no
more sure things for any Minister. He or she does not control the agenda
of Parliament as they did in the past. For the good of the country, lets
hope the bureaucracy realizes that everything is different.
For example, more Bills than ever will be referred to a Standing Committee
before Second Reading. This means (essentially) that they will go to Committee
in draft form, inviting MPs to make wholesale changes and amendments as
they see fit. They will go to Committee quicker, pass the House votes more
readily, and be in and out of the process before you can say, whos writing
the regulations for this.
Gone are the days when all of the clause-by-clause grunt work of some official
in the bowels of the Justice department would be passed through Parliament
with a wink and nod. Nothing can be taken for granted anymore.
In the past, if a Committee or an aggressive MP got the bit in his teeth
along the procedural way, changing the Bill too much or making amendments
never before seen by a Clerk or Speaker, the Minister stepped in at the
last minute and fixed the problem by getting his MPs to vote against anything
egregious. A cooperative majority on Committee could delete every clause
of a problematic Bill, or if necessary, (just in case the Committee had
gone astray) re-instate clauses that had been amended out of recognition.
But that tactic will not work any longer. The Opposition outnumbers the
government on every single Standing Committee, so they control the agenda,
the witnesses, the amendments and the time the Bill will be reported back
to the House. This means the independent and technically qualified bureaucracy
needs to be bluntly honest with MPs about what is critically important
and what is not. The usual reticence to speak candidly about potential
consequential amendments or unforeseen problems has to be minimized.
MPs will listen to sage advice, but they cannot easily read between the
lines if the advice is coated in bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. Bureaucrats
need to tell it like it is, and let the Committees and MPs benefit from
Lobbyists are everywhere in Ottawa, but they are understandably in a different
category than the bureaucrats. They are working directly for someone else,
flogging a point of view that will primarily benefit their own clients.
Still, Members of Parliament accept that lobbyists are also knowledgeable,
and can be helpful with their advice and suggestions. Because it is their
job to be heard, lobbyists should particularly remember that the last
election never ended.
Since no one understands that better than an elected MP, the lobbyists
need to ask themselves: What is it that MPs or Parties are trying to accomplish
with this Bill/Motion/amendment/private members bill/project/idea? Is the
MP promoting something because he is fulfilling a past or future campaign
promise? Is it part of an action plan for her pet project, something she
has become known for in the public? Are they simply seeking publicity for
a particular cause closely identified with their Party? Since the (virtual)
campaign has begun, the MPs want and need to be particularly attentive
to the people who may end up voting for them.
Knowing why the MP wants to get something done in Parliament will help
lobbyists explain why their clients point of view will help them accomplish
that goal. A lobby group promoting infrastructure investment, for example,
can show how spending tax dollars on the initiative not only makes good
economic sense, but might also want to provide data showing the popularity
of the idea amongst other interest groups, levels of government, and the
general public. Good luck trying to convince a MP that an exotic and unexplainable
amendment to an obscure clause in a housekeeping Bill is worth going to
the wall for, unless accompanied by information that shows how it may impact
voters. Especially in that Members riding.
The advice given to the bureaucracy and lobbyists also holds true for the
business community, with one additional truth: there is a growing demand
for businesses and politicians to address the issue of ethical conduct.
There is no use complaining that most of those from the business or political
world are honest, ethical people, or that a couple of Enrons or Martha
Stewarts does not mean they should all be painted with the same ugly brush.
Voters are already convinced that there is a growing need to place constraints
and provide incentives to ensure ethical, open conduct. In fact, Canadians
will be listening to the Gomery Commission, the Ethics Commissioner, the
Security Commissions, the courts, and the media to see if a sea-change
of ethics is taking place. Canadians want the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth, and an unwillingness or inability to conduct themselves
in an acceptable, ethical manner will incur the wrath of voters and shareholders
down the road. Embracing the changes brought on by this new ethical reality
is therefore a necessity for both groups, and they should provide guidance
and help rather than hinder efforts to make it happen.
A Note About Procedure
Finally, it is important to have someone watching for recent, present,
and proposed changes to the procedures of the House of Commons. Already,
changes in the selection process for the Deputy Speaker, creation of two
new Standing Committees, and amending the Throne Speech show the increasing
influence of the Opposition Parties throughout Parliament. Other changes
could include: scrutiny of political appointees, tabling (and adopting!)
controversial Committee Reports, changes to the Estimates Process, expanding
the purview of the Access to Information Act, subpoena of witnesses, and
(always) more openness, transparency and accountability. The Procedure
and House Affairs Committee will be seized with much of this, but it can
also happen in other Committees and on the floor of the Chamber.
Dusting off old procedural books is usually of interest only to political
science students wrestling with term papers, a wannabe Clerk or Speaker,
or perhaps an insomniac. But now (for the first time in ages), procedures
and House Orders can make ideas and concepts leap from a simple theory
to an actionable work-in-progress. In the first weeks of Parliament, for
example, the Health Committee unanimously passed a motion that said all
victims of Hepatitis C who contracted the disease through tainted blood
should be compensated. That Report was brought to the House, where debate
continued until the government used a procedural technique to squelch any
decision or vote. Within hours, proposals to change (eliminate) the procedure
were tabled in the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, and are likely
unstoppable. Hundreds of millions of dollars may be at stake. Procedural
issues finally matter!
The way things are, the way you wish they were, and the way they ought
to be are all in play in a minority Parliament. Getting things done is
both more difficult (for the government) and easier (for everyone else)
than it has been in years. Knowing the people, the plans and the procedure
is the best bet if you want something to happen in this unique Parliament.
But do not wait too long before you get your oar in the water- we may only
have a year or so before someone makes a decision (or a mistake) that takes
the country to the polls.