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Rob Leone

Legislatures by David Docherty The Canadian Democratic Audit Series, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2005

Legislatures offers an audit of the democratic nature of Canada's legislative bodies. As part of the Canadian Democratic Audit Series, the book moves beyond the study of federal parliament and provides, where available, information on the current state of provincial legislatures. Although Docherty does attempt to show changes over time where data is available, the book is not meant to be a history lesson on how legislatures have developed. This is because the purpose of the audit is to provide a snap shot of the current democratic state rather than focusing on the past. 

This book has a number of positive aspects. The first of these is that the audit provides current and revised information on how Canada's legislatures work. The book presents an update on the institutional rules, both formal and informal, that are presently utilised in legislatures. These rules affect the behaviour of prime ministers, cabinets and backbenchers, as well as the process for debating and enacting legislation. Furthermore, the broad themes addressed in analysing the function of Canadian legislatures are representation, scrutiny and producing legislation. Things like party discipline, the selection of legislative roles, and committee performance have been analysed according to these themes, and this was a valuable update from previous volumes of work in this field. 

The second advantage of this audit relates to its focus in analysing not only the function of legislatures, but also the impact that governing institutions have on citizens. This is in specific relation to the audit's criteria of examining democracy in terms of participation, inclusiveness and responsiveness. The implication of this on the study of governing institutions is that we should not solely analyse the work conducted inside the walls of legislative buildings, but we should also acknowledge the work that is done away from these institutions as well. We often think of our legislatures as distant, and we sometimes fail to realise that politicians have duties to perform in electoral districts across the country when they do not sit in the legislature. This may not be a novel concept, but it is sometimes overlooked in legislative studies. However, it is appropriately considered in Docherty's work. 

Another particularly positive aspect of this book rests in the accessible manner in which it is written. It was not cluttered with technical jargon that is normally saved for experts. In fact, a wide range of readers will find this audit on Canada's legislatures understandable. At the same time, the book avoids being too general in a way that would render it useless to the very experts that are seeking an up-to-date book on legislative institutions. The book strikes the appropriate balance between the two. 

Throughout the book, Docherty also attempts to balance competing views on where legislatures are and where they should go. For example, in his chapter on who represents us, Docherty writes about the desire of having a legislature that mirrors the demographic makeup of society. However, he also points out that this desirability of demographic parity in our legislatures does not mean that we should have or expect equal demographic distribution. This is particularly due to an electoral system that makes it difficult to ensure a legislature that demographically mirrors society. Therefore, this audit does what audits are supposed to do, which is analysing these concepts objectively. 

Some of the more insightful sections in Legislatures relates to the author's analyses of legislative web sites and unpublished survey work. This was coupled with an extensive literature review of legislatures in Canada and around the world. There are not many people writing about legislatures in Canada. Docherty appears to be one of the few, and one can easily tell that his expertise is established by the frequency at which he cites his own previous studies. The author also collected some data from other countries to give a sense of where Canada stands in comparison to other Westminster countries and the United States. One example of this is the comparison of legislators' staffing and office resources. It was interesting to see how the allocation of budgets for legislators is uneven across jurisdictions. The lack of standard formula for levelling such disparities across jurisdictions, and there are more examples of them, was a noticeable trend in the audit. 

If there was a contentious section of the book, it would be found in its concluding chapter which recommends possible reforms. However, as Docherty suggests, the recommendations he makes are hardly revolutionary. Some of these include making legislatures more relevant, increasing the size of legislatures, providing more resources to riding offices, changing rules to reduce the influence of political parties, and better utilising parliamentary committees. Yet, in these recommendations, one may be able to sense some conflicting messages. 

Take the recommendation of making legislatures more relevant as an example. The complaint is that cabinet ministers have a tendency to make major policy announcements outside of the legislature.  Cabinet ministers appear in these staged photo shoots across their respective jurisdictions to announce major new funding announcements and programs. Docherty believes that such an exercise is anti-parliamentary because it sidesteps scrutiny. According to him, cabinet ministers should be making most of these announcements in the legislature, especially if legislatures are to become more relevant. However, it has to be said that one of the reasons these announcements have taken place outside legislatures is to bring the government to the people. These announcements are trying to make the capital seem less distant, and it is a way of letting people know what their government is doing. 

Beside this point, every announcement that is made outside the legislature requires legislation to be introduced inside if it is to become law. Contrary to Docherty's view, this appears to maintain a legislature's relevance. Just because new funding and programs are announced outside the legislature, it does not mean that members fail to debate and scrutinize the issues in their respective chamber.  They still get this opportunity along with voting for or against a bill. It is true that procedures in the House can limit debate. However, the other recommendations Docherty suggests appear to be sufficient enough to reduce the frequency of these. 

This recommendation of relevance seems to also be at odds with other recommendations. Part of the rationale for increasing the size of legislatures, for example, is to create smaller constituencies that will enable closer contact with legislators. Similarly, increasing the resources given to legislators will also allow the constituency office to better serve citizens in their electoral districts. All of these seem geared toward increasing the interaction between the politician and the citizen. 

Despite these contentious points, readers should not be dissuaded from reading this book. There is a lot of useful and worthy information written in its pages, and most of the recommendations, particularly those involving party discipline and updating institutional rules in legislatures, will go a long way in improving the democratic aspects of Canada's governing institutions. 

Ultimately, what must be said about David Docherty's audit in Legislatures is that we finally have a modern, comprehensive update on Canadian legislatures that has been missing since C.E.S. Franks' 1987 contribution in this area. For nearly 20 years, students of Canadian legislatures have only had that source to utilise, and Docherty's update will certainly be a must read for anybody remotely interested in Canada's legislative institutions from this point forward. 

Rob Leone
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Political Science
McMaster University 

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 28 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-03-03