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
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
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.
Department of Political Science