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David Gussow

Parliament and the people: the reality and the public perception b Philip Laundy Published by Ashgate Publishing Company, 1997

From 24 to 27 February 1995 the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, in association with Wilton Park, the conference organisers, sponsored a conference at Wiston House in Sussex on the theme ‘Parliament and the People: Making Democratic Institutions more Representative, Responsible and Relevant’. Philip Laundy has summarised the papers presented at the conference along with the discussions that ensued into a relatively short but handy reference work.

The book comprises eleven chapters which essentially parallel the themes of the presentations; each chapter giving a summary of what the presenter or presenters had to say. This comprises the bulk of the text. Within each chapter the author then has captured the essence of the discussion that followed each presentation and has interspersed throughout the text his own incisive observations. He has presented conclusions at the end of each chapter as well as a concluding chapter to summarise the results.

There are four appendices included in the book, two of which are quite substantial. Both directly relate to one chapter; one is a British report on standards in public life, and the other is a Canadian committee report on the registration of lobbyists.

The book is a handy reference tool for parliamentarians and those connected with parliaments to learn more of the problems associated with parliamentary democracies, particularly the perception that the public has of parliaments and parliamentarians. It touches on various topics in the separate chapters.

For those wishing to understand the importance of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association the chapter on "Enhancing Professionalism through the Work of Parliamentary Associations" gives an excellent description of its role.

Chapter six: "Ensuring Ethical Standards in Public Life" went to the very heart of the overall theme of the conference. The presenter was a member of the Nolan Committee set up by the British Prime Minister in 1994, and their first report was published after the conference in May of 1995. (The full text is included in Appendix 1.) A code of conduct was one of the main items of discussion. It’s interesting to note that the report of the Joint Committee of the Canadian Parliament on a code of conduct has not yet been implemented.

The chapter on "The Role of Political Parties" has an interesting presentation and discussion on the control that parties and the leadership have on the members in their legislatures. It basically was contrasting the British parliamentary system with the congressional system in the United States. It suggests that party discipline is predominant in the former, whereas that is not the case in the latter. It was felt that the looser control of parties could only exist where there is a separation of powers between the legislature and the executive.

The last chapter that I want to mention is "Direct Democracy: The Way Forward?" It mainly deals with referenda, mostly in California and New Zealand, the presenter being an MP from New Zealand. One point that was brought out as well which connected it to the chapter on political parties was the suggestion that under the parliamentary system, governments have come to be regarded as elective dictatorships. Which certainly could be the perception for majority governments with disciplined parties.

I personally would have liked to see more on second chambers as a solution to the problem of making parliaments more representative and responsible, especially with their membership elected on the basis of proportional representation. At the moment, there is no perceived representative public check on the executive between elections in a majority government situation. This would be both in the federal parliament and the provincial legislatures. The only representative check would be privately in caucus. Controversial legislation has gone through parliament and some legislatures in recent years, such as the GST or NAFTA federally and legislation with respect to funding of municipalities provincially; in both Ontario and Quebec. A second chamber, constituted on the basis of proportional representation, in those cases, would at the least, have changed the perception of the public and maybe the reality too.

It’s always fun to look for possible errors in fact. I was only able to find one. The author was talking about the Charlottetown Accord – the ‘package deal’ constitutional amendment voted on in a referendum in 1992. It was suggested that it was "defeated in nearly every province" whereas it actually passed in four (including the largest one, Ontario) and was defeated in six. This was a minor detail in a good informative book. I would recommend it, for those who participated in the conference wishing to renew the topics covered, for those who were interested in attending and did not do so and of course, for all of those who are only now aware of it. Few solutions were discovered to the many problems that all parliamentarians have to struggle with but just setting forth the problems is a valuable first step.

David Gussow

Ottawa, Ontario

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Vol 20 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-09-14