the time this article was written Christopher Garner was a doctoral candidate
at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.
reveal that a majority of Canadians think Parliament is not working, and that
they are wholly dissatisfied with politics. Such levels of dissatisfaction
causes those concerned with parliamentary democracy to worry about its current
and future effectiveness. This article argues that Canadian reforms have
looked far too often at reforming the overarching principles and institutional
structures of parliament, ignoring those parts that work well and focusing on
those with which we see problems. This article looks at some moderate reforms
to the procedures of the House that can be effective in making for more
effective government and opposition.
Gladstone is said to have
reminded the House of Commons that “Honourable members are summoned to this
place not to legislate or govern, but to be the constant critics of those who
govern.” Put another way, the principle function of the House is to call
ministers to account thereby securing full discussion and ventilation of all
the issues of the day. This same idea is echoed in works by Canadian
political scientists and constitutional scholars as they outline with precision
the principle ideas of responsible government.
government is the idea that the House can hold the government to account effectively.
That is, the House ought to have the power, through procedural channels,
to scrutinise and criticise government policy, ministers, and actions.
Thus, a fine balance must be maintained between the right of the
government to govern, and those of the opposition parties to oppose.
However, when former Prime Ministers suggest that MPs are simply ‘trained
seals’ or ‘nobodies once [they are] twenty minutes away from Parliament Hill’
it becomes easy to question the operation of balance in the House. This
questioning is easily furthered when we hear of the government using closure
rules to limit debate.
Has Canada’s form of
parliamentary responsible government become one of government omnipotence,
prime-ministerial rule and unaccountability? Some might answer in the
affirmative to such a question. Balancing the right of governments with those
of oppositions is not an easy business (especially as politics is inherently
and overtly about power games),but it is still the foundation upon which our parliament
rests. Losing sight of this has, arguably, cost a lot of time and effort
in past reform attempts, and perhaps has even added to the perception that
Canada’s parliament is in a state of decline.
The reform process in Canada has
acted much like a pendulum, swinging between changes that aim to increase the
power of government in executing its business more rapidly and effectively, and
those seeking to empower parliament (especially backbenchers) while
concomitantly decreasing the powers afforded to government. This
centrifugal pull has done little for the implementation of a long term reform
Lessons from the Past?
If we take 1968 as our point of
departure we can observe clearly the swing of this pendulum toward the
government’s advantage. In 1968 the Liberal government followed the
recommendations of the Standing Committee on Procedure and adopted regular
sittings of the House and revised the list of standing committees in accordance
with the ‘shadowing’ of government departments.1 These reforms effectively
reduced the log-jam that was being made by government business stalled on the
floor of the House, through redirecting all government bills to standing committees
that could examine the bills and report back to the House at a later time.
However, investigations into the operation of these committees between
1968 and 1976 reveal that they were largely ineffectual, and plagued by
high-turnovers in membership and low attendance. Moreover, efficiency in
dispensing with government business, not effective opposition, was the result –
a result that only added to debate at a time when people were asking whether
parliamentary government was developing into a prime-ministerial dictatorship.
It took a time of bitter
partisan conflict for the next reforms to the House to be effected. In
1982 following the infamous ‘bell ringing’ incidents, the Special Committee on
Reform of the Standing Orders (the Lefebvre Committee) was struck. Among the
items dealt with in the committee’s reports were:
- the fixing of an annual calendar for House sittings and
- elimination of night sittings of the House;
- reduction of speeches to twenty minutes;
- election of the Speaker;
- reduction of the size of standing committees, tighter
regulations on membership substitutions and attendance; and
- the creation of legislative committees to review
These reforms were accepted in
principle and implemented in their entirety on a provisional basis in 1983, as
were moderate reforms to the procedures for voting in the House, thus reducing
the prospect of parties using the division bells to delay House business
While the above suggested
reforms would not present an affront to the principles of responsible
government, the general theme of the Lefebvre committee moved in that
direction. This theme is evident throughout the report, and can be summed
up as a desire to reduce the control government has over the House through
enhancing the role and authority of the private member. This theme was
very much influenced by the changes in procedure and general backbench
behaviour that were taking place in the UK.
Since 1970 Westminster has
experienced an upsurge in dissenting behaviour by backbench MPs on both sides
of the House.
Governments were being forced to
back down on a number of policies under the threat and, increasingly,
actual experience of defeat on the floor of the House. Moreover, in
1979 the committee system was reformed. From this time onward Select
committees would ‘shadow’ government departments, and most importantly, they
would scrutinise departmental estimates and activities under broadly defined
terms of reference.
The Lefebvre committee made note
of these changes, believing that Canada’s House of Commons should move in the
same direction. In order to achieve this goal they believed institutional
reform was necessary. Changes to parliamentary procedures were to be
antecedent to behavioural change, and with this parliament would be empowered.
The pendulum would swing away from government, to the advantage of the
private member. Unfortunately for the Lefebvre committee, the 32nd
parliament was quickly coming to an end, and with it the opportunity for
The McGrath committee picked up
the theme of macro-level reform of the House, seeking to change the rules of
engagement between government, opposition, and private members. In the
report, James McGrath stated his committee’s objective as follows:
The purpose of reform of the
House of Commons in 1985 is to restore private members an effective legislative
function, to give them a meaningful role in the formation of policy and, in so
doing, to restore the House of Commons to its rightful place in the Canadian
There is no doubt left in the
mind of the reader of the Final Report as to the committee’s attempt to
push the pendulum of power back toward parliament through the empowerment of
the private member. Many allusions to the ‘golden age of parliament’ are
invoked, as is the idea of the private member as not only an effective
scrutineer of government policy but as an effective ‘legislator’. This
allusion is bolstered further by many references to the changes in attitudes
and actions of British MPs throughout the 1970s.
Arguably the only successes of
McGrath, in terms of House business, were those changes made to the committee system
and the procedures for dealing with private members’ bills. These
reforms, in themselves, are laudable and amounted to notable changes in the
structure of parliamentary scrutiny. They should not, however, overshadow
the greater problems that lie within the McGrath report.
First, though McGrath looked
toward the ‘golden age’ when private members voted free from party constraints,
the committee did not stop to consider whether it was eluding to myth or
reality.3 Secondly, and
perhaps most importantly, McGrath’s use of the British example was misguided in
suggesting that Canada’s MPs should imitate their British counterparts the Report
suggests a number of institutional reforms that should (they suggest)
invoke a change in behaviour, along with a change in the attitudes held by
governments and MPs. This approach puts the proverbial cart before the
The attitudes and behaviour of
British MPs was not simply the product of changes in the institutions of
Westminster. In fact, no institutional change occurred until after the
behavioural change was already evident. Changes to the behaviour and
attitudes of British MPs was far more deeply rooted and systemic than that.
Change resulted due to weak party leadership in a time of crisis, and was
arguably a function of the career patterns of British MPs, stronger local
constituency organisations and the development of a personal vote in ‘safe
seats’, as well as the sheer number of private members in the House.
Needless to say, those changes
which were implemented from the McGrath reports have not achieved a shift in
attitudes nor behaviour of MPs and governments. In this exercise the
McGrath committee fell short of the mark.
The next notable changes swing
the pendulum back toward government. On February 7th, 1994, the Liberal
government adopted a procedure which allows committees to examine bills prior
to second reading. This procedure consolidates second reading and the
committee report debate and vote, therefore displacing an important stage in
the legislative processes and placing it off the floor of the House.
At first glance this change
seems to enhance the scrutiny powers of the House through giving standing
committees the ability to debate the principle of bills, therefore allowing a
greater range of amendments free from previous restraints. However, there
are serious questions that need to be addressed in regards to the operation of
this system. First, how often and with what effect do standing committees
amend bills such that the principle is affected? Are the whips off, or
are these committees’ hearings moribund by party discipline? Has this
change simply enhanced the expediency of government legislation at the expense
of opposition scrutiny?
What, if anything, can we learn
from these past efforts at reform? First, it would appear that a
government is unlikely to make changes that are not a net benefit to itself;
especially if these involve a wholesale weakening of its place in the parliamentary
system. The reforms adopted in both 1982 and 1985 attest to this point of
view. Moreover, this is what is so impressive about the Reform Party’s
action on June 8, 1998, forcing government to accept what might seem like a
small concession helps to redress some of the imbalance between the government
and those seeking to scrutinise.4
Lessons from across the pond?
The Select Committee on Modernisation
Should we be looking to the UK for
answers to Canadian problems? Advocates of this comparative approach
suggest that because the British and Canadian parliaments represent
like-systems there are many lessons we can learn from such an examination.
This is true. In fact, my own academic work often leans in this
direction. However, if we are going to use such an approach it must be
tempered by the realisation that it is impossible to transplant institutional
change, never mind the attitudes and behaviour, of one country onto the other in
a wholesale manner. The following discussion of the Select Committee on
Modernisation of the House of Commons will demonstrate that while we can use
Westminster as a model, often the two countries have taken different routes in
parliamentary practice with the UK sometimes trailing behind that of Canada.
The ‘New’ Labour party of
Tony Blair was elected to government with a broad mandate for constitutional
and parliamentary reform.
Scottish and Welsh
devolution, Local government reform, electoral and House of Lords reform are
just a few of the topics included in Labour’s manifesto. Thus far the New
Labour government have made significant movements on Scotland and Wales,
reformed the electoral process for European parliamentary elections, and held a
referendum on the desirability of an elected mayor for London.
Furthermore, discussions are ongoing regarding reforms to the House of
Complimenting these moves is the
Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons. This
committee’s terms of reference do not suffer from macro-itis as did McGrath’s.
Rather the terms of reference emphasize procedural change thus:
[a] Select Committee of fifteen
Members be appointed to consider how the practices and procedures of the House
should be modernised, and to make recommendations thereon...5
This committee represents all
parties within the House and is chaired by the Labour government’s House
leader, the Rt. Hon. Ann Taylor.6
The committee has two full-time committee clerks assigned to it and can call
upon special advisors at anytime. One of the most interesting elements of
this committee’s aims is its desire to survey the members themselves, in order
to get both feedback and direction from those who will be affected most by any
changes to the House rules. So far, this approach seems to be taking the
committee in interesting directions as a majority of the members of the present
House are novices.
As of August 1998 the Select
Committee had made a total of seven reports in just under a one year period.
These reports embody a number of topics, including discussion of the
decorum in the House, voting procedures, the carry over of bills from one session
to another, and the scrutiny of European Union legislation. These reports
emphasize workable, micro-level changes to procedures which the committee
believe will have a broader effect on the manageability and effectiveness of
the House. Table 1 outlines some of the recommendations, and notes their
adoption by the House.
Readers may note that many
of the items listed in Table 1 have already been implemented in Canada:
items 2, 4, and 6. Thus, in this regard it would seem as though the UK
actually trails behind Canadian procedural reform. However, this should
not derogate the point, that being that the reforms embodied in the
Modernisation committee’s reports are those which emphasize movement in the
procedures of parliament —not grand scale design and attitude ideas. As
Michael Ryle, a former Table Officer of the House of Commons at Westminster,
suggests, such procedural tinkering has often resulted in change of a greater
magnitude than expected, while safeguarding the balanced principle of
Finally, perhaps the most
interesting of all the Modernisation committee’s reports is that of 9 March
1998 (fourth report), where they discuss the rules and procedures for the
conduct of members in the House. The objective of this discussion is to
raise the publics’ opinion of the House through symbolic change, and to make
greater use of that most scarce resource: time.
Here the emphasis is placed upon
the office of the Speaker in limiting member’s speeches to a maximum of ten
minutes, while allowing extra-time to compensate for interventions by other
members; leaving to the Speaker’s discretion whether or not to give precedence
to Privy Councilors in debate; and giving the Speaker’s office the ability to
withhold a member’s salary for a set period if that member has ‘been named’
(i.e. suspended from the House). These proposals certainly aid in the use
of time on the floor of the House, without aiding and abetting in the
expediency of business for the government party, as they leave the ultimate
decision to the Speaker.
Modernisation Committee’s Recommendations
1. Explanatory notes to bills.
Clearer notes for easy reference,
comprehension and information.
2. Pre- and Post- legislative
scrutiny of bills.
“The time is ripe for change.
[MPs] want to see a more effective legislature, more input into the
3. Committees should be able
to sit throughout a House recess.
This will alleviate time
constraints, and add to the effectiveness of scrutiny.
4. Carry over of bills from
one session to another, by the process of a ‘Suspension motion’.
“We do not see this as an
expedient to be resorted to if the government were to lose its grip on its
own legislation... [rather] to spread legislative work more evenly...”
5. Voting system: technology
A number of electronic systems
considered, none proposed. Rationale is simpler voting, and ease of
congestion in lobbies.
6. Voting: Abstentions
Abstentions should be recorded
in Hansard as a matter of principle.
On a more symbolic level, especially
where the media and public are concerned, the report reiterates that such
behaviour as “hissing, chanting, clapping, booing, exclamations or other
interruptions... are not permissible.” Nor is the reading of one’s
speech. To add teeth to this recommendation the committee suggests that
the Speaker should actively discriminate against those members who cause a
disruption during speeches and debates, refusing to call upon them when they
wish to speak.
Canada’s members would do well
to note the Modernisation committee’s recommendations on behaviour in the House
as it is far too often one reads in the paper, or sees on the television, the
failure of members of Parliament to observe rules of decorum. Moreover,
during a recent visit to Parliament Hill I noted that the reading of questions
and speeches has become something of a dominant practice in the present House.
As one experienced member expressed to me, “it is a sorry state of
affairs when the issue of the day, an issue you are supposed to feel passionately
about, has to be written down so you can to refer to in case you forget what it
The Many Roads to House
Perhaps the most revealing point
to come out of the above discussion is that of utilising micro, as opposed to
macro, methods of reform. It would seem from the British experience that
micro-level changes (i.e., changes in procedural rules of the House which do
not aim to change behaviour and precedence en masse) are often accepted by
governments and can have noticeable effects. Second, macro reform tends
to lead to a desire to swing the pendulum too far back towards some mythic
Thirdly, and following from the
last point, Canada’s ‘reformers’ have often misinterpreted the UK
experience in their attempts to mimic it. In particular, the greater
independence of MPs that they observe in Westminster is more a function of
variables outside of, and quite apart from, the institutions of parliament.
As such, this independence in behaviour and attitude developed prior to institutional
changes, not before.
Where does this leave us?
A discussion such as this would not be complete without some form of
proscription. Two general points can be made. First, the decline in
public confidence and respect for Canada’s political institutions and
politicians implores us to look seriously at how we can stem this decline, and
perhaps set it off in a positive direction once more. The most obvious,
and perhaps easiest, way to achieve this is thought symbolic change such as
raising the decorum in the House. This will take self discipline by
members and will mean the end of such stunts as the recent flag waving
incident. Perhaps it will take some of the fun out of the political game,
but it would be a welcome change for the public.
Second, effective reform should
take the form of small changes that balance the rights of both government and
opposition parties, ensuring the management of House business and effective
scrutiny of that business. Moreover, reform attempts should be made in consultation
with MPs themselves, and with all parties.
If we aim toward reasonable
changes at the procedural level and raise the level of decorum in the House by
a couple of notches, Canada’s House of Commons will begin its journey on the road
1. Canada, House of Commons, Special Committee
on Procedure, 1968, Third Report, para. 12.
2. Canada, House of Commons,
Special Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons. James A.
McGrath, Chairman, Report (June 1985).
3. Gary Cox The Efficient
Secret (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
4. On June 8, in the absence of
any Liberal MPs in the chamber, the Reform Party passed a motion aimed at
preventing the government from cutting off debate through the use of time
allocation and closure rules. Holding these rules hostage, the Reform Party wa
able to extract concessions from the Liberal Government. In particular, the
Liberals have agreed to add two more Supply Daus to the parliamentary calendar.
5. House of Commons, Parliament,
Hansard, 4 June 1997; The reports of the Select Committee on the
Modernisation of the House of Commons can be found at
6. After a recent cabinet
reshuffle, Ann Taylor has been promoted to the Office of the Chief Whip.
Replacing her as the Committee’s chair, and as Leader of the House of Commons,
is Mrs. Margaret Beckett. The Committee is yet to resume sittings after the
7. Michael Ryle “Recent
Procedural Changes in the Commons” Parliamentary Affairs, v. 44 no. 4,
October 1991, p. 470-480.