At the time this
article was written Arthur Donahoe, QC, was the Secretary-General of the
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and a former Speaker of the Nova Scotia
Legislative Assembly. This is an edited and updated version of a paper
delivered at the 38th Canadian Regional Conference of the CPA in Quebec City in
The Commonwealth is a
voluntary association of independent sovereign states, each responsible for its
own policies, consulting and co-operating in the common interests of their
peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace.
This article looks at the role of Commonwealth Parliamentary Association within
Since 1991 the size of the
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has burgeoned. In that year we had 127
member Parliaments, today we have more than 140. Since 1992, Anguilla,
Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique, the National Parliament of Pakistan and its four
provincial Assemblies, Seychelles, South Africa and its nine provinces, Uganda,
Fiji, Nunavut, Scotland, Wales and Nigeria have been either admitted or
readmitted to CPA membership. Unfortunately the October 1999 coup in Pakistan
resulted in its national and provincial Parliaments being put in abeyance.The
return of Nigeria to democratic government will have a tremendous impact on our
Association, especially since its constitution establishes a system which is in
many ways more akin to the Congressional system than the parliamentary one.
The Place of Parliament in
Parliaments are unusual
institutions. They differ greatly from one to another, both constitutionally
and in their practical political operations. They vary in size and shape, in
tenure, in powers and functions, in autonomy and in procedures and traditions.
Some sit as infrequently as 10 days per year, others as often as 225 days.
Within the Commonwealth national Parliaments vary in size from Tuvalu’s which
has 12 Members, to the U.K.’s which in August 1999 had 1683 and India’s which
has 802 Members. A number of sub-national parliaments are even smaller than
Tuvalu’s – the Nevis Island Assembly has eight Members and Norfolk Island’s
Legislative Assembly has nine.
Most observers consider that
modern Parliaments have three main functions and identify these as:
- The legislative function (including
participation in the making of public policy through lawmaking,
parliamentary enquiries, etc);
- The oversight function (carried out mainly,
but not exclusively, by the “loyal opposition”);
- The representative function (which allows
Members to address the problems of their constituents and promote their
To the list of parliamentary
functions one might add that of legitimization. The manner in which Members
become members has a huge impact on the representativeness of a Parliament. And
the representative character of a parliamentary body gives rise to its
legitimacy, or the public recognition and acceptance of the right of
Parliament, and the government generally, to act in some manner, and the
corresponding obligation of citizens to abide by that action.
The critical function of
oversight, in traditional parliamentary systems, is so powerful that it
includes both the selection and the removal of the Executive. In some
parliamentary systems – those with strong parties and a limited number of
parties, elections are merely a way to select the chief executive. The United
Kingdom is probably the best example of this. But in many multi-party systems
there is less certainty, often no party receives a majority and there may be a
number of viable candidates for Prime Minister. The question becomes one of who
can put together a coalition of parties and Members so as to gain majority
support. This was the case in New Zealand after its election in October 1996,
and of course we have seen the recent example of India where a coalition
government was unable to hold together and no other party could command majority
An important aspect of the
oversight function is the role of the Opposition in situations where the
governing party commands majority support in the Parliament. At a conference on
the Role of the opposition sponsored jointly by the CPA and the Commonwealth
Secretariat held in Marlborough House in London in 1998, delegates made the
point that mechanisms to promote accountability and exposure can only be
effective if there is a general “culture of accountability” and commitment, by
governments as well as opposition, to the overall effectiveness of the
parliamentary system. They agreed that all aspects of administration must be
subject to scrutiny and considered the mechanisms available to the opposition
to hold the Executive to account, including parliamentary questions,
committees, the allocation to the opposition of its own time for debate, the
role of the Speaker, and the relationship between the opposition and
independent officials (such as the ombudsman) whose function was also to act as
a check on government.
Despite its place as the
fundamental national institution underpinning nearly every Commonwealth
country, Parliament is the only institution composed of Members who enter with
no specific educational requirements, who often receive little or no formal
on-the-job training and who must immediately make complex policy decisions in
the face of rival demands from all sectors of domestic society and the wider
world. Parliamentary support staff, while expert in other disciplines, often
take on legislative posts with little specialized training – sometimes without
even the support of experienced colleagues.
Parliaments are governed by a
series of seemingly arcane orders and rulings, which are often daunting for a
newly-elected MP (and for some who have been in Parliament for a long time).
Some Commonwealth Parliaments are able to offer basic training for
newly-elected MPs, either by mentoring or by arranging special introductory
seminars. Others, notably the Parliament of India, produce handbooks explaining
various parliamentary practices and procedures in an easily-digested format.
But many Commonwealth Parliaments lack sufficient staff and resources, and are
unable to provide such orientation.
CPA Aims and Objectives
The CPA today, under section 1
of its Constitution, exists to ‘promote knowledge of the constitutional,
legislative, economic, social and cultural aspects of parliamentary democracy’.
Although its membership is constitutionally confined to practising Commonwealth
democracies, the Association maintains relations with some non-Commonwealth
parliamentary organizations and countries.
CPA activities are guided by the
- Commonwealth Parliamentarians, irrespective
of gender, race, religion or culture, share a community of interest based
on respect for the positive ideals of parliamentary democracy, the rule of
law and individual rights and freedoms.
- The governance of Commonwealth citizens
will benefit by exposing political practitioners to the many different
policies, procedures and systems employed by other practitioners on a
Commonwealth-wide and regional basis.
- Although the Westminster-style
parliamentary system is dominant, all Commonwealth Assemblies contribute
to the continuing evolution of democratic methods of governance based on
their own cultures, social traditions and levels of development so that no
single institution or country is seen as pre-eminent and no individual
practice is universally applicable without local adaptation; and
- Political, constitutional and procedural
consultations are most effectively conducted by facilitating contacts
between Members and officials of Parliaments and Legislatures and through
full and frank discussions unfettered by intergovernmental decision
The CPA meets its objectives by:
- organizing conferences, seminars, meetings
and special study groups for Members and officials of Commonwealth
Parliaments and Legislatures. Our annual Commonwealth Parliamentary
conference brings together over 350 leading Commonwealth politicians and
about 75 parliamentary officials. The theme of the Conference held in
Trinidad and Tobago in September 1999, was “Responsibility, Accountability
and Transparency – Enhancing Good Governance by Improving Democratic
Standards in International and Domestic Decision-making".
- Supporting the Small Countries Conference,
held just before the main parliamentary conference. It brings together
Members from about 30 of the world’s smallest Parliaments and Legislatures
to discuss the special problems faced in jurisdictions of up to 400,000
people, for most of whom the CPA provides their most effective, and
sometimes their only, forum. The Society of Clerks-at-the-Table also holds
special meetings during the annual Conference.
- Facilitating the exchange of visits between
Members of various Commonwealth Assemblies;
- Publishing a quarterly journal, The
Parliamentarian, and a collection of newsletters, books, reports and
specialist studies aimed at, and largely written by, Members and officials
of Parliaments and Legislatures;
- Collaborating with the other Commonwealth
and non-Commonwealth organizations in organizing seminars, workshops,
study groups, and colloquiums to give detailed scrutiny to issues
related to democratic governance;
- Providing an information service on
comparative parliamentary, constitutional and political organization
matters which responds to in excess of 300 queries per year; and
- Presenting a parliamentary perspective on
global issues in the intergovernmental community.
Association meetings do not pass
resolutions on political issues or call for particular actions. The CPA is a
solution-seeking rather than a decision-making body. Members attending CPA
conferences and seminars are completely free to discuss issues fully and frankly,
unfettered by the need to toe a party or government line so that a particular
decision is reached. This helps ensure that all shades of political opinion are
represented at CPA meetings.
The Association’s principal
governing body is the General Assembly which meets annually during the
Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference and is composed of the Members attending
that conference as delegates. The Assembly elects Members to an Executive
Committee (EXCO) which manages the affairs of the Association.
The Committee is composed of the
Chairman, President, Vice-President, Treasurer, three regional representatives
from six regions, four from the African region, and six regional
respresentatives from the eighth (and largest) region, Asia.
The Executive meets twice a
year, once at the time of the Annual Conference and once at a so-called
Mid-year Meeting which is usually held during the spring.
In 1989 at our Parliamentary
Conference in Barbados, a group of women delegates who wanted to see a more
effective response by the Commonwealth to women’s issues assembled and
established a women’s caucus. Now known as the Commonwealth Women
Parliamentarians, this organization meets at the time of the CPA Conference to
exchange views and experiences on ways to sensitize political decision-making
to gender concerns and to overcome the particular barriers which discourage
many women from standing for election. Three years ago we published a study,
which was two years in the making, on “Barriers to Women’s Participation in
Parliament”, and which has been circulated to our Branches and Members.
The CPA Secretary-General and
staff of 13 are responsible for the day-to-day administration of CPA
activities. Regional and Branch activities are administered by the regions or
Branches concerned, with financial and administrative support from the
Headquarters Secretariat as necessary. The Secretariat is located at 7 Millbank
in London, in offices generously provided by the U.K. House of Commons. We both
report to and receive directions from the Executive Committee and through the
Executive Committee are responsible to the General Assembly.
Just as scientists, doctors, lawyers and other
professionals must keep abreast of advances in their fields, Parliamentarians
must follow developments in their profession which can help them to identify
more effective policies and better ways of conducting public business.
In the past six years, the CPA
has placed special emphasis on organizing and conducting seminars on
parliamentary practice and procedure and the role of Members of Parliament.
These have been held in countries which have just returned to parliamentary
democracy, have substantially altered their parliamentary system or have
experienced an unusually high intake of new Members following an election. We
are of the view that even the most highly successful ‘free and fair’ election
will be wasted if the institutions which underpin democracy are not given an
opportunity to function properly. Since 1992 this series of post-election seminars
has taken CPA teams to The Bahamas, Lesotho, Seychelles, Malawi, Botswana,
Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kwazulu-Natal, Uganda, Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago and
twice to Ghana, Zambia, Kenya and Barbados.
Discussions centre around the evolution
of parliamentary democracy, the role of the MP in representing constituents,
dealing with the media, supporting or criticizing legislative proposals, the
business and procedures of the House, the role of the Speaker and staff of
Parliament, the operation of parliamentary committees, Parliament and human
rights, and Parliament’s financial supervision of the Executive. The
development of the Commonwealth and the history and programmes of the CPA are
also dealt with as experienced Parliamentarians and staff endeavour to shorten
the learning curve for new MPs, not by telling them how to conduct their
business but by sharing the experience of how things are done in other
In 1996 and 1997 we conducted a
series of five parliamentary workshops for Members of Parliament in Southern
African countries. A workshop was held in Arusha, Tanzania in October 1999
which will brought together 20 Members from each of the Parliaments of
Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya to discuss parliamentary matters and to explore
developments currently taking place in East Africa which have seen moves for
greater cooperation in the area and the possible establishment of a regional
assembly. The Parliament/Executive interface will be an important part of the
agenda for this conference.
Professional development courses
and conferences are common in most professional and business fields.
Post-election seminars and the other CPA activities serve this purpose for
Parliamentarians, thus helping to raise the standard of representation, and
demonstrating to a still disillusioned electorate that many Members are serious
about enhancing their service to the people who elect them.
The CPA is largely financed by
annual membership fees paid by each of the CPA Branches. The fee is determined
each year by the General Assembly on a recommendation from the CPA Executive
Committee. Fees are set individually for each Branch and depend on factors such
as the number of delegates from the Branch attending the Annual Conference, and
whether the air fares of the delegates are paid by the CPA or the Branch. In
addition to the Branch fees we have the income of two trust funds, one of which
finances projects we undertake and one which contributes to the Branch hosting
our Annual Conference to help defray costs.
In recent years the CPA has
expanded its contacts and working relationships with other Commonwealth
organizations. We have supported the Commonwealth’s election monitoring work by
nominating experienced Parliamentarians to serve as observers, thus helping to
develop effective and fair election practices, and to give credibility to
elections at crucial times in the democratic development of several
An expert group of parliamentary
and CPA officials has produced a manual of Guidelines for the Training of
Parliamentary Staff to assist Houses to develop and refine methods of preparing
their staff to serve their Parliaments and Members. These guidelines are being
extensively used in the Commonwealth and have been translated into several
local languages. Requests for this document have been received from several
The issues which Parliaments and
Parliamentarians are likely to face in the 21st century and responses required
to deal with anticipated changes were considered by a CPA Expert Group which
met in Glasgow in December 1998. The Group concluded that Parliaments and
Parliamentarians will be required to adapt in a multiplicity of ways.
Institutionally, the Group’s
report says, Parliaments must improve mechanisms to ensure accountability of
direct and delegated responsibilities, encourage increased input from citizens
and focus on re-establishing a trust and respect for Parliament among citizens.
Parliament must ensure the development of internal and external expertise in
developing and evaluating policy proposals and legislation and provide Members
with the technology required to remain in touch with the world around them.
Incentives for individuals seeking office must be sufficient to ensure that a
broad cross-section of the populace are motivated to seek elected office.
Parliaments may also have to consider the possibility of more differentiated
roles for individuals rather than expecting them to play all the roles they
have traditionally played
From the perspective of the
individual Parliamentarian, there must be a broader focus on the part of
political parties and Parliaments in ensuring that representatives develop
increased skills and knowledge with respect to accessing and evaluating information
through use of information technology. Individuals must also develop a deeper
knowledge and understanding of the principles of parliamentary democracy and
the strengths and limitations of various forms of the democratic model. The
increasing complexity of the legal environment will require representatives to
have a greater knowledge of legislative development and interpretation. In a
more complex world, individuals will have to develop more specialized knowledge
in particular policy areas and may campaign and be elected on the basis of an
expertise in one of the roles of policy initiator, representative, ombudsman or
In short, to deal with the
information revolution, Parliaments and Parliamentarians must become part of
the information revolution.
For its part the CPA will
continue to foster the guiding Commonwealth principle of the free association
of equals, which has been ingrained in past, present and future leaders of
their countries who have met, rubbed shoulders, and debated on equal terms with
colleagues from the global mosaic of diverse cultural, social, economic and
political backgrounds which is the Commonwealth.
The atmosphere of working
together and sharing information that pervaded its first meeting in London in
1911 has remained throughout the CPA’s history no matter how wide the
differences between Members have been over political issues. It has helped to
foster a positive attitude toward Commonwealth co-operation and friendship
which individual Members have carried through to influence government policies
and public opinion in their own countries. The CPA has played no small part in
holding together a diverse group of nations with so much in common, but with so
much which could otherwise have pulled them apart.
The contribution of Canada’s
Parliament and Legislatures and Canada’s Parliamentarians has played no small
part in the CPA’s success over the years and I am confident it will continue
for many years into the new millennium.