At the time
this article was written Bill Hartley was Speaker of the British Columbia
Legislative Assembly. . This is a revised version of a presentation made to the
Thirty-Ninth Canadian Regional Conference in Prince Edward Island in July 2000.
The topic of legislative
reform was addressed in the March 2000 Speech from the Throne in British
Columbia. This article looks at some proposals outlined in a subsequent
motion in the legislature. It also looks at recent reform proposals in
Australia and Great Britain.
For many years, the
parliamentary system has been the subject of criticism, not just from the
public, but from its own members. A familiar observation in British Columbia,
which may also be common in other jurisdictions, is that backbenchers, be they
in government or opposition, do not feel they have sufficient opportunity to
participate in and influence the work of Parliament. Indeed, across the
Commonwealth, members routinely call for more opportunities for participation
in the daily work of their legislatures, more opportunities to represent their
constituents, and more opportunities for effective committee activity.
Among the public, few people
would argue that Parliament is perfect. There is increasing evidence that
politics and politicians are regarded with cynicism and distrust, which in turn
has affected popular view of Parliament. For example, a 1993 Gallup poll found
that only a quarter of those questioned had “a great deal” or “quite a lot of
confidence” in Parliament.1
Similarly, a 1994 conference
titled “Reinventing Parliament” held at the University of Lethbridge reported
“a high level of frustration, alienation, scepticism and loss of respect
amongst Canadians towards politics in general and the current system in
particular.”2 A 1995 British opinion poll found that the British
public believed, by a majority of three to one, that Parliament did not have
sufficient control over what the government did.3
Some critics believe that the
problem with modern parliamentary government is that it needs to be more open
and democratic - i.e. “the evils of democracy can be addressed by more
democracy”, with citizen initiated referenda and recall procedures.
While these external reforms
have been applied in British Columbia and other jurisdictions, they do not
address much of the daily dynamics of our legislatures. Further, it is my
belief that while these reforms result in positive gains for the public, there
is a danger with these issues to see democracy as the right of the majority to
overrule any minorities.
Instead, as parliamentarians, I
believe we must recognize the duty of the majority to compromise, and on
occasion, to concede to the minority. John Stuart Mill described the task in
this way: ” to concede something to opponents, and to shape good measures
so as to be as little offensive as possible to persons of opposite views.” This
balancing of the interests of the majority and minority is central to the role
of parliament as a representative institution.
The majority must have its way
but the minority must have its say, and the rules and procedures of our
institutions must guarantee freedom of debate and safeguard the rights of all
members. Presiding officers have a traditional role in the protection of the
rights of all members and the members themselves need to have confidence in the
impartiality of the chair, if Parliament as a whole is to function effectively.
As our legislatures evolve, we must evaluate their effectiveness in the area of
balancing of the interests. Also essential is a continuous review of
parliamentary rules and procedures to make sure that they are adapted to
An effective parliament is not a static institution and
rules can become archaic if they are not regularly reviewed.
Parliament must be accessible to
the public, the media, and its debates and proceedings should be readily
available. These days many parliaments broadcast their proceedings on
television and on the Internet, which has greatly extended the public’s
opportunities to follow the debates. All proceedings, including committee
proceedings, should take place in public unless there are strong and valid
reasons for meeting in-camera.
We must also be practical in
nature and enhance the efficiency of parliament. This can include measures, to
streamline our business and re-evaluate our daily practices and procedures.
However, as we strive towards
enhanced efficiency in our business, we should recognize the fact that
“efficiency is not the first priority (nor has it ever been) of the British
Reforms in Britain, and in other
jurisdictions, such as British Columbia and Australia have addressed concerns
related to parliamentary effectiveness and efficiency.
In legislatures around the
Commonwealth, debate often arises as to how to best move towards the goals of
parliamentary reform. Some reformers would suggest that voting should take
place by electronic swipe card, while others may insist that “parliament by
videoconference” is a practical evolution.
As with all things in politics
and government, tough decisions need to be made. Reform proposals need to
balance the rights of both government and opposition parties, and ensure the
effective management of the legislature, and effective scrutiny of its
business. Any changes to parliamentary procedure should be made in consultation
with legislators themselves, and with all parties. Ideally, all members will
support parliamentary reform measures, but when a consensus cannot be reached,
as was recently the case in British Columbia, proponents of parliamentary
reform may need to “go it alone.”
Recent Proposals in British
Reform proposals are part of a
larger initiative by Premier Dosanjh’s administration to build a more
co-operative political climate.
The government followed recently
through on this promise with a motion outlining a detailed legislative reform
package, which proposes to amend British Columbia’s standing orders. The reform
- Extension of daily sitting hours Monday
- Elimination of Friday sittings (to be
designated as a constituency day)
- Every fourth week of the session to be
designated as constituency week
This extension of sitting hours
Monday through Thursday permits a better balance of time to be focused on
parliamentary duties, while the designated constituency days on Fridays, and
the additional constituency week once a month, allows MLAs more time to focus
on work within their constituencies.
A proposed parliamentary
calendar (a first in British Columbia) also states that the House shall meet
twice annually with:
- A Spring session from February to June (14
weeks in total) – to debate Estimates and some legislation
- A Fall session through October and November
(8 weeks in total)- to debate legislation
Overall, the schedule provides
the House with approximately 90 sitting days each year – more that the average
number over the past decade.
It is hoped that these changes
will provide the opportunity for more orderly debate on legislation and
estimates. They are also expected to have a positive impact on legislative
staff. The certainty of knowing when sessional staff will be required for work
may result in less training and recruitment costs and improved staff morale.
Other provisions under
consideration in British Columbia include:
- More participation by private members with
the opportunity for three private members to make a two minute statement
each day immediately prior to Oral Question Period.
- Creation of a time allocation / guillotine
clause allowing government to limit debate on a public bill, allotting a
specified number of days or hours for consideration.
- Establishment of a limit of 235 hours of debate
for consideration government estimates, including any proposed amendments
- Creation of an additional Committee of
Supply – thereby providing the opportunity for up to three committees to
simultaneously debate Estimates
Initially there was much common
ground between caucuses on these proposals. Each side felt that they could live
under the proposed changes – whether they found themselves in government or
opposition following the next general election. Nevertheless, after extensive consultation
and negotiation, one outstanding issue remained. The Opposition suggested that
the government should table all legislation for the proposed fall session
before the House adjourned the spring session. The government offered that all
legislation for the fall session would be tabled within the first two weeks of
the fall session, other than legislation required for urgent or extraordinary
reasons. Unfortunately, this issue was, in essence, the “deal-breaker” and
consensus between the two sides was lost.
Successful parliamentary reforms
require a supportive political climate to move ahead. In the case of British
Columbia, the pre-election period has proved to be a challenging time to
forward compromise on these issues.
However, progress is underway in
other jurisdictions. Recent parliamentary reforms in Britain and Australia are
useful to examine as potential models for future reforms in British Columbia
and other Canadian jurisdictions.
The British Select Committee
In June 1997, the Select
Committee on Modernisation of the British House of Commons was established to
consider how the practices and procedures of the House could be modernised.
The Committee’s mandate directed
it to work towards “enabling the whole House more effectively to carry out its
functions of legislating, debating major issues, and holding the Executive to
account, while at the same time seeking to ensure that individual Members were
able to make better use of their time”.
To date, the work of the
Modernisation Committee’s work on the legislative process has resulted in:
- more pre-legislative scrutiny of draft
bills by select committees or joint committees;
- a simplified Order Paper, written in plain
English, and said to be comprehensible to those beyond the ranks of
- agreed program motions rather than imposed
guillotines. (Program motions, which are introduced after Second Reading
of a bill, set the date for the completion of each stage of the bill.
Unlike the guillotine motion, this formal time-tabling of legislation
ensures that all sections of a bill receive some scrutiny.)
- an agreement for the carry over of bills
from one Session to another; and
- explanatory notes for bills written in
Some unusual aspects of the
debating process, such as wearing top hats to raise points of order in
divisions, have been done away with. On the advice of the Modernisation
Committee, the British House of Commons revised sitting hours on Thursdays,
freeing up Fridays for constituency work, similar to recent arrangements in
British Columbia. Finally, the Modernisation Committee recommended the
establishment of a parallel chamber, similar to the Australian Main Committee
to be set up as an experiment to give more opportunities for backbenchers to
call the Executive to account.
The reforms of the Modernisation
Committee have been met with criticism from the Opposition benches. In July
2000, the Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, released a report of a
Conservative Party Commission, titled Strengthening Parliament.
Supporters of this report characterize the work of the Modernisation Committee
as mere window dressing, which fails to strengthen Parliament, and instead only
makes life easier for Government. The Conservative Party Commission proposes
its own reforms, which it claims enhance effective parliamentary government.
Specifically, it proposes a reduction in the number of cabinet ministers, the
strengthening the independence of select committees by taking the appointment
of committee members out of the hands of party whips, and even a gradual
reduction in the size of the Commons from 659 to 500 seats.
The Conservative report
recognizes the necessity of political will to successfully implement
parliamentary reform. Following this notion, Mr. Hague has made a public
commitment that if he becomes the next Prime Minister, the ideas described in
this report would be introduced shortly after an election, “before
governmentitis sets in”5.
The Australian House’s Main
The Australian federal House of
Representatives has also adopted a number of reforms in recent years.
Significant amongst these is the establishment of the Main Committee in 1994.
The Main Committee is a parallel but subordinate Chamber, where members can
debate matters which do not readily find time on the floor of the House.
Business is referred to the Main Committee by agreement and any decisions must
proceed with unanimity.
The Main Committee is an
extension of the Chamber of the House, allowing two streams of business to be
debated concurrently. The Committee provides Members with the opportunity to
debate bills or reports of a relatively non-controversial nature, while it also
frees time in the Chamber for debate on other matters. This allows the time of
the House to be used more effectively, and in a sense, significantly increased.
The Australian Select Committee
on Procedure began a review of the Main Committee in November 1999.
Matters for consideration by the
Select Committee include:
- How effective the Main Committee has been
in relieving pressure of business in the House and in meeting the demand
for Members to speak.
- Whether any other types of business should
be dealt with in the Main Committee, instead of, or as well as, in the House
- The mechanism for referring business to the
- The status of the Committee in relation to
the House (both in terms of actual powers and how it is perceived by
Members and others).
The recent reform initiatives in
Australia, Britain, and British Columbia have taken place at a time when there
is widespread concern and disillusionment with the institution of Parliament.
If these concerns are neglected, it is likely that popular views of Parliament
will continue to diminish, and the calls for parliamentary reform would become
more fervent, and possibly even extreme in nature.
I believe that proposals for
reform should be moderate and achievable, but, as the British Columbia
experience indicates – to be moderate and achievable, they must also be timely.
In each jurisdiction, the members and the parties themselves will have to judge
which proposals meet these criteria. Before adoption, reform proposals should
be subjected to consultation and examination, but the time eventually comes
when something must be done.
Parliamentary reform seems to be
an idea whose time has come. Let us learn from each other and move ahead to
restore the tradition of effective parliamentary government and adapt it to the
new challenges of the 21st century.
1. Paul Silk
and Rhodri Walters. How Parliament Works, (London: Longman,
1995), p. 235
2. Casey Vander Ploeg. Reinventing Parliament: A Conference on Parliamentary
Reform – Conference Summary Report, (Calgary: Canada West Foundation,
3. “The Restoration of Parliament” The Economist, November 4, 1995,
4. E. George MacMinn, Committees of the Legislature, (Victoria: Queen’s
Printer, 1979), p. 3.
5. Peter Riddell, “One man’s meat is another woman’s poison.” The Times,
July 11, 2000.