At the time
this article was written Chuck Strahl was House Leader of the Canadian Alliance. This article is based upon
the document Building Trust released by the Canadian Alliance on January 8,
Parliamentarians from all
parties have long called for changes that would make the House of Commons more
responsive to Canadians. The record low voter turnout at the last federal
election is also a warning from the electorate to make local MPs more responsive
and responsible to the people casting the votes. Everyone knows that power has
been concentrated increasingly in the Prime Minister’s office, and while we all
can acknowledge the successful political party’s right to govern, all Canadians
(and all elected persons) also want their local MP to have a meaningful
role in Parliament itself.
At the onset of the 37th
Parliament, Members of the House have a unique opportunity to implement key
changes and begin a new session with a constructive new spirit. In Canada, we
should follow the lead of other British Parliamentary systems around the world,
and seek a new understanding of the proper and rightful role of backbench MPs
in a modern democratic country.
Stockwell Day, the Leader of the
Official Opposition, said during the recent election campaign, “Canadians are
justly proud of our heritage of responsible government. But our parliamentary
democracy is not all that it should be. Too much power is exercised by the
Prime Minister instead of being shared by our elected representatives.
Excessive party discipline stifles open discussion and debate. Grassroots
citizens and community groups feel that their opinions are not respected or
heard.” Therefore we are proposing some simple and do-able reforms that could be
a starting point to begin the process of rebuilding Canadians’ trust in our
In April 1998, Preston Manning,
noted: There is a myth in the House that lurking out there somewhere is the
fiery dragon of the confidence convention, the erroneous belief studiously
cultivated by the government that if a government bill or motion is defeated,
or an opposition bill, motion or amendment is passed, this obliges the
government to resign. This myth is used to coerce government members,
especially backbenchers, to vote for government bills and motions with which
they and their constituents disagree and to vote against opposition bills,
motions and amendments with which they substantially agree. The reality is that
the fiery dragon of the confidence convention in its traditional form is dead.
The sooner the House officially recognizes that fact, the better for all.
The Canadian Alliance believes
that an official commitment by the House to conduct votes freely without
jeopardizing our parliamentary traditions would strengthen Members’ resolve to
represent the wishes of their constituents. This can be done by adopting a
resolution in the House stating:
That the House shall not
consider the vote on any motion to be a question of confidence in the
government unless the motion is directly relating to the government’s budget or
the motion is explicitly worded as a question of confidence.
Closure and Time Allocation
The excessive use of the rules
to curtail debate over the years has diminished the effectiveness of debate in
our parliamentary system. While the rights of the opposition are immediately
and most visibly at stake, ultimately the threat is to democratic rights and
freedoms in general. A few rule changes and a commitment to attitudinal change
would go a long way toward reversing this trend.1
Those changes are as follows:
- Bring more accountability to the process by
amending the rules to allow for a mini question period prior to a Minister
moving a closure or time allocation motion.
- Amend the rules to provide the Speaker with
greater discretionary authority. The Speaker should only allow a time
allocation motion to be put forward if he is satisfied that the motion
does not infringe on the rights of the minority.
- Respect the parliamentary tradition of the
balance between the right of an opposition to solicit public support
through debate and reasonable delaying tactics and the right of a
government to eventually have its legislation come to a vote.
- Provide more legitimacy to the legislative
process, including the process for allotting time by allowing free votes.
- Members of the other opposition parties
have made similar suggestions during the last Parliament, especially once
time allocation was used with a regularity never before seen in Canada. A
governing party that restricted debate only on rare occasions would not
only have sympathy from the Speaker when such a move proved necessary, but
would have public understanding and support as well. Opposition parties
would, in turn, pay a political price for unreasonable delaying tactics,
and a proper re-balancing would naturally occur.
Spending Accountability –
Business of Supply
The business of supply
legislation, which accounts for some $150 billion of spending each and every
year, goes through the House faster and with less scrutiny than any other
business. Interim supply goes through without any debate at all. Can anyone
imagine anything more fundamental and more central to Parliament than the way government
spends money? Over many years, the House has allowed its authority to be eroded
and stolen by the government to the point where the House is now simply a
That should change. The
all-party recommendations from the 51st report of the Standing Committee on
Procedure and House Affairs from the last Parliament should be adopted. The
recommendations in this report would:
- Give Parliament more authority over the way
governments spend Canadians’ money
- Allow Parliament some discretion to move
the money around.
- Call for the creation of an estimates
committee to study the expenditures on an ongoing basis.
Under the current rules, the
most important speakers cannot be questioned in debate. In other words, if the
Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition of the Minister sponsoring the
bill speaks on the bill, we cannot as Members of Parliament question the
Minister, the Leader of the Opposition or the Prime Minister following their
The Canadian Alliance would like
to see a question and comment period apply to all speeches with an
extended time given to the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and a
Minister moving a government order.
Less Government Control over
The election of the Speaker by
secret ballot was designed to take the choice of Speaker away from the Prime
Minister and give it to the entire House. Since committees are creatures of the
House and the independence of Chairmen is as important to Members when they are
in committee as when they are in the House, the secret ballot procedure used to
select the Speaker should be applied to the election of standing committee
chairmen and vice-chairmen.
In addition, less government
interference would be achieved by excluding parliamentary secretaries from
membership in standing committees. Nothing would prevent a committee from
inviting a parliamentary secretary to attend when the committee is studying
government legislation or the main estimates. Again these are suggestions that
have also been put forth by other Members of Parliament.2
A New Approach to
Presently, standing committees
have the power to consider order-in-council appointments after the Prime
Minister has made them, but since all they can do is “review” the
appointments, they have little real authority. Committees should have the
authority to cause a vote to take place in the House of Commons ratifying or
removing an appointment made by the government. A committee report recommending
the removal of an appointment would cause the appointment to be withdrawn
unless the government responded by introducing a motion reinstating the
A new practice has been
established where the appointment of the Officers of Parliament, (i.e. Privacy
Commissioner, Access to Information Commissioner, Auditor General, etc.)
receives a committee review before the motion is presented to the House. This
new practice is voluntary and is not yet an obligation under the rules. The
expansion of this practice would add to the responsibilities and independence
of Members of Parliament.
The Standing Orders should be
changed to require a government to subject all candidates under consideration
for these high offices to a committee review. The committee would also be free
to recommend candidates of its own. As is the practice now, the ultimate
decision would be for the House to decide by adopting a motion.
The Speaker’s chief advisor and
bureaucrat is the Clerk of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister presently
appoints the Clerk. Since the independence of the Clerk is as important to
members as the independence of the Speaker, the appointment of the Clerk should
be made by the House itself. The independence of the Clerk and Members of
Parliament would be enhanced by having a standing committee of the House of
Commons select and review candidates for Clerk. The committee would make a
recommendation to the House and the House would ratify or reject the
Privacy, Access and Ethics
To facilitate the work of the
House and to increase the accountability process of government, an additional
standing committee should be created (and chaired by the opposition) whose
mandate would be to review and report to the House on all aspects of the Acts
and Reports of the Privacy and Access Commissioners and Ethics Counsellor.
However, the Ethics Commissioner must be appointed by and report to Parliament
(not the Prime Minister) in order to establish the office as a legitimate and
credible component of our democratic institution. The law and the rules of
Parliament must be amended to allow this to take place.
Office of the Speaker
As some Members of Parliament
have argued, there is a serious flaw in the current process of the election of
the Speaker in that it does not provide an opportunity for the candidates to
made a formal, public presentation on their reasons for seeking the office. The
current rules create an unusually open process, except in this area. Without
such a forum, each candidate is left to decide his or her own strategy, which
leads to a disjointed process, and raises the possibility of
A new procedure should be
established to build on the work of the McGrath Committee which recommended the
election of the Speaker by secret ballot. The rules should be amended to allow
and require candidates to speak in an open forum before the election of the
None of these proposals are
difficult to implement. Many of them can proceed simply by all-party consent.
None of them are constitutional in nature, nor do they restrict the ability of
the Prime Minister and government to accomplish their proper executive and
leadership roles. What they will do, both collectively and individually, is to
subtly rebalance the responsibility for what goes on in Parliament back to
individual MPs. Giving backbenchers a meaningful role in the 37th
Parliament would go a long ways towards building trust between our elected
representatives and the people who elected them to these prominent public
1. See Stephane Bergeron, Bloc Member of Parliament and Bloc Whip 31st
Report of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee - May 17, 2000 and
Peter MacKay, Progressive Conservative Member and PC House Leader Debates -
April 21, 1998.
2. See Bill Blaikie, House of Commons, Debates, December 4,
1985 and Roger Galloway, June 21, 1998.
3. See Charles Caccia, Liberal Member of Parliament, Recommendation
to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, October 15, 1997.