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Reflections on the Future of Parliament and Democracy
Philippe Séguin

Philippe Séguin is former Speaker of the National Assembly of France. He gave the keynote address at the “International Symposium on the Parliamentary System in the 21st Century” held at the Parliament Buildings in Quebec City from October 9 to 12, 2002. This is an edited version of his presentation.

This article argues that problems with Parliament are related to larger concerns about the health of democracy and suggests what has to be done to revive both Parliament and democracy.

Parliament is often confused with democracy.  A democracy supposes the existence of a forum where we debate options, where the actions of the executive can be monitored, where broad principles are established and the life of society is defined. The existence of Parliament does not guarantee democracy but without Parliament there would be no democracy.  The link is direct and logical.  Thus when we question the future of Parliament we are also questioning the future of democracy.

Three conditions guarantee an authentic democracy:

  • a constitution to establish legitimate representation;
  • freedom of the elected assembly to regulate its own internal operations;
  • sufficient powers for the assembly to carry out its main responsibilities – to legislate, to hold governments to account, and to foster free, unfettered debate.

Various approaches have been tried to create these conditions but we always have to ask whether these approaches are still valid today?  Let me identify three key causes which, with variations according to regimes, are the cause of our present crisis in Parliament and in democracy.

One fundamental cause is the growing complexity of decision-making in a global economy.  Globalization has increased the need for governments to take rapid action. Indeed the executive has become all-powerful leaving assemblies with a role as guardians of the electoral process and the selection of some individuals for certain positions.  But the nature of debate in a Chamber is very often illusionary for it is dominated by the majority. Opposition is symbolic. Thus members of Parliament are reduced to looking after their riding first and in systems having proportional representation, looking after  the health of the party. Parliament is a development center, a necessary stop before going to the Nirvana of the executive. We expect from our parliamentarians qualities of patience, resignation and even complacency.

A second cause of the crisis is the frequent ambiguity of relationships between the executive and the legislative banches. In some countries Parliament wants to compete with the government instead of looking to limit government influence. The proper relationship, I think, is for Parliament to debate the direction the government intends to go and to see if objectives are met.

A third concern is that Parliaments have not been able to renew or rejuvenate themselves. If someone who lived in France between 1830 and 1848 came back today I think the one place he or she would recognize would be the National Assembly. The decoration is the same, except for microphones and cameras. The methods of work, methods of expression, organization of discussions and debates are still the same. Members from a previous time would feel at home. But society is quite different. In those days the electorate was limited to some 10,000 people, who had wealth, were educated and had easy access to the parliamentary milieu.

The crisis is not a technical or a legal one.  I think it is an intellectual and a moral crisis.  Parliamentarism is being eroded by economic, scientific and moral causes. There is a loss of confidence in the institution and in its ability to solve certain problems.

Fourthly we must ask what is the value of an institution where the news media are a sort of a parallel power? How can the members of Parliament be heard and respected when their speeches will be shown on TV for one minute followed by comments from journalists and others for hours. This creates an era of “non communication” and I believe the situation is getting worse. Political debate is transferred to the media.  Ministers keep their ideas and decisions for the media. Confrontations are expressed only in the media and last only as long as the media can find a public for that kind of debate.  On French television major political debates and public affairs programs have disappeared from prime time.  Politicians, if they want to be there, have to be seen between a singer or a movie star.

The Wider Crisis

We must look beyond the crisis of Parliament because as I mentioned it is inseparable from the wider crisis of democracy.  In a democracy there should be some ideas about policy.  In essence it is not a system of checks and balances but a political system where the power of the general will is limited by pluralism, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, equality, the right of property and so on.  There is no democracy when there is too much politics or not enough politics. There is no democracy when everything becomes collective and also when the general interest comes after individual interest. There is no democracy when there is no property and also when the market wants to replace the Parliament. There is no democracy when the State is everything and society nothing. This is precisely the situation we are confronted with. Parliamentary democracy is eroded by the loss of legitimacy of politics.

If we believe, like a commentator said during the World Trade Organisation riots in Seattle, that democracy has become an exclusive happening between Non Governmental Organizations and technocrats then a political party and a member of Parliament has less importance than almost anybody else in society. Any leader of the government would have less importance and less power than a manager of a pension plan.

Even if everybody was connected on the Internet and could have a voice this would not replace elections which oblige one to reflect, deliberate and make a choice. The dysfunctioning of modern Parliaments has given tools to its adversaries.  We see groups pretending they have a better understanding of the population but on whose behalf are they speaking?  Who are they accountable to?  Who do they represent?

Modernizing Parliament

The world needs politics, it needs debate, it needs maturation of thought and deep reflection.  The marketplace should not determine the direction the world takes. The rehabilitation of Parliament is more than a corporatist project.  It is a vital necessity if we wish decisions necessary to the harmonious evolution of society to be effectively explained and debated in serenity, clarity, and objectivity.

Globalization has been an alibi for decreasing democracy.  It has brought about radical new movements and new problems.  Partisan divisions are out of date.  We must recognize that today, in our parliaments we need free and open debate if we want to find solutions. Pre-established solutions will not be found in any ideology, whether it is liberal or Marxist. It is members of Parliament, not bound by ideology, who have to wrestle with the rules of bioethics or come up with regulations for the Internet or answer this and that problem caused by globalization. We have to create the conditions for this deliberation to take place.

Of course, it is necessary to have parties. But parties must understand that they are based on many issues and they cannot today, like yesterday, bring a global answer to all the problems of society. If Parliaments are to mean anything parties must not be an obstacle to the free debate of ideas. We must make efforts to ensure that the modern party is not the guardian of the Tablets of the Law. A modern party must represent all the components of a nation and even its contradictions. It must be a place of exchange and debate where propositions will have to be formulated around themes to put things in action. All corporatist ideas must be excluded. This is what I mean by moderenization and why I believe modernization of parliament is the first requirement. This modernization must also attempt to adapt parliamentary expression to the modes and capacity of transmission by the media.

The second priority is to reinforce the control exercised by Parliament over the action of the Executive in the international field as well as control over its domestic legislative action. Legislation is one of the privileges of Government but it is up to Parliament to control legislative action in a preparatory debate which should precede the elaboration of a bill.  That is a real cultural revolution for parliamentarians and for Governments who will have to be persuaded and convinced that an act of control is not necessarily an act of hostility. Majority and opposition must participate in this control.

We must also reflect upon the duration of sessions. Many Parliaments sit only a few months a year when they discuss and vote laws. But control is ongoing. When I was President of the National Assembly in France, there were two three-month sessions. I urged the possibility of having a nine-month session. Why did we have the right of control in some months but not in others?

We have to improve the perception of Parliament by public opinion. If we create a parliamentary channel on TV simply for people to be able to see our way of working, which has not changed, we will have only done half the work. We must also adapt to the medias that we have chosen in order to make sure that our message goes through. I think that hearings must be public and transmitted systematically. It is the best way of teaching even if proceedings in private often gives the best results. Let us have more children’s parliaments. I think the Quebec Assembly and the French Assembly have led the way here.

There are many other things I could mention.  Of course we have too many laws and in the future we should try not to legislate on everything. We must simplify what exists. This is an act of codification not of legislation. These are but a few ideas. It is up to all of us to find others.


It is only in Parliament that a nation can interrogate itself. We must find the means to rehabilitate Parliament. Among the barriers and obstacles are scepticism, anti-parliamentarism and especially the resignation of a number of parliamentarians who do not believe anymore. Here is the real challenge – to reconcile parliamentarians with Parliament. This is a very difficult task, but it is the condition for success. It is up to parliamentarians to understand the extraordinary issues and challenges they have to meet.


The Roots of our Democratic Malaise

by Matthias Rioux, Member of the National Assembly

Matthias Rioux was elected as a Member of the National Assembly for Matane in 1994.  Re-elected in 1998, he chairs the labour and economy committee.  Since 2001, he has been the Vice Chair of the National Assembly delegation for inter-parliamentary co-operation with the European Community. He was a speaker at the “International Symposium on the Parliamentary System in the 21st Century” held at the Parliament Building in Quebec City from October 9 to 12, 2002. This is an abbreviated version of his presentation.

This article suggests that several dysfunctional elements have crept into our democratic parliamentary institutions. Among other things it looks at the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, the question of party discipline and the link between citizens and their elected representatives.

A former parliamentary colleague, reliable and experienced, said to me once, only half joking: It is not the system that is sick, it is we parliamentarians who are sick. I began by disagreeing with him but now I find his comments rather sensible. A major part of the public’s disenchantment with the political community is caused by the impoverished role of the parliamentarian, and by the contempt in which elected officials themselves hold democratic institutions, and by their widespread abdication of their responsibilities.

The Devaluation of Parliament

A former Quebec Speaker, Louis-Joseph Papineau, rose in the House to debate the major issues of his day, and his remarks had great resonance and enormous scope. Even though the legislative assembly had very few powers back then, Papineau is credited with introducing, not without difficulty, the idea of responsible government – that elected officials should give their consent for government expenditures. A whole revolution started at that point.

Until the early 1940s, parliament as an institution managed to develop its autonomy and independence in relation to the executive power. This was true at the time. Has anyone forgotten the story of Vautrin’s pants? Although this incident is usually linked to Opposition Leader Maurice Duplessis’s personality and used to illustrate corruption in the government of the time, it was an act of parliamentary control. The public accounts committee, which examined the expenditures of the state and the government, learned that Mr. Vautrin had bought trousers for a family member. What a scandal. The amount was absurd. The principle was significant. This embarrassment contributed to resignation of the government.

The public accounts committee was powerful enough, and attracted enough interest, that Mr. Duplessis axed it as soon as he came to power. He could foresee the risk to his own regime of retaining the institution that had brought down the previous government.

Before that time, parliamentary debate followed British customs, which allowed members a great deal of freedom of speech. It was not until the 1940s that codes and guidelines were written to steer and direct parliamentarians’ right to speak. Considered too heavy and bulky, the code of parliamentary procedure was put on a diet in the 1970s. That is when a few new measures were brought in to make Parliament more efficient. But more efficient for whom?

Time limits were imposed on parliamentarians’ right to speak. A permanent structure for parliamentary committees was set up, where, in the name of efficiency, members of the government were given a special position to allow them to hold a dialogue with the people and their representatives.

All too often, those with executive power forget that the legitimacy of their powers lies in each member of Parliament elected by the people.

For the record, I would like to point out that in the early 1980s, a very significant moment in our parliamentary democracy, a major reform was begun, to reaffirm sovereignty and the institutional independence of the National Assembly. The government gave a mandate to Denis Vaugeois to draft a reform package, passed into law by the National Assembly in 1982, with regulations that followed in 1984. The opportunity was used to do a complete overhaul of the parliamentary committees system, giving them extensive autonomy in performing their new duties, as well as new statutory and regulatory powers. I will not discuss the results of the reform here, because I have had ample opportunity to document its failures, identify their principal causes and develop potential solutions as a sponsor and as a member of the MNA committee which met in 2002 and published a report entitled On the Need for Parliamentary Control.

The observations and possible solutions contained in this report were the subject of extensive consultations with parliamentarians, and aroused their unanimous support.  Can all the MNAs be wrong at the same time?

Some of the proposals aimed at reducing the current dysfunction in parliamentary committees have of course been implemented, primarily by increasing the ridiculously tiny budget that committees were given to carry out their work. They subsequently received additional resources and researchers, to ensure that the work was carried out. But basically, the primary reason underlying the parliamentary malaise in Quebec was not resolved. While the number of research officers available to parliamentary committees may be higher, still only three committees can sit at the same time as the National Assembly. Most of the time, these committees must carry out orders from the National Assembly, which significantly reduces the possibility of conducting studies initiated by parliamentarians and MNAs.

When a committee carries out a mandate at the request of the National Assembly, it is up to the committee to organize its business, which includes selecting the organizations to be heard.  Only the date and the location of the public hearings are the responsibility of the Leader of the Government. Do you believe this is really what happens? The committee’s steering committee should be the forum where discussions are held and decisions made about witness selection, the order of witnesses and the duration of the hearings. Following this practice does not involve any changes to our Standing Orders. These powers are already set out in Standing Orders 166 to 173. The basic problem – and this is what I find most serious – is that we are unable to say clearly what service an ordinary MNA should perform and what role he should be entrusted with in the 21st century parliament.

Government Encroachment

For a number of years now, MNAs have bowed all too easily before the executive power. In some cases, they have even kneeled down.

In spite of the structural reforms, and in spite of the new responsibilities conferred on parliamentarians the encroachment of executive powers over the legislative authority, and the meagre resources allocated to parliamentarians, mean that MNAs are treated like children in performing their duties.

Since their role is an empty one, what form does the executive encroachment take? First there is this new habit of handing over to forums, summits and estates general, all the major debates so that almost all discussion conducted outside of Parliament, which is the best place in the land to hold these kinds of debates.  It is probably more effective for ministers not to be burdened down by opposition members or government side members in developing a policy or a piece of legislation. I know. I have been there. The government also uses this approach to give the impression that it is closer to the people.

Here is another example of encroachment. Apart from some short briefing sessions at a caucus meeting where the agenda is normally hastily jotted down just before the start of a committee meeting, the majority MNAs are completely divorced from the development of bills. Their role consists in supporting the minister when he is making his presentation and not straying from the game plan that he worked out beforehand, and then listening meekly to the minister as he answers questions from the opposition during the committee’s clause-by-clause consideration. The parliamentary assistant, who can speak for and on behalf of the minister, is completely excluded from the legislative process. Here is a function which, in my view, must either be enhanced and more highly valued, or eliminated entirely.  

When I was Minister of Labour, I remember being reprimanded because during the legislative process I systematically circulated all the documentation that might be of assistance to colleagues. I was told politely that things did not work that way. But is not this the role of a committee member – to study the contents of a bill with the greatest possible enlightenment? The point is to respect the member’s intelligence.

A final example of encroachment. As chairs and members of parliamentary committees, we have important roles to perform. For example, it is our duty to examine the management of at least one public agency every year. This obligation is set out in S.O. 294 and it will soon be even more important with the passage of the Law on Public Administration, Bill 82. However, we still have to fight and negotiate continually with government representatives for the least amount of time to carry out our mandates, and then, when by chance we are lucky enough to have time to do our job, the government sends in emissaries to check whether we are straying from the line or whether we are taking the orthodox approach.

The roots of the democratic malaise are the denigration of democratic values in general and parliamentary values in particular. The executive should be the first place where these values are respected and promoted.

It is difficult, and wrong, for us as parliamentarians to live in permanent contradiction with our own rules. Will changing the parliamentary calendar or modifying the voting procedure or holding elections on a fixed date make any difference? I doubt it. It is the mentality we have to change. Those with executive power have to stop regarding parliamentarians as a threat. I sincerely believe that, as long as the executive is incapable of living respectfully with the legislature, it will be unable to allow all the legislators to exercise their prerogatives fully. It is a matter of respect.

Party Discipline

I do not want to speak at length about party discipline. I learned recently that one of my colleagues on the government side voted in favour of a bill whose principle went squarely against his most profound convictions.

Although I am not in favour of free votes on everything I am profoundly troubled by the present system which actually forces a member to vote against his conscience

The penalties are severe if you stray from the party line. If you vote against a bill in the National Assembly, you are excluded. Have you thought about what it means to leave your parliamentary group, your family, to sit as an independent, without resources and  almost powerless to serve the constituents in your riding?

The cost of freedom is so high in the current parliamentary system that you will choose resignation over emancipation. And yet, freedom of expression and opinion is at the very heart of the Quebec and Canadian charters!


Where are the citizens in all of this? For their part, citizens have difficulty identifying with the member of Parliament. Certainly, they elected him and they put their faith in him, but when it is time for him to perform his real duties, he becomes unrecognizable, in comparison with what he said when he got himself elected. He was going to Quebec City to represent the people and pass legislation on their behalf.

I would just like to say that significant numbers of people think they no longer have any other choice. They are fully convinced that politicians do not listen to them. Exasperated citizens soon find themselves disillusioned and cynical about politicians. They are all the same, they say, politicians are liars, and they have no moral values. It is not right that an elected official cannot even claim a minimum of credibility among the people who elected him. It is clear that the post-war economic boom, the advent of television, mass media, and new technologies have made citizens more demanding of politicians. But when you look at the means we have to respond to the expectations of the electorate and the people of Quebec, you find that our hands are almost empty.

Nonetheless, it is in fields as important as programs and policies where the MNA must take action, since we were as elected to make representations, to question the relevance of old and new measures, to evaluate impacts, to express citizens’ concerns and to try to influence government priorities. The major reforms proposed to us some 20 years ago aimed precisely at enhancing the role of the members and endorse their autonomy. We missed our chance. Is it too late?

I have been told I am a dreamer and an idealist. But I dream only of one thing: that the members will regain their desire to practise their noble trade for their own good, for the good of those who come after them, and ultimately for the good of their electors.


Can Parliament be Reinvented?

by Caroline St-Hilaire, MP

Caroline St-Hilaire was first elected to the House of Commons in 1997 as the Bloc Québécois MP for Longueuil. Re-elected in November 2000, she is the Deputy House Leader for her party. She was a speaker at the Symposium on Parliamentarism in the 21st Century held at the Parliament Building in Quebec City on October 9-12, 2002. This is a condensed version of her presentation.

Right off, one thing is clear about today’s Parliament: the status quo is unacceptable. We must therefore come up with a new model that meets our expectations. Its true reform, however, is a collective responsibility, involving Members of Parliament as much as it does each and every citizen, not to mention those who inform us, the members of the media.

I firmly believe that MPs should play a much greater role in Parliament. The centralization of power is democracy's worst enemy. This is why the reform of parliamentary institutions and the electoral system is so important. Our system must change and enable MPs to fulfill their role as representatives of the people. To achieve this goal, however, we as parliamentarians have responsibilities. We must not simply do as the executive and the government want. It is our duty to try to influence them, to express our opinions and, above all, to stay on course defending our constituents' interests.

We must continue to do what we were elected to do -legislate- but in terms of the interests and well-being of those we represent. We must fulfill this noble duty with our utmost competence and respect. To this end, power must be decentralized so that it is put back in the hands of the public and so that we can carry out our responsibilities to the fullest. Simply put, I am not Ottawa's representative in my constituency; I represent my constituency in Ottawa.

Moreover, it is our responsibility to adapt and fashion Parliament to suit our society. We must therefore reach out to young people on their level. If they are fascinated by virtual communications, then we must focus on a virtual Parliament. If people in remote regions feel out of touch because Quebec City or Ottawa is too far away, then we must take Parliament to them. For example, why not consider travelling commissions or even the possibility of using virtual technology to present briefs to a commission? Maybe we should also consider the possibility of a regional House that would focus solely on defending the interests of the regions. Perhaps this new regional focus would help to resolve certain problems, such as the exodus of young people from the regions.

People must be given back the means they need to take charge of what is theirs: Parliament. They have an important responsibility: to ensure the respect of their values.

As a Member of Parliament, I represent more than 85,000 constituents; that is, 85,000 people who are entitled to a voice in Parliament through me.  However, for this to happen, what I say and  the positions I take must be reported and interpreted correctly and accurately.

In this regard, it is my opinion that the mass media have completely changed the dynamics of parliamentarism. I am not saying that this is a bad thing; however, I believe that too much of our energy is being spent  making headlines and satisfying the demands and appetite of parliamentary journalists.

In my opinion, most of the opposition parties devote far too much  effort to Question Period —often in order to trip up a minister or the government— and if the sound bite is not as resounding as the media would like it to be, it will not make it into the news. Too many of our interventions are dictated by the morning paper rather than by the needs of our constituents. We attach too much importance to the media, which decide what is important.

Moreover, the media are often interested only in a number of “hot” topics; consequently, other matters go completely unnoticed. This is an unhealthy situation, which has the potential to distract members from the mandate they have been entrusted with, and it prevents Canadians from  having an accurate view of the work being done by Parliament.

Do people really know all the work that goes on in the Chamber? Are they aware of the work that is done by parliamentary commissions or committees? The gap between what actually happens and what people think happens can be significant. Right or wrong, people often think that the work of parliamentarians is rarely productive, that the end result is often decided in advance, and that the work done is not necessarily in the interest of Canadians. Of course, people should not use Question Period as their frame of reference, because, clearly, the big show does not accurately reflect the work done by Members of Parliament.

Another major problem I see is partisanship. Because of the way our electoral system is currently structured, people are voting more for a party and a leader than for a Member of Parliament. There are advantages to this system as well: one can identify issues and  have a clear picture of the platform each party is promoting. However, once the election is over, this partisan system somewhat distorts the true meaning of parliamentarism. Because of the limitations of partisanship, the interests of our constituents are likely to be relegated to a subordinate position. At times, we feel that we are speaking not so much on behalf of those who elected us to office as on behalf of our political party.

In my opinion, therein lies a potential danger that all Members of Parliament could face at one time or another. It would be dangerous and, unfortunately, quite easy to allow  ourselves to be carried along by this huge machine and forget whom we really represent. Granted, political parties are essential instruments. However, the agenda of a political entity, much less a government, is not always consistent with that of the average citizen. I am not speaking here about a member’s freedom of speech. While constant disruption would not be acceptable, Members of Parliament should be allowed to express their opinions without fear of penalty, even if they do not dovetail completely with those of their party, provided, of course, that they contribute to the debate and that everything is done correctly and with a view to defending the interests and  wishes of  the public.

This is especially true for the party in power. How could a lowly MP openly contradict the positions of his or her government? How would a minister be received at the next Cabinet meeting? It goes without saying that the public finds this aspect of parliamentarism increasingly irritating, and detracting from the credibility of parliamentary activity, if not that of Parliament itself.

In my opinion, we will inevitably have to undertake a major reform and even consider changing our political system.

The British parliamentary system strengthens government at the expense of Parliament. I believe that a presidential-type system may be more appropriate. Under it, executive power is separate from legislative power. Cabinet solidarity does not exist and the absence of party lines is nothing if not beneficial as far as the control of government is concerned. Therefore, there are reforms that we can and must carry out today.

It would be a mistake to end this presentation without saying a few words on a topic that is especially important to me: the role of women in politics.

The active involvement of greater numbers of women in politics is relatively new.  And yet, representation is fundamental to democracy. It is often said that Parliament should be representative of society. In order to achieve this, the composition of Parliament should reflect the diversity of society. That being the case, women, who constitute 52% of the population, should be better represented in Parliament. Yet, there are still very few women in politics. Women continue to find it difficult to integrate, and the current parliamentary system and the mentality that prevails within certain political parties are at least partly to blame.

For this reason, it is vital that we give some thought to their integration and take the necessary measures to ensure more equitable representation. Should we rethink our electoral system? Why not? Achieving  equality could be another objective.

Truly reinventing Parliament would entail reconsidering too many things, questioning everything and examining how things are done in other countries.

I want institutions that are democratic, a government that governs, an executive body that executes, a legislative body that legislates, a public service that serves and media that inform.

There are numerous options to consider.

But who will venture to make the changes? One must be realistic; each of these reforms involves a loss of power. What political party, what kind of government —whose ultimate goal is to be in power— will work to eliminate some of its own authority?

Therefore, reinventing Parliament involves  refining our democratic instincts. Reinventing Parliament is not a matter of structure; it involves changing a culture. Democracy is not a technical matter that concerns only the elite; it is an affirmation of a common will to live together.

Democracy is an effort; it is a discipline. People must never forget this. Having the best elected officials in the world means nothing. If people do not feel involved in the nation’s key issues, they will not achieve  anything collectively.  It is our responsibility, by respecting our laws and our country, to ensure that democracy is expressed.

Democracy is also a challenge, especially for elected officials who exercise great privileges on behalf of the  voters. In all of our interventions, we have a duty to seek a balance between the specific interests of our constituents and our collective well-being. Democracy is also an ideal, one we must strive for every day. Perfection exists neither among individuals nor among democratic institutions; nonetheless, we must get down to the task at hand without ever losing hope.

Reinvent Parliament? Perhaps not, but we must consider rehabilitating Parliament to ensure that it reflects the expectations of a society that is better educated and more informed and, therefore, more demanding.  This is quite  the challenge.


In Defence of Parliament

by Claude Ryan

Claude Ryan was Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper Le Devoir from 1964 to 1978.  He was elected leader of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1978 and MNA for Argenteuil in 1979.  Re-elected in 1982, 1985 and 1989, he was successively Minister of Education, Minister of Higher Education and Science, Minister responsible for application of the Charter of the French Language, Minister of Public Safety and Minister of Municipal Affairs. He was a guest speaker at the Conference on Parliamentary Government in the 21st Century, held in the National Assembly Buildings in Quebec City, October 9-12, 2002.

Parliament is an ancient institution based on both written and unwritten rules and assumptions.  This article argues that we must be careful in trying to reform Parliament that we do not introduce internal contradictions into the institutional structure.

Of all the political institutions in Quebec, the National Assembly is probably the one that lends itself least to rapid and radical changes. Strengthened by more than two centuries of existence, it has weathered many a storm and adapted to many unexpected situations while conserving its essential features. It is to a great extent thanks to the historical continuity of its Parliament that the Quebec people have been able to evolve for so many generations in a climate where political freedoms, in the plural, and political stability, in the singular, happily coexist.

The Quebec Government intends to invite us over the coming months to say whether we would like to trade in our parliamentary system for a presidential system.  While recognizing that a presidential system has significant merits, I want to make clear right from the start my staunch preference for maintaining a parliamentary system. This system has many objective advantages, which have been frequently pointed out by authors on political science, including many Americans. It has served us very well here in Quebec. Among other things, it helps to differentiate Canada from United States. At a time when –because of the phenomenal progress of communications – our powerful neighbour’s influence on the way we think and live is more omnipresent than ever, we must take special pains to preserve the institutions that distinguish us from our neighbours south of the border, and to make only those changes in our institutions that are compatible with their essential nature.

The parliamentary system undoubtedly has its limitations and its weaknesses, but so does the presidential system. According to a number of studies, the comparison is not unfavourable to the parliamentary system. On the contrary; as long as the parliamentary system is not uniquely identified with the British system. It is a much broader concept than that. While the credit cannot be given exclusively to their political system, it does appear, from a number of studies, that stability is greater in countries with a parliamentary system.

Whatever choice is made, it will have to be consistent. As the Quebec Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions has aptly put it, there is no room for an à la carte menu when it comes to our political system. Either we opt for a presidential system and its main features, or we choose to preserve the parliamentary system and its well-known characteristics. We cannot cobble together the aspects that please us most from both systems. For example, the choice of the head of government by universal suffrage is a fundamental characteristic of the presidential system. But this method of choosing the head of government is contrary to the spirit of the parliamentary system, under which the executive power issues from the legislative power, is accountable to the legislative power for its actions, and must retain the confidence of the legislative power to remain in office. Since I favour the maintenance of the parliamentary system, I cannot logically favour the choice of the head of government by universal suffrage.

If it were true, as Jean Chrétien attempted to argue, that he held his mandate direct from the people, he could have stayed serenely in office for as long as that mandate allowed. But since we have a parliamentary system, he had to be able to rely on the support of his caucus. The carpet was pulled out from under him when he thought he was in firm control, and so he had no choice but to agree to retire. Many other party leaders and heads of governments have had to go through the same experience.

The parliamentary system gives politicians a margin for manoeuvre (which is nowhere defined in black and white but which seems to me greater than that allowed under a presidential system) for the resolution of difficult problems such as the legitimacy of the head of government or a particular party. We also avoid deadlock between Congress and President as sometimes happens in the United States.

Even though such matters are not always set down in writing, the parliamentary system establishes a clear sharing of the main players’ responsibilities. The roles proper to the people, their elected representatives and the government are defined by long tradition more than by written texts. As the very name of the system indicates, the cornerstone of the edifice is the legislature, but the electorate and the executive also have important roles. The people elect their Members of Parliament by universal suffrage. From those Members emerges a group of people called upon to form the government, and the government is responsible not only for administration but also for proposing the legislation that Parliament will debate.

Members are not free agents and only in exceptional cases should they be free to vote their conscience. Without a willingness of members to accept party discipline our system will not work.

It is up to Parliament to scrutinize government actions, approve legislation and to hold the government to account. This work must be done, without exception by individuals working as a team and not by individual sniping. The members are not elected for their person views but rather as representatives of parties. When a party has won a majority of seats it is logical, indeed indispensable that it be able to count on the support of its members. This is the basis for the rule and custom of party discipline to which all members but especially those on the government side must recognize.

Equally, for the system to function well, it is necessary that the government have a decisive influence on the legislative program and on the progress of parliamentary proceedings, and a large enough freedom of manoeuvre to manage affairs of state.  Bills must certainly be submitted for Parliament’s approval before being enacted.  But while subject to control by Parliament after the fact, administrative decisions must be made without its prior approval.  I am convinced that any attempt to reverse this order, on the pretext of giving more power to backbenchers or to the people, must be approached with caution.

Because I believe in the parliamentary system, I am of the opinion that any proposal to change it must be treated circumspectly if that change runs counter to its essence.  I was in opposition for seven years, and then part of the government for nine years, and I am aware of the many weaknesses that justify criticisms of the present system.  The main weaknesses seem to me to be the following:

1. The membership of the National Assembly does not accurately reflect the real will of the voters. The current voting method creates discrepancies that could be justified at a time when communication was much more difficult and attitudes more straightforward. But the distortions caused by this method of voting are no longer compatible with today’s circumstances.

2.·The control exercised by the government on the progress of parliamentary proceedings is too heavy-handed. It leaves too little room for private Members’ business.

3.·Within the main parties, too tight a control is exercised by the caucus and party power structures.

4.·The freedom of action available to Members, especially government Members who are not in the Cabinet, is too limited.

5. In those aspects of parliamentary proceedings of which the public is most aware, the dominant characteristics are publicity seeking on the one hand and dull routine on the other. Question Period in particular often resembles a circus more than a serious exercise. All sides are scrambling for partisan advantage rather than seeking to determine the truth. The presence in the Blue Chamber of a very small number of Members on the occasion of plenary sessions held to debate the principles of bills before their passage also creates an unfavourable impression among many people watching from the outside.

I am as staunchly open to any change that seems compatible with the spirit of parliamentary government as I am staunchly opposed to change that would be contrary to that spirit. The first changes must involve the conduct of parliamentarians themselves. The right to speak, for example, is a Member’s most important prerogative. For it to be fully meaningful, it must be exercised seriously and in a disciplined manner, I would even say with a certain respect for form and style. Anything that is likely to hinder or devalue the use of the right to speak in Parliament should be resolutely resisted.  Among the things that should be done away with are procedural abuses, speaking on command (often at the dictates of the caucus or party power structure), the arrogance of Ministers, demagoguery, imputing motives, personal attacks, and so on.

Hand-in-hand with the quest for higher standards of conduct, which can never be dictated by regulations or legislation, we must attempt to improve the institution itself. Here are some proposals to that end.

  • In the front rank of desirable improvements, I would put a reform of the method of voting. My own preference is for the system currently being used in Germany, because it is the one that best reconciles the need for direct representation of the population by directly-elected Members with the need for a balance of general representation in light of the preferences expressed by the people. And I think that this must be done within the existing National Assembly structure rather than by the creation of a second House.
  • Question Period must be cleaned up. As it now operates, it is helping to discredit parliamentary institutions in the eyes of a large proportion of the population. The arrangements made for Question Period in the United Kingdom seem to me to offer interesting possibilities. There is much more diversity. There is much more opportunity for all Members – and equally all Ministers – to have a chance to be heard.  In our system, it is only the stars who count. The same people always ask the questions, the same people do the talking, the same handful of Ministers have questions directed to them, and the rest are for all practical purposes ignored. This is contrary to the spirit of the institution.
  • In order to enhance the role of backbenchers, I would favour the creation in Quebec of a regular time period reserved exclusively for private Members’ bills and motions. The federal Parliament allows five hours a week are allotted to private Members’ bills and motions. I think that the brief period that precedes Question Period in the Parliament of Canada, which allows each Member to make a lightning statement, one minute long, in order to draw attention to problems in his or her riding, is another good idea. During it, you hear about things that are happening elsewhere in the country, which Question Period and the other stages of parliamentary proceedings rarely touch on.
  • I also favour the holding of free votes on bills or motions with significant implications for fundamental rights on either the moral or the religious plane, so that each Member can vote according to his or her conscience. On the other hand, I am not tempted by the idea of extending the practice of free votes to all government bills, because this would inevitably have negative effects on the unity and stability of the government team.
  • I favour more relaxed party discipline when it comes to committee proceedings, especially the detailed study of bills, so that Members can contribute more freely to improving legislation.
  • I believe that parliamentary committees should able to undertake more action on their own initiative. This is a promising avenue for the future that we have only begun to explore.
  • Caucus power structures must make an effort to encourage active participation by all Members in parliamentary proceedings. Under the influence of the “star” culture that the media favour to an exaggerated extent, there is a tendency to restrict the right to speak in important debates to a handful of more gifted Members. In the long term, this practice is dangerous for the spirit of our system.
  • I approve of the public hearings held by parliamentary committees. I think this is one of the most worthwhile initiatives instituted by the National Assembly over the past two decades. As a general rule, the hearings are held in an environment of mutual respect and courtesy.
  • To loosen the government’s grip on committee proceedings, I think that the Minister who sponsors a bill should not be part of the committee responsible for considering it; rather, he or she should be called upon to give evidence before the committee at the beginning and at the end of its proceedings, and, if necessary, whenever a truly important issue emerges during those proceedings.
  • The temporary changes that have been made to the Standing Orders of the National Assembly regarding recourse to exceptional procedures for bills are laudable. I think these are some of the most valuable improvements that have been made. I understand they are still temporary; I hope they will be adopted permanently, because they would put an end to the stupid practice of obstructionism of which all parties have been guilty at one stage or another in their careers.
  • Finally, I have a bone to pick with the media regarding the role they play in covering parliamentary proceedings. Rightly or wrongly, I find that their coverage leaves a great deal to be desired. They place too much stress on the unforeseen and the frivolous, on spats, petty scandals, personality conflicts that last for a day. They are much more interested in what goes on behind the scenes than in the serious and often very constructive work that is happening in committee. Very properly, journalists set high standards for parliamentarians. But it would be a good thing if they would examine their own consciences periodically to make sure they are providing the people with the best information possible.

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 25 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-09-14