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
- a constitution to establish legitimate
- freedom of the elected assembly to regulate its own
- 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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
For a number of years now, MNAs have
bowed all too easily before the executive power. In some cases, they have even
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
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.
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
by Caroline St-Hilaire, MP
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.
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'
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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