At the time this article was written Matthias Rioux represented Matane in the Quebec National Assembly and was
chair of 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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