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 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 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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.