At the time this article was written
Christian Comeau was a Research Officer with the Inter-parliamentary Relations
Branch of the National Assembly of Quebec. The views expressed in this article
reflect only the author's opinions and are not necessarily shared by the
Directorate of Inter Parliamentary Relations of the Quebec National Assembly.
During my three years with the Bureau of
Inter-parliamentary Relations, I have often noted that both the general public
and Quebec public servants are virtually unaware that our service exists.
Furthermore, when people acknowledge the existence of the Directorate they
usually challenge or disclaim its usefulness. I have noted that other Canadian
Parliamentarians share this attitude, although they express their opinions on
the subject more cautiously, but nonetheless firmly.
Since I am convinced of the usefulness of
such an organization, I have undertaken to defend this relatively new
parliamentary service in this short article.
The Necessity of Inter-parliamentary
Relations between the various Parliaments of
Canada are constantly increasing. While many functions involve activities in
conferences and seminars in Canadian Parliaments, an increasing number of
activities are also taking place outside Canada. Canadian parliamentarians,
both at the provincial and at the federal levels, are becoming more and more
active in international associations. Therefore, we must discuss the needs
which inter-parliamentary relations seek to fill.
Parliament and Control of
Since World War II, the Canadian Government
has become more prominent on the international scene, adding to its other
duties which include government censorship and control.
Former Senator Paul Martin stated in an
article1 that it was not the duty of Parliament to establish the
country's foreign policy and that, as a rule, Parliament is probably less
knowledgeable about international problems than about matters of public
interest. Mr. Martin rightly notes that international relations involve
negotiations and diplomacy to a much greater extent than legislation and that
"since negotiation and diplomacy in international affairs are a responsibility
of the executive branch of the Government, the legislators are left with a
limited scope for action in this field... No vote taken by a national
Parliament in relation to an international issue is likely to be
Does this mean that Parliament must not
interfere, with the State's foreign policy? If the answer is yes, such action
goes against the essential role of Parliament, which is to control government
activities. Parliament exercises this control by means of the question period,
the debates on a motion of a Member of Parliament or on the opening address and
the studies of the Parliamentary Committee on External Affairs. However, since
external affairs involve little or no legislation, contrary to other
governmental activities, Parliament is handicapped and can do no more than
react in the face of events.
One of the main advantages of
inter-parliamentary relations is that MPs are provided with a wealth of
firsthand information on international affairs. Both Paul Martin in his article
already mentioned and Peter Richards in his book entitled "Parliament and
Foreign Affairs"2 recognize the importance of
inter-parliamentary relations. This importance is also reflected in the studies
and discussions of parliamentarians during conferences of the international
For example, the Twenty-Fourth Conference of
the CPA dealt, among other things, with the control of ocean resources,
international terrorism, human rights, the European Economic Community, the
Commonwealth and the Lomé Convention. Conferences sponsored by other
associations have also dealt with international questions.
Paradoxically, these conferences allow
Parliamentarians to discuss international matters of concern to their
countries, something that would be difficult for them to do in their own
In 1971, the Canadian House of Commons
Standing Committee on Procedure and Organization acknowledged the usefulness of
inter-parliamentary relations as a source of information by recommending the
"amendment of the Standing Orders" so as to provide an opportunity
for debate in the House, from time to time, of the activities and reports
thereon of official Canadian Parliamentary Associations."3
Is the Parliamentarian an Ambassador?
Those who challenge the usefulness of the
MP's participation in international relations must be made to realize that if
we accept the practice of having the State represented by diplomats, who then
can better represent the nation than the MP?
For external affairs are not restricted to
governments, since the citizen must constantly deal with situations originating
in other countries and other parliaments. When the American Congress passes an
Income Tax Act, it legislates on a purely American matter but, here again, if
this act seriously restricts the tax deductions for professional conventions
held outside the United States, the whole Canadian tourist industry is thereby
affected. We could go on with this type of examples, but you do not have to be
a genius to see the interdependence of societies bound together by geography,
history, politics and finance. This is a universal phenomenon and it is common
place to say that our planet is but a global village.
The Parliamentarian as a Professional
Inter-parliamentary relations satisfy a
third need. By allowing Members of Parliament to contact other parliamentary
institutions and get acquainted with the political mechanisms in other
countries, they contribute to the professional training of Members of
Parliament. It is generally accepted nowadays that a Member of Parliament's
task is not as sincere and that it entails serious and heavy responsibilities.
However, we should not forget that those who are entrusted with those tasks and
responsibilities must exercise them within the very precise and specific framework
A Member of Parliament has little technical
support and, as such, is pretty much left on his own. He has to master the
intricacies of his job as a representative all by himself and learn the rules of
politics as an art and the scientific laws of parliamentary activity. This
situation is universal and Members of Parliament everywhere form a very
distinct group. In Quebec for example, only 185 persons in more than six
million citizens are actually Members of Parliament and among those 185
persons, 110 belong to the same Assembly. It should not come surprising,
therefore, that members of such an elite club should tend to associate with
larger groups in order to share and profit from their respective experiences,
and it is natural that when two Members of Parliament meet, they talk shop,
they talk of Parliament.
The exchange of information on the
principles and practices of parliamentarism is a major item on the agendas of
all official parliamentary associations. It is not an exaggeration to state
that, in many instances, inter-parliamentary relations form actually a school
of parliamentarism. Thus, every year, the Commonwealth Parliamentary
Association holds several conferences or seminars on that very subject in which
it now specializes. On the other hand, the International Association of French
Speaking Parliamentarians has officially, recorded this concern in its
Constitution and it encourages its various parliamentary branches to work
together in a spirit of co-operation.
In short, these three main functions of
inter-parliamentary relations allow Parliament to better exercise its control
on the executive power as it relates to external policies, and complement the
responsibilities of the people's representatives by extending them from the
national to the international scene, thus allowing a better professional
training for Members of Parliament.
However, in the Canadian federal form of
government, one wonders if these. functions are equally useful to provincial
and federal Parliaments and their Members. We will deal with that question in
another article discussing inter-parliamentary relations and the provinces.
1. "The Parliamentarian" October
1969, The Role of the Canadian Parliament in the Formulation of Foreign Policy,
2. Richards, Peter G., Parliament and
Foreign Affairs, University of Toronto Press, 1967, p. 191.
3. Canada, Hansard, House Commons, June 18,
1971, p. 6885.