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John Stewart

Parliament, Policy and Representation, edited by Harold D. Clarke, Colin Campbell, F.Q. Quo, and Arthur Goddard, Toronto, Methuen, 1980, XXV and 325 PP.

During the two years before the 1979 election there were three major conferences on representation in Canada: one at York University in 1977; one at Victoria in 1978; and one at Simon Fraser early, in 1979. The major papers from the York conference were published in a special issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly. The proceedings of the Victoria conference were issued by the Institute for Research on Public Policy under the title, The Legislative Process in Canada: The Need for Reform. Now we have the product of the Simon Fraser conference.

Not every conference of parliamentarians and professors is successful. Most parliamentarians are far more interested in getting on with the game than in studying its theory and rules, and professors sometimes fail to distinguish between technical research papers suitable to be pondered and dissected by erudite colleagues and addresses interesting to the public. From the present volume it is impossible to say whether the Simon Fraser conference was a great success. The editors decided to put together a book based on a selection of papers from the conference and to supplement them with specially commissioned chapters. Which were conference papers is not shown. As the editors state, their intention was to produce a book which would be useful for undergraduates.

In our era, when the political strength as distinct from the legal authority of the central government of Canada seems to be declining, the first four papers are enlightening, although not cheering. While Parliament as an institution still has a high place in the public mind, the individual Canadian member is regarded as a poor performer by the public. More and more staff help has been provided for members; yet the notion that the "soon loose touch" has become more prevalent. Survey's show that few Canadian members – in sharp contrast to U.S. congressmen – attract either attention or trust. In part see the paper by Anthony Westell – this may, be due to the adversarial role now taken on by Canadian newsmen. In part see the piece by Kornberg and Wolfe – it may be due to the emphasis of the newspapers on the Prime Minister and on elections. an emphasis so strong that in the public mind the Prime Minister and elections are Parliament.

Members are fully. aware of the hostility, and irresponsibility of many reporters. This was one reason why the TV cameras were brought into the House of Commons in October. 1977. Unfortunately, over two-thirds of the early reactions to broadcasts were negative: In one poll over 40 per cent oft hose interviewed said that the proceedings were long, boring, uninteresting, childish, rude. Price and Clarke, the authors of "Television and the House of Commons. conclude that the bad impression created by what is broadcast is "potentially very serious."

It is notable that higher educated Canadians show a more favourable attitude towards their representatives than does the average citizen. But most students in most Canadian schools and colleges learn very little about the governing of their country, as the Symons Commission on Canadian Studies showed. (in contrast, many American students learn a great deal about American government.) Is it any wonder that viewers who understand almost nothing about Parliament are led by the clips from the Question Period to think of Parliament as a bear-pit?

Two papers one by Kenneth Kernaghan and one by Audrey Doerr deal directly with ministerial accountability. Both caution us against changes that would tend to shift the task of governing away from the ministers to the private members. Kernaghan distinguishes between the principle that a minister must resign whenever his officials make a serious mistake and a second principle, that its minister always is answerable in Parliament for a department's conduct. The former, he finds, no longer is realistic, but the latter remains central to our system of government. By changes designed to make the answerability of public servants commensurate with their power in the political process" he does not worry about having them explain estimates and the like we would bring about a constitutional revolution.

Doerr agrees. She concentrates on the desirability of greater contact between the House and the public servants, but stops short of a constitutional reconstruction. Her main emphasis is on the need for a standing committee to review the operation of Crown corporations and a standing committee on expenditures.

No one interested in procedural reform should pass over Paul Thomas' paper, Parliament and the Purse Strings. The most controversial procedural question in Ottawa since 1963 has been the business of supply; one can speculate that the view that the Trudeau government could not manage the treasury contributed to its near defeat in 1972 and to its defeat in 1979. The Official Opposition's persistent condemnation of the abolition (in 1968) of the Committee of Supply contributed to the view prevalent throughout the 1970s that the Liberals had no interest whatsoever in controlling expenditure. And, of course, the truth of the matter is that the House still has not achieved a satisfactory procedure for dealing with the financial aspect of supply business.

The Committee of Supply was a political forum; it did virtually nothing to control expenditure. One unforseen result of the new (1968) procedures, by which the estimates now are sent to the standing committees, was to reveal that the House had virtually no effective control as distinct from legal control on the purse strings. Perhaps the House is prepared to settle for legal control; perhaps not. If not, Thomas' paper is good reading for reformers. He provides an impartial description of the pre1968 supply rules, and of the new regime. He recognizes that the House was and is exercising very little management and strategy control. What is more, he makes reform proposals which are realistic.

Should the Clark government have fired more mandarins? Survey findings reported by Brodie and Macnaughton show that civil servants and Liberal MPs tend to have far less confidence in free enterprise" and the market" than have PC members. The proposition, "The government which governs least governs best," evoked agreement from 54% of the PC members surveyed. in contrast to agreement from 19% of the Liberal members and agreement from 20% of the civil servants surveyed. Does this mean, as the authors seem to think, that given the fact that the Liberals have been the dominant party since 1935 the civil servants have been liberalized?

Or is it, one may ask, that the Liberals have been educated, converted, taken over by the experienced, professional civil servants? The struggles within the Clark government, as described in The Discipline of 'Power, lead one to suppose that a party long out of office is likely to adopt beliefs and to make commitments which are unrealistic, and that once in office it has either to keep its commitments regardless of the consequences or to move close to the views of the civil service (and the former government). Is not that a part of the out-party syndrome? In addition, one may ask if there is not a connection between the substantive difference between the PCs and the civil servants and the recent irruption of concern about mandarin irresponsibility.

The second last paper, by Norman C. Thomas, shows that the solution to Canada's basic constitutional problem dwindling confidence in our system of government is not to be found in Washington. From there, we look good!

Two of the editors. Campbell and Clarke, close the book with some thoughts on reform. Public support is waning because unpopular policies and bad administration are blamed largely on bureaucrats. whom our system presently places beyond responsibility to Parliament. In short, these editors share the opinion, not new but recently epidemic among politicians and professors, that the mandarins now exercise far too much power, and do so irresponsibly. Whether they are right or wrong is debatable and that debate is not helped by the formal distinction between power and influence but that this opinion is very common seems beyond refutation. It is an opinion which, right or wrong, is profoundly dangerous, especially when governments cannot avoid unpopular decisions. Campbell and Clarke propose some remedies. Query: now that "the government party is back in place. and with a majority, will the ministers and mandarins assume that all is well with this aspect of the constitution. The message of most of these papers is that to do so would be a mistake.

As provincial governments become more and more powerful Ottawa professors will have to pay more attention to them. This book contains three pieces which serve to whet the appetite: one on how provincial legislators come to their views of their roles; one on the development of provincial legislatures from political arenas to policy-shaping bodies; and one on private members in Ontario as links between the citizens and their provincial government. Legislators. provincial and federal alike, will be pleased to learn that faithful case work on pensions, passports, etc. does count on the day of judgement.

John B. Stewart, Professor of Political Science, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia


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Last Updated: 2020-09-14