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George Kerr

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Sixth Canadian Regional Parliamentary Seminar, Ottawa, November 26, 1980, 137 pp.

For the past half-dozen years, the Canadian Regional Parliamentary Seminar has provided a forum for legislators to compare and evaluate their institutional and procedural differences. It is the kind of service which goes largely unnoticed by the general public, and may not always be appreciated by the majority of (non-participating) politicians who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Seminar's discussions.

The Agenda for the 1980 Seminar covered several areas familiar to those concerned with the overall issue of making the elected representative as efficient as possible in his job: "Conceptions of a Parliamentarian's Role," "The Parliamentarian and his Riding," "The Parliamentarian and the Media" and so on.

Transcripts of verbal proceedings are not the most engrossing of reading matter, nor are they the easiest material to evaluate. Certainly, the cold print does little to convey the atmosphere of the presentations and debates and, of course, nothing of the more informal, and perhaps more important lunchtime and coffee break conversations is included in the formal record of the Seminar.

However, it is evident that at times the contentiousness of several subject areas did manage to engage the feelings of the Seminar's participants to a degree which is evident in the transcript. This was particularly so in the session devoted to The Parliamentarian and the Media. Surprisingly, given the nature of the Seminar, and the aims of these sessions, rather more heat than light was generated by the exchanges between the questioners and the panel of journalists. It was sadly evident that the flippancy of the newsmen – with the notable exception of W.A. Wilson – was matched by the petulance of several questioners. The media (and why were there no broadcast journalists on the panel?) have grave faults in their approach to the coverage of politics and politicians, but improvement in their performance is not effected by the tiresome grumbling of the "we wuz misquoted" variety indulged in by too many politicians.

With regard to those old staples of the Parliamentary Seminar, "Conceptions of a Parliamentarian's Role," "The Parliamentarian as Legislator," and What Can Be Done to Improve the Parliamentarian's Effectiveness?" those in charge of unzipping the legislatures' pocket books should long ago have taken the loud and frequent hints emanating from the Parliamentary Seminar, as well as from individual legislators, journalists and political scientists throughout Canada. The effort involved in representing the people and legislating for them const Itutes a fulltime job: it may even be a profession. Legislatures should at least provide sufficient scope and institutional support facilities to enable politicians to function as efficiently in their workplace as hockey players and chiropodists do in theirs. There have been vast improvements in most Canadian legislatures in the past two decades, but the process could go much further and not only in the area of providing funds for research and travel by MPs and MLAs. Legislatures, especially the Parliament of Canada, should be preparing the people they serve for the undoubted changes our society will face in the next few years, and the money required to professionalize the legislators' workplaces given the present size of federal and provincial budgets would be piddling compared to the amounts spent on even minor government programmes, and much easier to justify before the public than increases in the salaries of MPs and MLAs.

An area in which legislators should be given much more scope is that of committee work. Several participants in the Sixth Seminar made the point that relaxation of party discipline in committee would be a valuable and even creative development. Indeed, it already occurs in several legislatures and participants reported no serious injury to the vital principle of party discipline. Giving committees their head in formulating and investigating public policy would be a vital step in bringing legislatures into line with the demands on government in the closing years of this complex century.

An important point was raised by Mr John Butt of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, and by the journalist Mr W.A. Wilson: the legislator's role is changing in ways largely beyond his control, because of a transformation in the interests and priorities of people in a rapidly-evolving society. As Wilson pointed out, many of today's major public concerns the environment, the changing position of women, consumerism developed outside the political process, but very much in the public eye. He might have pointed out, however, that legislatures have had their role in responding to these concerns. Legislatures with adequate facilities, and parties prepared to let up on party discipline in certain circumstances might even have a role to play in anticipating what the media can merely chronicle. Wilson's remarks supported those of John Butt: in the complex process by which public concerns are reflected in, or turned into government policy, legislatures today have many more competitors for attention than in previous years. As Butt says "As an input channel ... Parliament today is in competition with many other institutions, such as interest groups and parties, the media, and the bureaucracy. Indeed, I certainly feel that these people have as much input into Cabinet-made decisions as private members..." (p. 35)

The contributions to the Seminar of two former party leaders, Mr T.C. Douglas and M r Robert Stanfield, area rueful reminder of how much Parliament is diminished by their retirement. It is not just by legislative performance or electoral victories that politicians are remembered. The fundamental decency of these two men is evident in their contributions to the Seminar; their humanity should stand as a perpetual rebuke to those who would prefer to elevate partisanship above principle or the public good.

Finally, while the Canadian Regional Parliamentary Seminar needs no strained justification for its existence – its value as a forum for informed debate is self-evident – the form in which this latest Seminar is presented to the interested reader is less easy to justify. When verbal proceedings are printed, they become part of a permanent and usually public record. There is no excuse for the disgracefully sloppy standard of proof-reading evident in this transcript: even the words of "O Canada" manage to suffer from copyediting barbarism (p. 19). The readership of this volume may not be large, but an organization such as the Canadian Parliamentary Association should treat those readers with somewhat more respect. The only redeeming factor in the proof-reading is that those dozens of errors are sprinkled with admirable impartiality between both official languages.

George Kerr, Professor School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario

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Last Updated: 2020-03-03