As we start a new year in 2011, there increasing evidence that Stephen Harper, the temporary Prime Minister of Canada is treating the seat of the country's democracy, the House of Commons as an irritant that should either be used primarily to undermine the opposition or to introduce legislation which is designed to garner votes as opposed to dealing with the most fundamental challenges facing the country. Here is a possible reform to make Parliament relevant again with a different government in power.
IMPROVING DEMOCRACY IN PARLIAMENT IN ORDER TO SAVE PARLIAMENT
Professor Errol Mendes
It is a profound paradox of Parliamentary democracy in Canada that even though the Office of the Prime Minister is barely mentioned in the written Constitution of Canada, the holder of that Office has the potential to regard the seat of democracy in Canada, the House of Commons as no more than an irritant in pursuing his political and legislative agenda. The present Prime Minister seems to regard the House of Commons as not only an irritant, but also dispensable as evident by two undemocratic prorogations in just over one year. This virtually dictatorial ability comes from the following conventional powers of the Prime Minister and in the wrong hands can lead to a completely dysfunctional Parliament as some claim is the present situation under Stephen Harper:
1. The PM determines the order of legislation being introduced in the Commons. The legislation is usually directed by the PMO and Cabinet, PCO with the details being crafted by the relevant department and the Justice Department. The majority of MPs are left with only voting on the different stages of the Bill and minor changes, if any, in committees.
2. The PM determines the Chairs of those committees who often lack the most essential research staff to assist in more substantial shaping and amending of legislation. As we have also seen the PMO can also direct those Chairs to undermine any committee that threaten the agenda of the PM.
This stranglehold of the Prime Minister on the House of Commons makes a mockery of the intention of Parliament to be able to hold the executive to account under the foundations of Responsible Government. To remedy this profound democratic deficiency, the following reforms should be undertaken:
1. Legislation introduced in Parliament is often the product of private maneuvering and brokerage politics between senior cabinet ministers, special interests, lobbyists and their clients. The role of MPs in this process is very limited. Reforms should focus on Ministers presenting legislative ideas and guidelines to Commons committees and tasked with producing the first attempts of draft bills with the help of adequate research staff and Justice Department legislative counsel. This most important democratic process will then be open to public scrutiny rather than driven by backroom deals. The relevant Minister can choose to reject the Committee’s draft of legislation, but will have to justify this decision.
2. Parliament should create either by Standing Orders or by statute, key committees to oversee the main government departments, not only on departmental estimates but on an ongoing basis to determine current accountabilities and objectives. The estimates of a number of depatments should be selected annually - some by opposition MPs and some by government backbenchers for in-depth review and with professional staff to assist MPs. Rigid timelines for review of estimates by May 31st should be removed. These departmental oversight committees could have subcommittees for special investigations or to study actual or proposed legislation.
3. All committees must be adequately resourced with enough funds for research and other professional staff. Members of committees should maintain their tenure for the duration of the Parliamentary session to develop expertise and not be dominated by Party whips ability to shuffle them at will. Ideally free votes should be allowed on all bills except confidence and budgetary measures in these committees.
4. MPs should be offered more of the opportunities to conduct major studies or inquires that are often sent outside Parliament to commissions and task forces. One of the most urgent tasks of one of any committee dealing with democratic reform should be the establishment of a Parliamentary task force that can propose how to bring about greater participation in elections, especially among the youth of our country, including through reform of the electoral system and the use of electronic and social networking to achieve that aim.
5. MPs should be far more involved in the development of the budget and budget consultations than is the case with the present Finance Committee. Just as with ordinary legislation, the Minister of Finance should start the budget process by giving a broad outline of budget objectives to the Finance Committee. It is then the Finance committee that takes the main budgetary consultations in hand and consults with Canadians nationwide on the broad objectives of the budget. There should be a commitment that the results of these consultations are not mere harvesting of opinions that are immediately discarded. Instead, the results of the consultations should then be the foundation of the actual budget developed by the Minister of Finance and the Cabinet. The Finance Committee acts as the guarantor that the actual budget has taken into account the views of the nationwide budgetary consultations.
There are many other democratic reforms that can be envisaged to restore confidence and trust in how our institutions are governed, but these are the most critical, at least as far as making sure that when Canadians exercise their vote at the ballot box, who they elect are actually able to participate in the governance of their country. This is the very least that democracy must mean in the true north brave and free.