December 31, 2008

Making Parliament more relevant to Canadians

As published in The Erin Advocate

After my recent musings on the possibility of a coalition government in Ottawa, I received an email from an irate reader. He said if I thought we need a government created by the Bloc and the Liberals, then I was not from Erin.

It is true that I was not born and raised here, and maybe I would be more Conservative in my politics if I had been. Still, there is some value in expressing views that may only be shared by a minority of readers.

To be clear about the coalition, I am a federalist and have no sympathy for the Bloc Québécois. But I do not fear and loathe them, since they operate peacefully, within the law. I have faith in democracy, no matter what it brings us.

Actually, political parties have very little impact on our daily lives. I would be glad to see the current government work successfully, but if a coalition took power by legal means, I say let them have a crack at it. They would probably be no worse than the governments to which we have become accustomed, in which good intentions have been undermined by arrogance, instability, incompetence, wastefulness et cetera.

Politicians often try to whip up public fear of their opponents, but we are wise to take it with a grain of salt. After all, neither Mike Harris nor Bob Rae was able to destroy the province of Ontario, despite the claims of their foes. We have become impervious to our politicians, and they have become irrelevant to us.

As I pondered the irrelevance of Parliament, what should arrive in my mailbox but the Christmas newsletter from MP Michael Chong?

Naturally, the page one message is on the economy, praising the government’s recent Economic Statement. (He does not mention that parts of the statement were so offensive to the majority of MPs that the government almost collapsed.) People may argue about the best strategy, but at least the protection of Canadian jobs and confidence in the financial sector is on the front burner.

More interesting in Chong’s newsletter is an excerpt from a speech he gave this year, calling for reforms to make Parliament more relevant. He has some excellent suggestions, reinforcing his image as an MP willing to express his own views.

He blasts the current Question Period, calling for civilized, reasoned debate instead of yelling and screaming. “It is a place that more resembles a Roman coliseum where gladiators spill blood and fight for the crowd’s emotions,” he said.

He suggests the maximum time for asking or answering a question be increased from 35 seconds to one or two minutes, to allow for more intelligent content. He questions the predictable behaviour of many MPs. “Virtually all questions and answers are followed by clapping and standing ovations,” he said.

He also proposes a rotational schedule for government ministers to be present at Question Period. Currently, the duties surrounding Question Period can knock three hours out of a minister’s day, time that could be spent more productively.

I would not want to see the prime minister appearing only once a week – that would seem a bit too aloof. But two or three times a week would be plenty for all ministers, unless there was a particular crisis that concerned them.

Chong also criticizes the custom of having debate speeches written in leaders’ or ministers’ offices, then read into the record by MPs who have no input into the content. There is a long tradition of frustration among backbenchers, who run for office to make a difference, and then find themselves treated as mindless bolts in a big machine.

Unfortunately, the zeal for reform tends to fade among those who make it into powerful positions. Still, the democratization of Parliament remains a noble pursuit.

“If members know how they are voting before debate begins, then there is no real reason to listen or to participate in debate,” said Chong. “There should be greater latitude for non-cabinet ministers to freely express their views and to vote as they wish on many more issues.”

I think MPs should have sufficient useful information to hold the government accountable for its plans, be involved in initiating research through parliamentary committees and have longer tenures with committees to build up expertise. Influencing public policy is best done before the formal partisan battle lines are drawn.

Chong warns that Parliament is not indestructible: “We must be careful not to ignore it and its problems, for one day the dam of irrelevance and frustration that Canadians feel about this institution may burst. At that juncture one can only guess what the outcome will be.”