April 25, 2012

Reforms would shift power from leaders

As published in The Erin Advocate

MP Michael Chong remains confident that his efforts to reform the rules of parliament and shift power away from the party leaders will make Canada's political system more effective and democratic.

The Member for Wellington-Halton Hills has campaigned to restore public faith in the system, not only by making question period more civilized and relevant, but by enhancing the rights of MPs within their parties.

Thanks mainly to Stephen Harper, my vote has never gone to Chong, but he has won four elections by ever-increasing margins. He received a Macleans Parliamentarian of the Year award, based on a survey of fellow MPs, for his non-partisan work on behalf of constituents.

“The least we can do for people who have disagreements with the government is to relay those concerns to Ottawa,” he said.

On issues of parliamentary reform, he has excellent ideas that go beyond party politics and make sense to ordinary people. In 2010, he received support from across the political spectrum and earned respect in the national media for a motion to reform the daily question period.

"If you restore the right of the Members to ask questions, which is really the heart of the motion, you're going to actually go back to the way question period was run for the better part of our history," he said in a recent interview. In the current system, the leaders dictate which members are recognized to ask questions.

"The questions will reflect what ordinary Members of Parliament are hearing back in their ridings. It would mean a loss of control for the three party leaders, absolutely, and I'm in favour of that...Rules need to reflect the equality of Members."

His motion, which passed by a vote of 235-44, calls for tougher discipline by the Speaker of the House to control rude behaviour that Chong has said "would not be tolerated around the kitchen table".

"Teachers have told me that the level of behaviour in question period is such that they will not take their classes here anymore," he told fellow MPs.

The amount of time allowed for each question and answer would be increased from 35 seconds to one or two minutes, encouraging intelligent dialogue instead of superficial sound bites. Ministers would have to respond to questions directed at them, instead of allowing another minister to answer.

Half the questions each day would come from backbench Members, including those on the government side. They would be selected randomly. Chong believes there will be an improved dynamic and better behaviour when most MPs are not just spectators.

"The leaders still get their national agenda-type questions," he said, "Somebody said to me, 'The questions are going to be very local,' and I said, 'That's wonderful'. That's what democracy is. All democracy is local. Parliament's concerns need to reflect the unique nature of this country."

Taking a practical idea from the British parliament, Chong proposes that the Wednesday period be set aside exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister. It would be part of a roster concept, in which cabinet ministers would only have to be present on two of the other four days to answer questions on their portfolio, giving them and their staff more time to deal with other business.

The focus would shift among the major government departments, with a schedule that would enable both ministers and opposition critics to prepare their strategies. This could reveal more useful information and relevant opinions for the public to consider.

Chong's successful motion sent the issue to the Procedure and House Affairs Committee for consideration and possible changes, but the process came to a stop with last year's election.

"My hope is that the committee is going to take up this issue again this spring, without me having to re-introduce a motion to the House," he said. "I'm optimistic they will give it serious consideration."

He could have to wait well into 2013 for his private members turn, if it is necessary to propose a new motion to the House. In this case, another MP could use their turn to propose it for him sooner. Of course, the government itself could adopt the initiative and move it forward quickly.

If the committee studies the matter and sends the House a report recommending changes, and a subsequent motion of support is supported by a majority of MPs, the reforms would take effect immediately. They would be primarily changes to traditional customs respected by the Speaker and MPs, not a bill or change in law.

"Politics is a powerful way to change the world around you, and if you don't get involved politically, you don't vote, then you have no say in the way your community, your province and your province is being run," said Chong. "It has been fashionable to say politics doesn't matter, government doesn't matter, we're going to change the world in different ways – I couldn't disagree more.

"People may find it frustrating in a democracy – the pace of decision making and the difficult nature of politics. There are far more efficient decision-making systems of government, but they're not democracies, they are dictatorships and other forms of totalitarian government. Democracy can be infuriating and cumbersome, but in the long run produces much better results.

"That's not to say our system is perfect. We have strayed somewhat from our democratic principles. I do believe we have to reform our institutions, and restore the primacy of parliament as the place where decisions are made.

"Question period reform is just one little element of what I think we need to do. There are far bigger things that we need to do to restore people's faith in our Canadian institutions."