On March 14, 2008, the Speaker of the House, Peter Milliken, made a ruling in which he implored members to change their behaviour. Citing ”œcrisis management in committees,” Milliken told the House, ”œI do not think it is overly dramatic to say that many of our committees are suffering from a dysfunctional virus that, if allowed to propagate unchecked, risks preventing members from fulfilling the mandate given to them by their constituents.” He entreated House leaders and the whips of all parties to ”œaddress themselves to the crisis in the committee system that is teetering dangerously close to the precipice at the moment.”
These are strong words from the Speaker, but not unwarranted. Indeed, a month later, The Globe and Mail was quoting election speculation and citing the dysfunctions of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee in its attempts to investigate charges of Conservative campaign finance irregularities, and of the Environment Committee, and of the Justice Committee as it addressed allegations by the widow of Independent MP Chuck Cadman that Conservative Party officials offered him a $1-million life insurance policy prior to a 2005 vote.
In truth, most Canadians are largely unaware of the workings of parliamentary committees. They may take a keen interest in revelations about former prime minister Mulroney’s relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber, but they look right past the Ethics Committee to whom those facts are revealed. Yet the Speaker’s recent comments deserve our attention, and not least because they are an important reminder that Parliament is not indestructible. Parliament requires the regular care and attention that any complex instrument demands. And as times change, Parliament needs to keep pace.
The Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University (CSD) recently concluded a major review of the Canadian Parliament and, among other things, compared its institutions and practices with those of several other leading democracies. The resulting report highlighted 25 recommendations for parliamentary reform, and, interest- ingly, many of them turn on precisely the issues that lie behind Speaker Milliken’s comments: concerns about the workings of committees, the influence of parties on Parliament, and Parliament’s ability to harness partisan energies and ambitions in productive ways.
Canada’s Parliament is an executive-centred, party-dominated, adversarial-minded, multi-tasked institution. It has had these characteristics for a long time, yet it has always suc- ceeded in adapting well enough to keep up with the chang- ing demands of markedly different eras.
Reform of Parliament is part of a continuous and hon- ourable tradition. In effect, parliamentary democracies are always in the midst of reform. Our system of government may look as immovable and unchanging as the stones of the Peace Tower, yet it is in fact, and by design, in a state of constant evolution.
The history of parliamentary reform in the past generation offers many examples of good practice that remain relevant, and these innova- tions, plus recent reports by MPs from all parties " especially the 2003 report The Parliament We Want " point the way toward a timely reform agenda. As the report recommended, and as the CSD’s international scan of legislative practice confirms, two of the main requirements are (1) to enhance parlia- mentary committees and to improve the ability of those committees, and individual MPs and senators, to call on specialized, non-partisan research expertise located in the Library of Parliament; and (2) to create, within the library, a new Parliamentary Office of Citizen Engagement to assist com- mittees in reaching out to, and learning from, Canadian citizens.
To those two suggestions from the Parliament We Want the CSD study emphasizes a third idea: to improve scrutiny. The ability of Parliament to assess the economic management of the government requires a well-funded and appropriately senior staffed Parliamen- tary Budget Office. The operating assumptions of the Department of Finance must be tested, and this requires independent expertise of a high order.
Despite the ever-present partisan- ship of Parliament, I believe in the virtues of the Westminster system of representative and responsible gov- ernment. One of its clear strengths is that it can govern. My emphasis, like many reformers, is directed toward improving parliamentary committees. Reforming Parliament will not only right a crucial balance between the executive and the legislature, but this shift will ultimately improve the gov- ernment’s effectiveness.
I recommend many of the same policy prescriptions as the reformers who worry about the ”œfriendly dictator- ship” of the Prime Minister. But my rationale is different, in that I do not fear a strengthened executive. True, in the short term, cabinet ministers may worry that enhanced parliamentary effectiveness will lead to more penetrat- ing questions designed to embarrass the executive. In the longer term, however, the Prime Minister and ministers should realize that using parliamentary committees to probe problems or to engage citizens will lead to better poli- cy. Most importantly, such reforms would reduce the almost total reliance of ministers on the bureaucracy.
Yet what exactly are the sources of turmoil and counterproductive commit- tee wrangling? Arguably much of it pro- ceeds directly from the ambitions of the members both as individuals and as extensions of their parties. After all, con- sider the motivations that propel this rel- atively small number of Canadians to enter politics (which then, in turn, demands an almost total commitment of energy to keep up). I have met a few polit- ical ”œmonsters” whose egos have com- pletely overtaken their judgment, but generally, I have found that parliamentar- ians retain the idealistic core of values which propelled them to go into politics in the first place. But even among the best, personal ambition does jostle with idealistic commitment to public service. This has been long recognized. Lord Chesterfield, famous for his wise letters to his son in the 18th century, said no man enters the House of Commons without secretly believing he will end up as first minister. James Madison, in The Federalist Papers, which developed the rationale for the new US Constitution, wrote:
Those ties which bind the repre- sentative to his constituents are strengthened by motives of a more selfish nature. His pride and vanity attach him to a form of government which favours his pretensions and gives him a share in honours and distinctions.
Abraham Lincoln has rightly been elevated to political sainthood, but we should not forget that before he became a wise president, he was a striving Illi- nois politician whose ambition, accord- ing to William Herndon, his law partner at the time, was ”œa little engine that knew no rest.”
Ambition is likewise the engine that drives most Canadian politicians. David Docherty’s surveys of Canadian MPs reveal that 80 percent of the mem- bers sampled in the 34th Parliament (1988-93) stated that getting into cabi- net was at least somewhat important to them, and among rookie MPs in the 35th Parliament (1993-97), the number was even higher, at 84 percent. In the 37th Parliament (2000-2004), almost two-thirds of responding MPs indicated that getting into cabinet was important.
This ambition for ministerial office, however " and here is the cru- cial point " often leads to frustration and discontent: most of the caucus may want to be in cabinet, but only a few at any one time can grab the prize. Among parliamentarians as a whole, the ratio of minis- ters to ordinary members is 10:1. John Roberts, a former minister in the Trudeau government, laughingly recalled that upon his elevation to cab- inet, not many of his Ontario caucus colleagues seemed overly pleased.
Competition drives every aspect of Canadian politics. There is compe- tition for party nominations, then the election itself. If your party has suc- ceeded in winning the election, there is competition to get into cabinet; if you are in the opposition, there is a desire to be a front-bench opposition spokesperson, or member of the ”œshadow” cabinet. Ministers compete with each other in cabinet to get resources for their programs or for House time to pass their bills. Barbara Castle, a senior member of the British cabinet, quipped that a version of Dante’s description of Hell: ”œabandon love, all ye who enter here,” should be inscribed above the door of every min- ister’s office. Ultimately, and in their dreams, ministers also contemplate future leadership contests.
Opposition MPs are equally ambitious, but have less opportunity to make an impact on legislation. That is one reason that they prone to revolt against their leader. What can be readily influenced when one is an opposition MP is internal party politics. Party revolts are also a way to get noticed. Factions naturally form within parties, and if one is facing a majority government, then an obvious next target may be one’s own leader " especially if you are not part of the group that brought him or her to the position of lead- ership. George Perlin, in assessing the Diefenbaker era of the Conservative Party, called such revolts the ”œTory syndrome.” John Turner, as leader of the Liberal Party, however, equally endured party dis- sension when he was leader of the opposition after 1984, suggesting that it may be more of an opposition syndrome than a specifically Tory affliction. Occasionally, however, backbench frustrations even break out in majority governments, as Margaret Thatcher and Jean Chré- tien can attest.
Therefore, given the primacy of ambition and the relative paucity of cabinet posts or front-bench opposition slots, there must be positive outlets and more prizes, beyond the cabinet, for the men and women who sit in Parliament.
For starters, the stature of the House of Commons chairs of committees needs to be raised. The salary and staffs of chairpersons of parliamentary standing committees should be made comparable to those of ministers, so that contribut- ing to the committee process will become an end in itself. The positions, which are potentially extremely influen- tial, should both command respect and demand responsibility, and committee work should be made an alternative course for members who wish to make their mark. Members and senators should be assigned to committes for the full term of Parliament. The elected chairs of the committees must balance the interests of their party against the primary need to have committees operate fairly and effectively. Currently, we have chairs preventing their committees from operating by allowing filibusters, or preventing committees from meeting by leaving the room.
In the United Kingdom, it is a priv- ilege to chair a select committee and it is an honour to serve on one. The goal of select committees is to produce reports with all-party consensus. A British MP who recently visited Ottawa told The Hill Times that the partisan warfare and committee dysfunction in Ottawa ”œwould never happen” at Westminster. ”œCommittee members,” he said, ”œwere not party animals,” but were there to present the ”œbest possible report” to government.
To achieve the all-party consensus typical of British select committees, I pro- pose that we return to the 1980 innova- tion of parliamentary task forces on issues that are not yet part of the gov- ernment’s agenda. These can be chaired as readily by members of the opposition as by supporters of the government. Every standing committee could useful- ly have three or four subcommittees either looking at emerging policy issues or evaluating administrative compe- tence in existing programs. Ministers and opposition critics number about one-third of the House. With enhance- ment of the positions of subcommittee chairs, standing committee chairs and parliamentary secretaries, the number of important parlia- mentary positions that could attract the ambitions of parlia- mentarians could rise to accom- modate more than half of the members of the House of Commons.
Beyond the questions of personal ambition and insti- tutional expectation, there is also good reason to address the resources devoted to com- mittees. At a very basic level, there simply need to be more rooms available, and those rooms need to be properly equipped. Then the commit- tees themselves must be bet- ter outfitted. Committees such as Public Accounts or Ethics require the services of counsel and forensic accounting. The Parliament We Want identified the need for sen- ior researchers able to integrate knowledge in functional areas such as science or children. Every commit- tee of Parliament should have a core of four or five researchers who are expert in their subject areas, with the Library of Parliament having enough capacity to assign extra staff or hire outside consultants on particularly intensive or urgent priorities.
Obviously many of the changes sug- gested for committees entail increases in resources, and Parliament as a whole would benefit greatly if the Library of Parliament was reassessed, beginning with a review of the library’s section of the Parliament of Canada Act. Since the Act’s passage in 1871, the only changes to the Library of Parliament’s functions have been a legislative man- date for the parliamentary poet laureate and the Parliamentary Budget Office.
The library’s current legislation states that it exists to purchase, collect and house books, maps and other arti- cles. It has long since grown well beyond these duties, and the recom- mendations of the CSD’s report would require further expansion. The library’s legislative mandate should be reviewed by the Standing Joint Committee on the Library of Parliament in light of the ibrary’s current devolving circum- stances. As part of this review, the joint committee should also look at its own mandate and perhaps bring in amendments to the standing orders that would make it more of a management body, like the House of Commons board of Internal Economy.
A call for increased library resources, however, should not be miscon- strued. MPs reported in 2003 that it was not that information was lacking, but rather that ”œthe deluge of information coming from all sides, the complexity of departmental performance reporting of estimates and estimates processes and the lack of time all conspire to reduce Parliament’s scrutiny function to a few partisan skirmishes on largely symbolic matters.” Already, in the 1970s, Robert Stanfield spoke of parliamentary over- load, but today, MPs must deal with a 24- hour news cycle, e-mail and the Internet. Parliamentarians admit in the report that ”œthey are simply overwhelmed…There are too many expenditures, too many reports, and too many departmental pro- grams to review for some 400 individuals in the House of Commons and the Senate to oversee effectively.”
To play their crucial role in accountability, parliamentarians must be able to discover who is responsible to whom, for what. Timely and relevant information is a prerequisite, and while Parliament certainly has an abundance of timely data, their relevance to the needs of parliamentarians is another matter. What is needed is a system to link spending to performance, the esti- mates, departmental performance reports and the reports of the auditor general. Parliamentarians need data from the various departments to be consolidated. The CSD report recom- mends not only increased expert assis- tance, but differing kinds of advice as well: there should be parliamentary advisers on broad, cross-cutting issues, such as science and the environment. The Liaison Committees of the House and the Senate (made up of the Chairs of the various standing committees) should meet and recommend to the library what type of specialized advice is required and in what areas.
At present, the Library of Parlia- ment is under-resourced to carry out such an expanded role. The library has professionals who have a considerable degree of specialization and capacity in given fields, and it does create multidisciplinary teams to address certain committee studies. But it is stretched to provide prospective studies and in-depth expert overviews on potentially controversial issues or emerging problems that require intensive and concerted effort by a team of researchers or outside con- tractual experts. It has recently pub- lished a new InfoSeries on Afghanistan, which is an example of the work it could do if it had more resources. In short, the capacity of the library has to be strengthened to allow it to provide more ongoing services to individual committees and parliamentarians. It also needs additional resources to engage experts as required for major studies or particularly complex pieces of legislation.
As the Library of Parliament con- tinues to expand its research capacity, it should also be possible to arrange exchanges with government depart- ments, so that parliamentary researchers gain the experience of working within the executive, and so that public officials will come to know the workings of Parliament.
The Parliament We Want made cri- tiques that are also found in most past studies. It noted that the House of Commons had lost its ”œforum” quality and was no longer the place in which meaningful debate occurred; Parliament had lost its ability to scruti- nize government activity, especially the link between spending and per- formance. All of this had been said by parliamentarians a generation ago.
But where the report did break new ground was in situating the issue of parliamentary reform within the broader context of citizen engagement and democracy. ”œAs one parliamentar- ian put it,” the report said, ”œparliamen- tary reform can, and perhaps should, be seen as a way to buttress democracy between elections.” In answering the question of what Parliament should look like in the 21st century, the report began with an assessment of citizens’ expectations. The report found:
Citizens expect a greater voice and inclusion in public deliberation, especially on normative questions. But the public is currently under- whelmed by the existing regime of consultation and engagement.
Citizens do not want to provide dictates to parliamentarians, they want to provide advice. They do not expect their advice to be taken at all times; rather, they want to be told how their advice was used. Feedback is critically important to any consultation exercise.
A Parliamentary Office of Citizen Engagement (POCE) should be created within the library of Parliament to assist the library’s substantive policy experts in developing engagement techniques that will further the work of parliamentary committees.
In addition to its substantive expert- ise, the Library of Parliament should engage animators, experts in deliberative democracy and technology specialists to assist Canada’s Parliament in becoming a leading practitioner of citizen engage- ment programs. Citizen assemblies, deliberative polling and mediated Internet discussions are only a few of the techniques that parliamentarians can use to complement their traditional methods of cross-country travel and invitations to experts who provide poli- cy advice. Just as the Library of Parliament currently provides services both to committees and individual members of Parliament, in addition to its committee function, the POCE should assist individual members of Parliament to create useful Web sites and promote local efforts in engagement.
The Parliamentary Office of Citizen Engagement would help committees integrate new techniques into their more traditional methods of gath- ering information and evidence. The POCE should be set up much like an information technology directorate in a corporation. Its founding premise should be that it is there to facilitate, not to direct, the engagement exercise. The management of the engagement activities needs to be vested in those who understand these substantive issues. The experience of the Centre for the Study of Democracy in assessing deliberative citizen assemblies and par- ticipatory evaluation exercises in dem- ocratic promotion is that it takes far more time to assess how citizens can make a useful contribution than the use of engagement tools themselves.
Citizen forums can be wonderful or they can be meandering, and it takes real expertise to use these new tools well. Therefore, the office should also be located in the Library of Parliament to work with the substan- tive experts who service the commit- tees. The library team would work with the procedural clerks to suggest new mechanisms of engagement. The ulti- mate authority, of course, would con- tinue to be the chairperson and executive of the committees. The Standing Committee on the Library of Parliament should also examine the proposal for a Parliamentary Office of Citizen Engagement as part of its review of the Library of Parliament Act.
Peter Macleod, a Fellow of the CSD, has also done extensive work on how MPs’ constituency offices could become an even more valuable citizens’ resource. After travelling across the country, interviewing the staff of MPs, MacLeod reports that constituency staffs all say the same thing: over the course of the past 15 years, constituency offices have become the federal govern- ment’s unofficial front door. Every day thousands of Canadians call their MPs seeking more information regarding government services. Each office has between two and four staffers, serves 100,000 potential clients a year and annually opens 1,000 new files. MacLeod recommends that Parliament should create a new ”œpopular” Hansard, organized around broad themes that could detail recent or pending govern- ment action. Such a publication could be e-mailed to interested Canadians with Internet access. This Hansard would be in addition to the mail-out that every MP distributes quarterly. MPs’ websites are also basic citizen resources.
Finally, two of the recommenda- tions of the CSD report bear repeating in their entirety. They, too, have to do with the growing capacity of the Library of Parliament, with the power of information, and with the shift in balance between Parliament and the executive that will necessarily accompany improvements that serve the needs of MPs.
In addition to the central role of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) in assisting parliamentarians to understand the assumptions behind the government’s fiscal plan, the PBO should revise the system by which estimates link expenditure to per- formance, and should also attempt to integrate programs by function across the various departments. This task should be carried out in cooperation with the Treasury Board and the Auditor General.
MPs have complained for a gener- ation that they cannot do their job of financial scrutiny because of the com- plexity of the estimates. The first task of the PBO " the latest addition to the expertise resources of Parliament " should be to fix this problem.
The job classification of the PBO should be determined by Parliament, not the Privy Council Office. In general, Parliament " and not the executive " should determine the responsibilities and salary ranges of its most senior officials.
The new position of a Parliamentary Budget Office within the Library of Parliament has already raised important issues of the executive trying to control parlia- mentary institutions through stealth. In December 2006, soon after Parliament had approved the cre- ation of a Parliamentary Budget Office, the Librarian of Parliament forwarded a job description for this position to the Privy Council Office. The Privy Council Office took its time in approving the job classifica- tion and in July 2007, the library received word that the classification would be roughly equivalent to an EX-3 or director general level in the public service.
My view is that such an important post should be equivalent to an assis- tant deputy minister. By having the Privy Council Office determine the job classification of offices that report to Parliament, the executive can deter- mine who, in general, will apply for the post. John McKay, a member on the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, was quick to draw the implications of the PCO’s less-than-robust support of the new parliamentary institution. McKay said, ”œI can see Finance’s sticky little paws all over this. They do not want to have any entity " particularly not an entity from Parliament " disputing what their numbers might be for budgetary purposes.” Parliament should deter- mine the job classification of its main officers, not the Privy Council Office. As the eminent parliamentary authority C.E.S. Franks argues,
The question of who appoints, sets salaries for, and reviews the performance of these senior staff of the legislature have received little attention in Canada. These procedures are, however, crucial to the autonomy and independ- ence of the legislature.
The full report of the Centre for the Study of Democracy from which the present article is drawn plumbs all of the above issues and many more to a level of detail not afforded here. The report takes solace in the fact that change is a mainstay of Parliament. But there should be little doubt that change is again an urgent priority, because the current dysfunction is a crisis, not a blip. The CSD report is full of recommendations about how to improve process and procedure, but none of these ideas will have much impact if Parliament does not have the will to make the system work. As Speaker Milliken aptly quoted from Shakespeare in his appeal to the Members, ”œthe fault…is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
The study can be found onthe Centre for the Study of Democracy’s Web site at http://www.queensu.ca/csd/