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The parties are starting to roll out their full platforms as the major debates draw ever closer, and we are getting a better sense of some of the less advertised policies therein.  As part of the Liberal platform released over the weekend were a series of promises related to reforming how Parliament works, which, let's face it, is my catnip.  There are four specific proposals therein, some of which are good, some of which make little sense but that does seem to be how the Liberals operate.  (And for comparison's sake, we haven't seen any proposals from the Conservatives yet, while the NDP's only parliamentary reform proposal is to abolish the Senate, and good luck getting unanimous consent from the provinces to do that).

The Liberals preface their section with a bit of back-patting, as is their wont, but some of it I would reserve applause for.  They cite Senate reform, more free votes, and regular Prime Minister's Question Periods as achievements that "have made Parliament more effective and more accountable to Canadians."  I'm less laudatory to two of those three their attempts at non-constitutional Senate reform have largely been a mess, as anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention could see over the past four years.  Bills take far longer to go through, not because they are getting better scrutiny, but because the new cohort of "Independent" senators have no ability to organize themselves and they waste hours of time on needless speeches and on not adhering to agreements that they make with the other caucuses about moving items on the Order Paper forward if they bother to come to agreements at all (as they remain under the false and mistaken belief that horse trading is "partisan" as opposed to how stuff gets done).  Nevertheless, the Liberals are promising changes to the Parliament of Canada Act to reflect this new reality, so that the leaders of caucuses other than that of the Government and the Opposition (read: the Independent Senators Group, and any future breakaways) will get their own additional funds and resources.

The regular Prime Minister's Question Period, meanwhile, is largely a vacuous exercise of the prime minister reciting prepared talking points that may or may not have some bit of relevance to the questions being asked of him, and the notion that this would be a chance for backbenchers from all sides to ask him questions and not just the other party leaders has proven to be simply an exercise in parties scripting talking points to go on lengthy, coordinated attacks that serve little purpose.  If the intent was to try and bring some of the spark and verve of Westminster's PMQs into our Parliament, well, that was a failed exercise.

So what new ideas do the Liberals plan to lay on Parliament should they once again maintain control of the House of Commons?  There are four listed:

  1. Allocating more time for Private Members' Business to be debated and voted on in Parliament
  2. Working with Parliament to introduce new technology or other institutional changes to better connect Members with their constituents
  3. Eliminating the use of whip and party lists to give the Speaker greater freedom in calling on Members who wish to speak
  4. Providing more resources to parliamentary committees so that they have the staff and research they need to deliver meaningful policy recommendations

Two of these are (mostly) worthwhile endeavours, while two of them are dubious at best.

The allocation of more time for Private Members' Business sounds like a good idea on its face, and we will hear people praising that this will make backbenchers feel more involved, but this isn't a good plan for two reasons.  The first is that the time will need to come from somewhere, and given that there is already not enough time for some government business (in part because we structure our debates so poorly), so we need to hear from where.  As well, more Private Members' Bills will only mean more bottlenecks in the Senate, because government business takes priority there, and there is already not enough time to get to most of these PMBs (especially in the new, "independent" reality).

I am suspicious of the proposal to "introduce new technology" because I fear that means attempting things like electronic voting in the Chamber, which I am absolutely opposed to.  The other institutional changes to "better connect Members with their constituents" I fear will be another attempt at eliminating Friday sittings, or trying to let MPs spend more time in their ridings and skyping into Parliament is also a very bad idea, because it completely diminishes the role and function of Parliament not to mention, further isolating MPs from one another will suffocate any last vestiges of collegiality that exist between parties.

Eliminating the speaking lists is a good idea, but this proposal is only a half-measure.  So long as it is not accompanied by a ban on prepared scripts, this is a somewhat hollow promise.  Eliminating the speaking list won't mean that there isn't an internal speaking list in the parties as long as they have been assigned speeches and questions.  That culture needs to be broken, and simply eliminating the list given to the Speaker won't do that alone.  And yes, this will be difficult for the parties to surrender that kind of power, but if they don't, this promise is just for show.

The final promise, about providing more staff and resources to committees, is again good in theory, but there remains a point of caution too many resources and too much independence on committees can turn them into sideshows (as has been seen in a few select committees in Westminster), and our Parliament already has experience where committees that were healthily resourced sound up finding ways of abusing those resources.  Caution would need to be applied here if the Liberals do go ahead with these plans.

While it's good to see parties talking about things that they can do to make changes in Parliament to help improve things, they need to be mindful that not every suggestion is a good one, and some will make things worse and not better.  While the Liberals have certainly made an effort, I worry that their good intentions are once again getting in their own way, and they could soon make an even bigger mess of our Parliament than we're already in.

Photo Credit: CBC News

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