With a baby boom on the way on Parliament Hill, there is once again discussion about ways to make the place friendlier to the working parents – primarily mothers – in the ranks of MPs. It’s no surprise that issues like childcare are a big deal, and MPs don’t get things like parental leave, so it makes it more difficult off the start. And while it’s all well and good to realize that yes, Parliament is very much an institution that was created by men for men, we also need to approach any notion of changing or “modernizing” it with a great degree of caution.
As part of the iPolitics story about that baby boom – two MPs have recently given birth and two more are pregnant – Liberal MP Scott Brison, who has just had twins with his partner via surrogate, said that “simple changes” are needed to eliminate what he deems to be colossal wastes of time. But this is where my internal alarms go off, because the last time that Parliament started making changes in order to make things more “family friendly,” the unintended consequences wound up making things a whole lot worse for everyone involved.
Up until the early nineties, Parliament used to have evening sittings three nights per week. Around six o’clock every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening, the House would recess, and MPs would head up to the Parliamentary restaurant where they would all have dinner (and yes, a few drinks) together. It helped them to get to know one another, and it built a collegiality between MPs so that even if they were in opposite parties, they generally liked each other as individuals. And by around 8 o’clock, they’d head back to the chamber and debate for a few more hours.
The move to allow MPs to make it home for dinner on a more regular basis ended evening sittings (with the except of a couple of instances of Committee of the Whole every year and the odd emergency debate). If you ask pretty much anyone who was part of the Hill community at that time, it made for a sea change in collegiality. MPs didn’t mingle nearly as much any more, and much of that friendliness started to fall away as they stayed further in their own party’s camps, and had a harder time getting to know their opponents on a personal basis. Ultimately, it made for more acrimony in the House.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why I get nervous when I hear people talking about “efficiencies” in the way Parliament runs, because there will be unintended consequences. For example, Brison talks about consolidating votes to a single day, and introducing electronic voting. Consolidating votes makes for a long series of votes all at once, and sometimes things can get put off for very nearly a week if this is the case. It already happens with private members’ business, where all voting happens on Wednesdays, so that if the final hour of debate on a bill is on Thursday, the actual vote won’t take place until the following Wednesday. Imagine this happening with all government business, which is hardly efficient when things can move through the process in a timelier manner if votes happen on the usual three nights per week (with some obvious agreed-upon exceptions). As well, procedural votes couldn’t fall under this rubric anyway, and some of those tend to be more time wasters than anything else, particularly when parties are trying to run out the day’s clock for whatever the reason.
Electronic voting may also sound like a great and efficient thing, but what it does is suck the life out of Parliament itself. Part of the reason is that Parliament is a place of symbols, and there can be fewer, more meaningful symbols in our democracy is having MPs show up and stand up for what they believe in – literally. It makes them stand before the public and say that I am voting yes to this, no to that, and they are counted by that action. There is nothing to sitting down and hitting a button to vote. No declaration of principles that everyone can see. That’s actually an important thing and should be preserved, even if it takes a little longer to get through.
The other reason why the proposal is particularly fraught with unintended consequences is because it’s one of the few times that MPs are all together in the chamber and can see each other and interact, especially in the suspension of proceedings while the bells ring. As it is, the only other time MPs might be all together is for QP, during which they are pumping themselves up for the adversarial contest, and there’s no break in the proceedings during which they can freely mingle. The loss of that time when MPs can be sociable in the sitting day would be an even bigger blow to the already shaky collegiality, which we really should avoid.
Brison also suggested that the House eliminate Friday sittings to give MPs an extra day in their ridings – not that all that many MPs stick around for Friday as it is. The problem, however, is where those extra sitting hours are going to come from. As it stands, the calendar has already been reduced with the loss of evening sittings, and nobody wants to stick around Ottawa any later in the summer than they have to, considering how hot and humid it gets here. Ambitious legislative agendas would be curtailed, private members’ business would be even further restricted, and it would be an invitation for more omnibus bills for “efficiency’s sake.”
No one disputes that being an MP and a parent is difficult, and that it does mean sacrifices. But we also need to recognize that the state of Parliament is already fairly precarious as it is, and making further changes for the sake of being “family friendly” could push things over the edge.
Other articles by Dale Smith
We don’t need MPs in short pants
How are those open nominations going anyway?
Chong’s Reformed Reform Act still misses the main mark
Take heed with Senate transformation proposals
There are no interim first ministers
Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale