Mother Knows Best: Two Parliamentary Practices that Canada Should Adopt from Britain

The British parliament at Westminster is often referred to as the “Mother of all Parliaments.” A number of countries around the world, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, have based their parliamentary systems on the British model. Each country, however, has developed some of its own unique rules and conventions that guide its parliament. Question period in Canada is conducted differently than it is in Britain. In Britain time is set aside for questions directed to a particular minister while in Canada questions must be directed towards the cabinet as a whole. Additionally parliamentary committees in Britain are more independent of party leadership in Canada, and have much greater practical leeway to scrutinize and modify the legislation that they review. Question period and parliamentary committees play an important role in allowing parliament to hold the executive (the cabinet and Prime Minister) to account for the policies and the legislation they pursue. Canada would benefit from the adoption of the British approach to question period and from the creation of parliamentary committees with a greater degree of independence than they have now.

Question period is probably the most viewed and talked about session in parliament, and also the most maligned. It exists as a mechanism through which the opposition and backbenchers can hold the executive to account for government policies, but has largely degenerated into a venue for partisan attacks from both government and opposition. Partisanship in question period in and of itself is not a bad thing. Indeed, partisanship can lead to an opposition that is vigorous in its scrutiny of the government, seeking to exposure scandals and policy failures. This exposure benefits not only the opposition party, but the Canadian public as a whole. The same can be said of the partisanship and the government if the desire to avoid being embarrassed by a scandal hungry opposition pushes ministers to be more careful in the way they run their departments. Problems arise in question period, however, when partisanship leads ministers to refuse to answer questions or when parliamentary tactics lead parties to deflect questions away from the minister responsible for the department on which a scandal or policy failure occurred. When parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra (instead of the foreign minister or defence minister) is answering questions about the deployment of Canadian forces to Iraq, and when he is doing so by talking about what an opposition staff member thinks about Israel, question period is no longer serving its purpose.

In the United Kingdom a question period session is dedicated to the questioning of a particular minister. Most famous (and common) is Prime Minister’s question time, where all questions are directed towards the Prime Minister and must be responded to by the Prime Minister. Other ministers have their dedicated question time as well though. David Cameron cannot defer to a parliamentary secretary if he does not want to be seen talking about a particular issue or giving a particular answer. If he gets a question during Prime Minister’s question time, he has to provide the government response. If Stephen Harper does not want to be seen addressing a particular subject he can have any other minister or parliamentary secretary provide a response to the question. This led to the absurd scenario in which the response to a question over a discussion Stephen Harper had with Mike Duffy over Duffy’s expense account, not by Stephen Harper, but by then Foreign Minister John Baird.

The British approach to question period has several benefits over the Canadian one. The first is that it ensures that each department is effectively scrutinized and that the appropriate ministers are answering the appropriate questions. An issue such as the deployment of Canadian forces to Iraq is the responsibility of both the foreign minister and the defence minister, and both should be able to provide a full account to Canadians of the details of any policies relating to such a deployment. If they cannot, Canadians have reason to be concerned about the way the Minister is running that department. Further, because a department’s Minister has (or at least should have) the most information of any cabinet minister in government, the Minister should be in best position to give and full and complete answer to the opposition’s question. As the individual responsible for a department, it is reasonable for an opposition party to expect that that Minister will be the one who responds to questions designed to hold the government to account for the way that department is run. The ability of a minister to provide effective answers in question period can then be used as a way to judge that minister’s ability to run her department. A minister that spends most of their question time deflecting or ignoring questions can have their competence questioned by both opposition parties and by the public as a whole. The more important the minister, the more damaging the appearance of incompetence is to the government as a whole. It is one thing for a parliamentary secretary to respond to questions about Iraq by talking about Israel, it looks far worse when the Minister of Defence does so.

Requiring Ministers or the Prime Minister to answer questions further reduces the ability of governments to play partisan games with the way that questions are responded to. The degree of public scrutiny that a minister receives plays a role in the degree to which they can give non-responsive and partisan answers to questions. The more prominent a minister is, the less they can afford to look ridiculous by giving non-responsive and non-sensical answers. There is a reason that Stephen Harper defers to a parliamentary secretary, or even another Minister, when his party wants to make its most partisan of attacks or wants to completely ignore a question. A parliamentary secretary can be shamed into giving a tearful apology to the House of Commons, as Paul Calandra was after refusing to discuss the deployment of Canadian forces to Iraq, without that apology doing too much damage to the way people perceive the government. A Prime Minister or senior minister that has to apologize for ignoring questions is a much bigger deal. This is not to say that Stephen Harper never makes partisan attacks or always responds to question, no Prime Minister is ever as direct or as responsive as the opposition, or often the public, would like. But the Prime Minister and senior ministers are far more constrained in the types of replies that they can provide to questions because there is a greater likelihood that their replies could end up on the 6:00 news. That is a good thing for question period and for parliament.

In contrast to question period, parliamentary committees probably receive some of the least public scrutiny of any of parliament’s activity. They exist to allow MPs to debate and discuss the details of legislation, gathering informations (committees are allowed to call witnesses) and discussing details in a way that could not be done in a 300 person meeting of parliament. The committees provide a valuable venue in which parliament can scrutinize government and private member’s legislation. Individual MPs rarely have the time to go through every detail in a piece of legislation. There are simply too many pieces of legislation for a single MP to become an expert in each one. Committees allow for a division of labour in parliament when it comes to the scrutiny of legislation. The quality of this scrutiny hinges on the committees being independent of leadership, particular of government control. Committee members who are assigned committee positions by their party leadership are going to be less likely to go against the wishes of their party and provide proper scrutiny of legislation.

The independence of committees is affected by the way that members are selected to them. In Britain many committee chairs are elected by all MPs and by secret ballot, limiting the control that party leadership can exert over their selection. If a substantial number of government backbench MPs want to work together to get an MP selected chair of a committee the government can not only do little to stop them, but also has no ability to figure out who was part of the group that organized in favour of the backbencher elected. In Canada committee chairs are elected only by the MPs who sit on the committee. The small number of voters coupled with the control that parties have over who is assigned to committees makes it easy for party leadership to wrangle votes and ensure that the chairs that they prefer are appointed heads of particular committees.

One could go further than Britain in designing a committee selection process that maximizes the independence of parliamentary committees. All committee members could be elected by members of their parties, ensuring that the MPs chosen to represent their parties on a committee are accountable to their colleagues in parliament and not to party leadership. Committee positions are assigned to parties based on their overall representation in parliament, so elections would have to occur within the parties. NDP MPs would vote on which of their members would serve on a committee, say the finance committee, and Conservative MPs would vote on which of their members would serve on such a committee. MPs would thus have to demonstrate to their colleagues that they can best serve MPs’ interests rather than just demonstrating that they will do what party leadership wants them to. Groups of backbench MPs hostile to their party’s leadership would be able to organize and seek to gain control of the committee that deals with that issue. Government legislation in this area would then be subject to greater levels of scrutiny. The election of committee chairs and members would reduce the ability of party leadership to control committee activity and make leadership much more accountable to parliament as a whole.

Canadian parliament would be well served by changes to its procedures that allow more space for parliament to scrutinize the activity of the government. This is not to argue that party discipline and partisanship does not have its place in Canadian politics. Both do play important roles in ensuring that parliament can function effectively, but both can also serve as impediments to government accountability. Changes to the procedures that govern question period and the selection of committee members could help to improve the ability of parliament to hold the Prime Minister and cabinet to account.

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