Making Parliament work again

Michael Chong, the Conservative MP who is pushing for parliamentary reform through a private member’s bill, may not see it passed. Its specific proposals need more study.

Michael Chong, the Conservative MP who is pushing for parliamentary reform through a private member’s bill, may not see it passed. Its specific proposals need more study.

But he has already done the country an important service by making parliamentary reform a public issue that needs long overdue attention.

Chong’s concern is to curb the power of the prime minister and to restore the role of MPs in our system of parliamentary democracy, so MPs can to act together, on our behalf, in the best interests of the country.

In this system, the prime minister is accountable to elected MPs and holds office only so long as he has their confidence.

But in recent decades, MPs have allowed party leaders to greatly expand their powers, to the point where MPs have given up much of their independence. This has led to serious abuse of power and a less effective Parliament.

It has been obvious for some time that Parliament is not working for Canadians.

Low voter turnout is one indicator — in the 2011 federal election, only 61.4 per cent of registered voters voted, the third lowest turnout in history (only 38.8 per cent of voters aged 18 to 24 voted and just 45.1 per cent of those aged 25 to 34); in 2008, only 58.8 per cent of registered voters voted, the lowest in history.

Our method of electing MPs may be turning voters off because they feel their votes don’t count. Our ‘first past the post’ system rewards the candidate with the largest number of votes even if it is well below 50 per cent.

The Conservatives gained their 2011 majority, which gives them near-dictatorial powers, with just 39.6 per cent of the vote.

Proportional representation is just one alternative. The number of seats gained by a party is proportional to its share of the vote so Parliament would better reflect voter intentions.

If in effect in 2011, the Conservatives would have gained just 122 seats instead of 166. The NDP would also have won fewer seats, 95 instead of 103.

But the Liberals would have won more — 58 instead of 34, the Green Party, 12 instead of one, and the Bloc Quebecois probably 19 instead of four. It would have been a much different Parliament.

Serious parliamentary reform has to look at how we elect MPs so voters are confident their votes count. The other challenge is to strengthen the role of MPs and limit the power of the Prime Minister’s Office. The rigid control over MPs by the Prime Minister’s Office is not new. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to have taken autocracy to new levels.

At the same time, Harper has shown disdain for the institution of Parliament, marginalizing it as much as he can.

For example, the use of massive omnibus bills, putting in one piece of lengthy legislation a wide variety of quite unrelated issues affecting Canadians, is a deliberate and pernicious effort to sneak in many changes in law without proper scrutiny by MPs.

Harper is not alone in his disdain for Parliament. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau spends as little time there as he can get away with, arguing that Canadians have tuned out of what happens in Parliament and that his time in Parliament is a waste of his time.

Yet Parliament matters.

It is where our laws are passed and where government is held accountable.

It is where the issues of the day are or should be debated and the concerns of Canadians raised. Its committees hold hearings on new laws and provide a platform for Canadians to respond to proposed new laws and regulations.

It is where fiscal policy (including taxes) and spending priorities are set, through the budget process and hearings on spending Estimates.

It is where Canada decides to go to war. Its officers — the Auditor-General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer — provide Parliament and, through Parliament, Canadians, with independent assessments of government performance.

The battle for the supremacy of Parliament took many centuries, as reformers wrested arbitrary power from the monarch and transferred power to the people.

Our Parliament today is a shabby version of what earlier generations fought to achieve.

It’s time to restore Parliament to its proper democratic role in our public lives, a place of deliberate debate and decision-making in the best interests of Canadians by MPs who exercise honest judgment as our elected representatives, not a chamber to rubber stamp the decisions of an autocratic Prime Minister.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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