A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Electoral and Parliamentary Reform (part 4)

Parliamentary reform

There are basically three things that govern the procedures in the House of Commons, House Committees and the Senate - Parliamentary Tradition, the House Standing Orders and the current PMs willingness to recognize that the powers that he and cabinet have been trusted with are not a license to dictate governance by decree. The latter depends entirely upon whom we elect and as we have seen when using the current electoral system (not that an alternative system would necessarily change this aspect) can lead to a highly centralized and authoritative governance. Parliamentary Tradition is subject to much the same limitation, it depends upon the willingness of the participants to abide by those traditions for they are not written 'rules' and often are not even clearly understood. That leaves the Standing Orders which govern the way the actual business of the House is carried out, unfortunately said Orders as they now stand leave a great deal of room for abuse of the “traditions” of free and open debate should the government of the day (particularly a majority government) wish to limit debate in either the House or Committee, limit the public’s accessibility to such debate or otherwise short circuit the democratic process.

According to the House Standing Orders, MPs must examine the Commons rules each time a new Parliament begins between the 60th and 90th sitting day. Recently parliament debated this in the House and a number of MPs called for changes to better control the actions of highly partisan individuals during question period and in committee. As Liberal House Leader Marc Garneau said during debate on Friday. “I ask myself sometimes, as I’m sure many Canadians do, why this place often seems to grind to a complete halt. Is it because of the rules, or is it brought about by an abuse of the rules? I don’t mean to sound cynical, but the hyper-partisan nature of this place in recent years makes me wonder sometimes what needs to be changed.”

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May went further and said the rules need to be reviewed and potentially changed in order to have a check on powerful prime ministers with no self restraint. 
“The health of democracy in really large ways has always depended on the prime minister … having self restraint, recognizing ‘I could prorogue Parliament to avoid a vote I’m going to lose but no one would do that because it would be wrong.’  When you have a Prime Minister who doesn’t care or respect the traditions and has no sense of self restraint in the exercise of power, then we have to as individual MPs figure out how to enforce some sort of checks and balances against a Prime Minister who behaves in unilateral and dictatorial ways.”

That sums it up quite well, things were moving along reasonably well whilst those in power 'respected the traditions' but the current rules are insufficient to reign in those that do not. We now have a number of MPs wishing to review and possibly change those rules but there are a few problems in that regard, not the least being that MPs are the ones that must propose and debate the rules that govern their own behavior and that a majority of MPs must agree to those changes in what is currently an institution dominated by one particular party who seem to have little regard for democratic process. It can also be seen that with a majority in both the House and Committee the Conservatives could force through changes that have not been fully debated or even some that actually reduce democratic practices. Add to that the fact that much of the checks and balances that usually place some limits upon is 'tradition' and not even clearly defined and most certainly not defined as 'rule of law' and it can be seen that this is not an easy fix. The need for and difficulty of instituting changes was previously discussed by many observers when Mr Harper prorogued parliament to avoid a vote of confidence in the House, at that time several constitutional scholars said that the hitherto unwritten customs and practices needed to be codified (written down, formalized).

This brings me to the next problem as I see it and that is the lack of clear penalties should the 'rules' be broken. As far as I can tell it is up to the speaker to decide if the rules have been broken, if the matter should be brought before the house for further action and then if fault be found to decide upon what action to be taken. Once again a case of more or less self policing of actions within the house, however when it comes to other matters such as the rules around proroguing for instance as we have seen not only is nobody clear what the rules are but there seem to be no penalties for abusing them other than public outrage and the possibility that voter will remember such things next time they vote. Hardly a very effective restraint as we have seen in the past, is it time for a committee of citizens constitutional scholars to be formed to consider such changes or is this a job for a Senate committee?

I believe we have already reached the breaking point, it remains to be seen how many MPs also see that and how many are willing to stand up and be counted as being in favor of limiting the ever increasing power of the PM and the ever increasing diminishment of our democracy.

NOTE - Please see my Elections Malfeasance page for updated links to some of the many news and blogs following the ongoing Robo-Scam revelations.
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