Parliamentary Reform in Quebec: Motives and Obstacles

By Charbonneau, Jean-Pierre | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview
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Parliamentary Reform in Quebec: Motives and Obstacles

Charbonneau, Jean-Pierre, Canadian Parliamentary Review

Jean-Pierre Charbonneau is Speaker of the Quebec National Assembly. This article is based on his presentation to the symposium on parliamentary reform organized by Le Courrier parlementaire on February 26, 1997, in Quebec City.

Ever since the Quiet Revolution and the first attempts at reform, proposed by Jean-Charles Bonenfant in 1963 at the request of Premier Jean Lesage, a great deal of effort has gone into enhancing the role of the private member and improving the way Quebec's National Assembly operates. Many aspects of the work done by the legislature have changed, but there are still serious problems. Really far-reaching reform remains to be achieved. This article looks at some recent reform proposals.

The first reason for tackling yet again an undertaking that goes back 35 years is that the National Assembly today occupies a much smaller part of our society's political life than it used to. Insofar as the very foundation of our political system is the existence of a law-making body consisting of the elected representatives of the people, the erosion of the Assembly's influence calls into question the legitimacy of our whole democratic system. How much longer can we tolerate a situation where the people's chosen legislators are very often nothing more than voting machines, making the Assembly just a huge rubber stamp for government legislation?

The demands of developing a modern Quebec have led successive governments to intervene more and more rapidly, in the name of efficiency and stability. The result has been that while the topics rightfully of concern to MNAs have multiplied and become increasingly complex, procedural rules have been retained that have in fact marginalized the legislature's role.

This being so, it is clear that if the National Assembly is to have more freedom to act, the government will have to yield some ground. Does this mean that our political system will grow more unstable and our society less well governed? I do not think so. I think it is possible to give the Assembly back its authority without compromising the government's ability to carry out its responsibilities as its ideological orientation dictates.

The second reason to reform our parliamentary institutions is that they are not as efficient as they ought to be in performing their primary duties: making laws, monitoring the government's actions and dealing with questions of public interest. It is obvious, for example, that end-of-session legislative marathons, which sometimes last all night, night after night, are not a responsible or sensible way to make laws. Equally, the monitoring of the government by the people's elected representatives is far from what it ought to be. By law, each of the Assembly's eight standing committees is required, each year, to examine closely one of the 261 agencies that report to the government. So eight agencies are examined every year out of 261! Hardly a huge proportion.

A third reason for further reform is that the institutional culture maintained by rules that often date from a different era leads too many MNAs to behave in deplorably undignified and even unethical ways. It is true that many people, when they criticize behaviour in the National Assembly, do not take into account that a number of these behaviours are largely attributable to the fact that the Assembly is inherently an arena in which opposing forces are battling - non-violently, but fiercely for power. Most people finding themselves in a similar environment would probably behave in just the same way.

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