Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Lessons of a Very Political Life/ Lecons Tirees D'une Vie Consacree a la Politique

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

The Lessons of a Very Political Life/ Lecons Tirees D'une Vie Consacree a la Politique

Article excerpt

Public opinion polls show that Canadians have lost respect for their political parties and institutions. They are more inclined to engage in protests or to work for interest groups to influence public policy. Parties are seen as less representative of their views and more interested in fundraising and electioneering. This article, drawing on many decades of political involvement and academic study of politics, suggests some things that might be done to regain public support for our parties and institutions.

Political parties today fail to involve their membership in policy development. Members wish to do more than wear a button during an election campaign and raise funds in between. Members must have input in policy development. MLAs and candidates were enlisted to assist in this province-wide effort. This idea was borne out of a discussion I once had with Tommy Douglas, as I drove him to Winnipeg from a speaking engagement in Brandon. I asked him what advice he could offer concerning the internal bickering which had caused the exodus of three caucus members. His words were, "Keep your Caucus members busy with public policy. There is no better garden than one well tended and it enriches their purpose and they are thus able to contribute while at the same time demonstrating to the public an Opposition Party that is prepared to listen to those whom it wishes to govern." The more I thought about his message, the more I realized how Tommy had hit the nail on the head.

In Manitoba, during the eighties, we made considerable progress in developing some innovative methods in enhancing the role of backbench members of the Legislature. Real votes were held in caucus; all caucus members including its cabinet members were treated as equals. Caucus members attended and participated in cabinet committees and reported back. Detailed briefings of budget estimates and proposed legislation were always shared with the Caucus. Their approval was required for the legislative process flow chart. Personally, I feel we should also have ensured more rotation of Caucus members within cabinet. I believe most members can benefit from a stint in Caucus as well as in Cabinet. There may be some merit to the proposal by Belinda Stronach, for the election of Cabinet Ministers by the caucus membership. This proposal has been too easily dismissed by editorial writers. Certainly the Prime Minister should continue to designate the ministerial positions. Editorial writers complain that such a system will increase caucus factionalism. This may be partly true but it would also reasonably diminish some of the excessive power First Ministers exercise in respect to caucus matters. Perhaps, a better balance as is exercised in New Zealand and Australia could be considered.

We could have more effective use of our legislative assistants. Greater use of members should take place in various committees meeting with the public before legislation is introduced in the House. Finally, more private members resolutions and Bills should reach a vote. The House should also be given a greater role in approving major appointments.

While there are additional occasions where free votes should be encouraged, I would caution against too much enthusiasm on this score. First, if a Caucus works together as a team, there may be little need for more free votes. Unfortunately free votes may pit one member against another in a public venue and create unnecessary dissension, which is better avoided. Secondly, if there are

too many free votes, a weak member may buckle from the pressure from powerful lobby groups, break ranks and other members are likely to point a finger at that member. I recall the threat we faced in regard to the introduction of Public Auto Insurance in 1970, and years later with compulsory seat-belt legislation for motorists, compulsory helmet legislation for motorcyclists and amendments for sexual-orientation human rights legislation. …

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