Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the 21st Century

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states, each responsible for its own policies, consulting and co-operating in the common interests of their peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace. This article looks at the role of Commonwealth Parliamentary Association within the Commonwealth.

Since 1991 the size of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has burgeoned. In that year we had 127 member Parliaments, today we have more than 140. Since 1992, Anguilla, Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique, the National Parliament of Pakistan and its four provincial Assemblies, Seychelles, South Africa and its nine provinces, Uganda, Fiji, Nunavut, Scotland, Wales and Nigeria have been either admitted or readmitted to CPA membership. Unfortunately the October 1999 coup in Pakistan resulted in its national and provincial Parliaments being put in abeyance. The return of Nigeria to democratic government will have a tremendous impact on our Association, especially since its constitution establishes a system which is in many ways more akin to the Congressional system than the parliamentary one.

The Place of Parliament in Society

Parliaments are unusual institutions. They differ greatly from one to another, both constitutionally and in their practical political operations. They vary in size and shape, in tenure, in powers and functions, in autonomy and in procedures and traditions. Some sit as infrequently as 10 days per year, others as often as 225 days. Within the Commonwealth national Parliaments vary in size from Tuvalu's which has 12 Members, to the U.K.'s which in August 1999 had 1683 and India's which has 802 Members. A number of sub-national parliaments are even smaller than Tuvalu's -- the Nevis Island Assembly has eight Members and Norfolk Island's Legislative Assembly has nine.

Most observers consider that modern Parliaments have three main functions and identify these as:

* The legislative function (including participation in the making of public policy through lawmaking, parliamentary enquiries, etc);

* The oversight function (carried out mainly, but not exclusively, by the "loyal opposition");

* The representative function (which allows Members to address the problems of their constituents and promote their interests).

To the list of parliamentary functions one might add that of legitimization. The manner in which Members become members has a huge impact on the representativeness of a Parliament. And the representative character of a parliamentary, body gives rise to its legitimacy, or the public recognition and acceptance of the right of Parliament, and the government generally, to act in some manner, and the corresponding obligation of citizens to abide by that action.

The critical function of oversight, in traditional parliamentary systems, is so powerful that it includes both the selection and the removal of the Executive. In some parliamentary systems -- those with strong parties and a limited number of parties, elections are merely a way to select the chief executive. The United Kingdom is probably the best example of this. But in many multi-party systems there is less certainty, often no party receives a majority and there may be a number of viable candidates for Prime Minister. The question becomes one of who can put together a coalition of parties and Members so as to gain majority support. This was the case in New Zealand after its election in October 1996, and of course we have seen the recent example of India where a coalition government was unable to hold together and no other party could command majority parliamentary support.

An important aspect of the oversight function is the role of the Opposition in situations where the governing party commands majority support in the Parliament. At a conference on the Role of the opposition sponsored jointly by the CPA and the Commonwealth Secretariat held in Marlborough House in London in 1998, delegates made the point that mechanisms to promote accountability and exposure can only be effective if there is a general "culture of accountability" and commitment, by governments as well as opposition, to the overall effectiveness of the parliamentary system. …

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