Two Proposals for Reform in the Quebec National Assembly
Leblanc, Diane, Canadian Parliamentary Review
Just a few months ago, in June 2004, the National Assembly of Quebec launched an important exercise in parliamentary reform, when two documents containing numerous proposals were tabled almost simultaneously. One of these was prepared by the Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions and Government House Leader and the other, by the President, or Speaker, of the National Assembly. This article summarizes the main points of the two proposals and concludes with a few comments on parliamentary ethics, an important issue currently being examined by a special committee of the National Assembly.
This is not Quebec's first reform effort since the current Standing Orders were adopted in 1984. The Standing Orders have been amended a few times over the years to iron out certain problems with their application. The first reform was set in motion in 1996 by then President Jean-Pierre Charbonneau. It aimed to enhance the role of MNAs and, at the same time, that of the institution itself, without changing the operation of the National Assembly in depth.
The proposals put forward last June are both based on this 1996 reform, given, among other reasons, the need to ensure that parliamentary reform remains a seamless, steady process. While the proposals outlined in the two documents differ significantly from each other, they are nonetheless organized under four broad themes identified by both the Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions and the President of the National Assembly:
* Bringing citizens closer to the National Assembly;
* Promoting Members' independence and initiative;
* Increasing the efficaciousness of the Members' work, in particular by modernizing the way in which the National Assembly operates; and
* Reaffirming a democratic equilibrium in parliamentary proceedings.
The desire to bring citizens closer to the National Assembly, which is the first broad theme, has been expressed a number of times at both the political and the administrative levels. Because communications technologies continue to evolve and the citizens' expectations about their participation in public affairs continue to grow, the National Assembly must be quick to adapt and translate this resolve into concrete actions.
Both reform documents propose a revision of the exercise of the right to petition. The right of every person to petition the National Assembly for the redress of grievances is set forth in section 21 of the Quebec Charter of human rights and freedoms. The procedure for exercising this right is provided in the Standing Orders of the National Assembly. Yet the current rules make no provision for further action on petitions after they have been tabled in the Assembly. That is why the President of the National Assembly proposes that the temporary rules on petitions which were in effect from December 6, 2001, until the end of the 36th Legislature be made permanent. Under these rules the Government would be obliged to reply in writing within 60 days after a petition has been presented in the National Assembly. The President also suggests that a system be set up to allow citizens to initiate and sign petitions on-line, through the National Assembly's website.
The Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions, for his part, proposes that a standing subcommittee on petitions be struck. This subcommittee would be empowered to decide whether a petition is receivable and could hear the petitioners' representatives, if necessary, before reporting to the National Assembly. Petitions would be accepted both electronically and on paper.
To provide broader access to the public consultations held by parliamentary committees, both reform proposals suggest using videoconferencing technology when warranted and, during general consultations, allowing short statements by citizens who have given notice that they wish to address the committee but who have not filed a brief. …