A Blueprint for Parliamentary Reform in British Columbia

By Reid, Linda | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2011 | Go to article overview

A Blueprint for Parliamentary Reform in British Columbia


Reid, Linda, Canadian Parliamentary Review


Several years have passed since institutional reforms were last undertaken in British Columbia. Most recently, changes were made in 2005 to lengthen question period from 15 to 30 minutes, allow more Private Members' Statements, and create an Opposition-held position of Assistant Deputy Speaker. Before that, notable changes were made in 2001. These included the establishment of set dates for general elections and budget day, a legislative calendar, and the introduction of Private Members' Statements. This article looks at other areas for potential reform in BC and other legislatures. It focuses on legislation, estimates and parliamentary committees.

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A former Speaker of our Legislative Assembly once said that an effective parliament is not a static institution, and rules can become archaic if they are not regularly reviewed. (1) I share this view. We sometimes need to take pause from our day-to-day work as parliamentarians and ask ourselves: are practices indeed delivering maximum effectiveness and are we improving productivity? Are citizens being best served by current conventions? What opportunities exist for improvement? As the longest currently-serving Member in British Columbia I have had some time to reflect on these questions, including time spent serving both in government as a member of Cabinet and in opposition where I held several critic roles.

Let me begin with a brief description of the BC House. Currently, our Legislative Assembly is made up of 85 Members. Twenty-six Members, or 30 percent, are women, including our new Premier, Christy Clark. I am proud to note that BC is now above the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association threshold for women parliamentarians having influence. We are also well above the national average of about 22 percent.

In terms of Members, BC has the third largest House among the provinces, after Ontario and Quebec. We added an additional six new seats to our assembly in 2009, which followed the recommendations of an Electoral Boundaries Commission.

The provincial population is now at nearly 4.5 million, which means BC MLAs represent ridings averaging about 52,000 people. This is the third highest Member-to-citizen ratio compared to other provinces and territories. Ontario, for example, has the highest average ratio of one to 121,000. Nunavut has the lowest, with roughly one to 1,700. (2)

BC has seen considerable population growth as well as uneven population distribution. Accordingly, ensuring that our system remains representative is an ongoing challenge. For example, in order to accommodate the increase in Members in 2009, creative solutions were needed to overcome space issues in the legislative precinct. This included rearranging the Chamber to accommodate a third row of desks. We are still a far cry from Westminster which now has some 650 Members although there is work currently being undertaken there to reduce the number of United Kingdom constituencies to 600. (3) With that brief snapshot of our House, let me now focus on the work we do.

Legislation

Current practice in BC is for all stages of a bill to be passed in the House, including committee stage, within Committee of the Whole. Although provision exists in the Standing Orders for bills to be referred to a select standing committee at any time, such referrals rarely take place. Instead, bills are typically debated and passed in entirety in the House. This means that any Member has the opportunity to debate bills in the public forum of the main Chamber. However, it also means that all of this must take place during sessions with fixed opening and adjournment dates.

The general trend in BC since 2007 has been towards shorter sittings. (4) This has partially been the result of several practical circumstances--such as the 2010 Winter Olympics and 2011 leadership races in both parties, as well as an overall decline in the amount of legislation being passed. …

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