Parliamentary Reform: Recent Proposals and Developments

By Hartley, Bill | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Parliamentary Reform: Recent Proposals and Developments


Hartley, Bill, Canadian Parliamentary Review


The topic of legislative reform was addressed in the March 2000 Speech from the Throne in British Columbia. This article looks at some proposals outlined in a subsequent motion in the legislature. It also looks at recent reform proposals in Australia and Great Britain.

For many years, the parliamentary system has been the subject of criticism, not just from the public, but from its own members. A familiar observation in British Columbia, which may also be common in other jurisdictions, is that backbenchers, be they in government or opposition, do not feel they have sufficient opportunity to participate in and influence the work of Parliament. Indeed, across the Commonwealth, members routinely call for more opportunities for participation in the daily work of their legislatures, more opportunities to represent their constituents, and more opportunities for effective committee activity.

Among the public, few people would argue that Parliament is perfect. There is increasing evidence that politics and politicians are regarded with cynicism and distrust, which in turn has affected popular view of Parliament. For example, a 1993 Gallup poll found that only a quarter of those questioned had "a great deal" or "quite a lot of confidence" in Parliament.(1)

Similarly, a 1994 conference titled "Reinventing Parliament" held at the University of Lethbridge reported "a high level of frustration, alienation, scepticism and loss of respect amongst Canadians towards politics in general and the current system in particular."(2) A 1995 British opinion poll found that the British public believed, by a majority of three to one, that Parliament did not have sufficient control over what the government did.(3)

Some critics believe that the problem with modern parliamentary government is that it needs to be more open and democratic - i.e. "the evils of democracy can be addressed by more democracy", with citizen initiated referenda and recall procedures.

While these external reforms have been applied in British Columbia and other jurisdictions, they do not address much of the daily dynamics of our legislatures. Further, it is my belief that while these reforms result in positive gains for the public, there is a danger with these issues to see democracy as the right of the majority to overrule any minorities.

Instead, as parliamentarians, I believe we must recognize the duty of the majority to compromise, and on occasion, to concede to the minority. John Stuart Mill described the task in this way: "to concede something to opponents, and to shape good measures so as to be as little offensive as possible to persons of opposite views." This balancing of the interests of the majority and minority is central to the role of parliament as a representative institution.

The majority must have its way but the minority must have its say, and the rules and procedures of our institutions must guarantee freedom of debate and safeguard the rights of all members. Presiding officers have a traditional role in the protection of the rights of all members and the members themselves need to have confidence in the impartiality of the chair, if Parliament as a whole is to function effectively. As our legislatures evolve, we must evaluate their effectiveness in the area of balancing of the interests. Also essential is a continuous review of parliamentary rules and procedures to make sure that they are adapted to changing circumstances.

Parliament must be accessible to the public, the media, and its debates and proceedings should be readily available. These days many parliaments broadcast their proceedings on television and on the Internet, which has greatly extended the public's opportunities to follow the debates. All proceedings, including committee proceedings, should take place in public unless there are strong and valid reasons for meeting in-camera.

We must also be practical in nature and enhance the efficiency of parliament. …

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