Parliament has been back in session for just two weeks in this New Year, and already there's a chorus of complaints about how the place operates -- or fails to operate.
Some people focus on the lack of decorum among MPs, especially during the daily Question Period, and no doubt the tone during that intensely partisan 45-minutes should be improved. But based on personal experience in the House of Commons stretching back to 1974, I believe the bad behaviour is a symptom of what's wrong, not the cause of it.
To fix the malaise eroding our democracy, Canadians need a rich combination of party, electoral and Parliamentary reforms. Here are a few suggestions to contribute to a debate on this topic which I hope will become irresistible.
First at the level of political parties, as suggested by Justin Trudeau and others in the Liberal leadership campaign, the Leader needs to exercise less control over who can be selected as candidates by local riding associations. As long as a constituency organization is "in good standing" as a viable entity, and as long as the process of candidate selection is democratic and fair, the Leader should not appoint candidates contrary to constituency wishes.
Next, once in Parliament, MPs should be free to vote on most matters as their conscience and judgment dictate. They should not be "whipped" by the Leader's office to toe-the-line on virtually everything, as seems to be the case today. Questions of true "confidence" -- where losing a vote means the government falls and an election ensues -- should be restricted to a few fundamental situations pertaining to the Throne Speech and the Budget. Otherwise, MPs should think for themselves, make their own decisions and be accountable for them.
Ministers wanting to advance policy initiatives should be required to convince not only Cabinet colleagues, but also backbenchers. They should not simply rely on the Whip to enforce support -- they should earn it by merit.
House of Commons control over public spending must be enhanced. The government should be required to produce its budget before a certain deadline every year -- maybe February 21. Departmental spending Estimates should be based on the most recent figures contained in that budget, not year-old data. MPs should feel free to question and vote against individual spending items in the Estimates (like tax-paid government advertising, for example). And government borrowing plans should require specific approval by Parliament every year.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer should be established as an independent Officer of Parliament with the authority and resources such work requires.
Restrictions are needed on the use of ancient but recently-abused Parliamentary tools such as Omnibus Bills, Closure Motions to terminate debates, and Prorogation. They have their place, but should be confined to their original purpose and intent.
Every Standing Committee of the House of Commons should be required to receive, debate and vote on every Motion in public, not in secret as is now too often the case.
Elections Canada needs greater capacity to supervise elections effectively, investigate crimes like telephone fraud and voter suppression, and prosecute offences in a timely manner, before another election rolls around.
It also goes without saying that the process for re-drawing constituency boundaries must be reinforced as independent of partisan influence. Recent Conservative chicanery using robocalls to pervert the process is contemptible.
Canadians need to have an adult conversation about voting systems that are better than our current "first-past-the-post" regime where the winner often gets a majority of seats with only a small minority of the votes cast.
Some form of Proportional Representation is suggested by some, and that deserves careful examination. Another alternative is a Preferential Ballot, where voters indicate not only their first choice, but also their second and third choices too, and the counting keeps going until one candidate gets more than 50 per cent support.
A common characteristic of many of these ideas is a power shift -- less control in the hands of the Prime Minister and Party bosses, more control in the hands of ordinary Canadians and individual MPs.
The result will be more individual responsibility and accountability. The quality of local candidates will become vital -- there will be little room for the so-called "door knobs" or "trained seals." Voting will actually matter. Democracy will be enhanced.
These are just a few ideas to make the point that we're not stuck without alternatives. Mediocrity is not inevitable. If Canadians really want a better system, it can be achieved. But it will take persistent hard work to get there!
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