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Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Our Lazy Legislators

May their siestas be long:

If showing up at the office only half the time sounds like a dream job, you might want to consider running for Parliament.

Canada's MPs are spending less time at work in the House of Commons — only 119 days this year — and passing ever fewer bills.

While that may sound dreamy to most Canadians who spend about twice as much time on the job each year, it's a trend that at least one parliamentary procedure expert finds worrying."

In terms of the last 40 years, our Parliament is sitting a lot less and doing a lot less," says Queens University political scientist Ned Franks.

Fine by me. They could close down the whole place for the next decade and I doubt anyone, aside from Press Gallery hacks, would notice or care. I suspect the MPs would be delighted at all the extra time away from Ottawa. They might be nobodies beyond Parliament Hill, but at least they'd having something to do, aside from laughing at Stephen Harper's attempts at humour during Question Period.

Publius comes from the school of government that holds that he who governs least governs best. The more time MPs spend in those green upholstered chairs, the more likely they might come up with ideas to "improve" the life of ordinary Canadians. This typically results in ever more elaborate vote buying schemes. Hockey palaces in small towns in Quebec and Saskatchewan. Some ridiculous new health care entitlement to wreck whatever's left of this country's finances, after the Boomers start retiring. While Leviathan is snoozing, the rest of us can get on with our lives.

Professor Franks has a deeper point than merely criticizing our legislators' lethargy. Even if MPs aren't pounding their desks and hurling insults across the aisle, they're still at "work." Voting at their Whip's command is only a small fraction of a parliamentarian's duty. Much of their time is spent on committees (drafting bills), being lobbied, lobbying the PMO for patronage and promotions, the rubber chicken circuit back in their constituency and occasionally speaking to an actual voter. 

The reduced work load in Parliament, as Professor Franks notes, has come from a cramming together of various initiatives into so-called omnibus bills. Once upon a time such bills were used to push through complex and controversial pieces of legislation. Now they are used as administrative short-cuts. Legislation on fisheries, telecommunications and stiffer fines for pot smokers might be crammed together in the same bill. 

This All-or-Nothing approach to legislation also has a political benefit. Put something controversial in with something that's uncontroversial, and you can scream bloody murder when the opposition tries to vote it down. Michael Ignatieff is against motherhood and maple syrup!  Even though Lord Iggy might be very keen on mothers and maple, but less so on the death penalty for pot smokers. It's not like the typical voter will bother looking up what's actually in Bill C89. 

The rise of the omnibus bill is one more more sign that both houses of Parliament are now simply glorified rubber stamping committees. Canada has become a Presidential quasi-republic, in a parliamentary constitutional monarchy's garb. 

I don't have anything against Presidential Republics exactly. The better designed ones - like the American system - have a system of checks and balances built right in. To get legislation passed, the president needs to convince independently elected legislators to vote for a bill. Leader of the party or no, the elected members are entitled to tell the president where to get off.

Our parliamentary system once worked in the same way. The whole House of Commons was suppose to hold the Cabinet (the executive) to account. The distinction between backbencher and minister was so keenly observed that a backbencher, upon his appointment to cabinet, was required to resign his seat and fight a by-election. The idea was that the member was no longer just an MP, MPP or MLA, but a member of the government of the day. The by-election requirement was a tool to help keep members accountable to their electors. 

Just as electors could hold newly minted cabinet ministers to account, so could backbenchers hold the Cabinet's feet to the fire. The prime minister would select the members of the cabinet, but it was the backbenchers who ultimately voted on who became the leader of the party. This included prematurely terminating a leader's reign.

This was a power that was exercised rarely, but when employed it was done ruthlessly. Canada's second Prime Minister, the estimable Alexander Mackenzie, was dispatched by his backbenchers, when they came to believe he could never displace John A Macdonald. Mrs Thatcher was done in by a similar revolt in 1990.

Savvy political operators - like Macdonald and Laurier - knew that the best way to head off backbench revolts was to treat their second-rate counterparts with a modicum of respect. No omnibusing your way through half-a-dozen unrelated laws, that the MP would then have to awkwardly defend in his constituency.

In making their front-bench selections, party leaders understood that by picking key ringleaders of parliamentary blocks - say French Canadian Tories from the north shore - they could more effectively hold the party together. A Prime Minister had to think twice about sacking a recalcitrant minister, knowing that minister might lead a dozen or so members against him at an upcoming vote.

It was true - in the very general sense of the words - that having party leaders picked by their caucuses behind closed doors was not very democratic or transparent. Modern party conventions, however, offer only the facade of democracy and transparency. The leadership laurel usually falling to the leader and team best able to sell party memberships.

This has naturally produced some fairly repellent, but inevitable, examples of instant Grits and Tories. Homeless people bribed with promises of free booze and sandwiches. Attention starved elderly trucked in from retirement homes, ready to sign proxy ballots for nice young men in suits. The unscrupulous leading the semi-sentient.

From time to time you hear professional pundits complain about the dearth of modern parliamentary orators. Men like Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, George Brown, Wilfred Laurier and Edward Blake who could hold thousands spell bound for hours.

Certainly Victorian attention-spans were far more robust. Still, the modern world does not lack for great public speakers. Barack Obama is a brilliant orator, even if he is essentially saying the same rot Ted Kennedy was belting out for decades. Skilful oratory is required when you have to convince large groups of people. Gladstone had to be a great orator, because he had to convince his own backbenchers to vote for his measures. Stephen Harper can stick to teleprompter platitudes, because the trained seals behind him will always clap, and vote, as they're told.

The problem with modern Canadian Parliamentary democracy isn't that MPs don't have the time to digest complex bills. It's that MPs don't have the power to vote their conscience, or the constituents' will. Parliamentary democracy is as fine a system for running a free country as has ever been devised. What we have in Canada today is only a sham parliament and a sham democracy.


Posted by Richard Anderson on January 4, 2011 | Permalink


There s nothing scarier than parliament sitting, last time they sat they passed a bill that only supreme court judges that speak fluent french apply.

Anybody interested in seeing firearms laws repealed , good luck quebeckers seem to love english tyranny.

Posted by: don b | 2011-01-04 9:03:56 AM

I agree that Party discipline has degraded the quality of parliamentary debate and function, making most MPs into party automatons. More proroguing please.

As to Obama's oratory skills, I would rate him slightly higher than George W Bush, neither one of whom can I tolerate listening to. "Brilliant orator"? to who? the Palace-Guard media? the hollowed-out, class struggle motivated zombie-left? fawning ecofeminist Witches? Bill BJ Clinton is a better speaker winging it than Obama reading his stereo teleprompter. Without the teleprompter he's a pathetic rambler. I've observed far better orators in Provincial level politics from the BC NDP of all places!

Posted by: John Chittick | 2011-01-04 11:11:48 AM

don b is right. The less they sit, the less statist laws and new taxes they inact. When it comes to campaign promises to create more programs or more spending the more promises I hope get broken.

Posted by: StanleyR | 2011-01-04 5:52:27 PM

All this means is that legislative process has been handed off to faceless bureaucrats. Fairly typical of the statist Harper, silencing his MPs by paying them to not work. While this has appeal to the sloth in his caucus (all those professional politicians) it will cause rot among those MPs to actually have talent and believe in something called Liberty. I suspect they will be replaced by those more compliant to Harper's statist mindset.

Posted by: AB Patriot | 2011-01-04 7:39:23 PM

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