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Why is our legislature so weak?


 

In the wake of the recent parliamentary-supremacy muscle-flexing, there has been some good discussion over the more general (and perennial) problem of the weakness of our legislative branch relative to the executive. Michael Chong sounded the keynote in an interview on the CBC, with endorsements of varying strength from Conservative staffer Keith Beardsley, Samara’s Alison Loat, and lots of others. But while I wish Chong well with his private members bill tweaking QP, I’m still not certain we, collectively, have our heads around the issue of what’s wrong with our parliament.Take a look at Alison’s summary of Chong’s argument:

Like many observers, he believes the executive branch (the PM and cabinet) is much stronger than the legislative one. Too strong, in fact.  He attributes this to a few things, including: the requirement that each candidate receive written approval of their party leader before they can run (even for re-election); the fact that MPs receive little orientation or briefings on how things work; the power of the party leadership to determine committee membership and to boot people from caucus, and structural difficulties that make it nearly impossible for candidates to win elections as independents.  In other words, lots of things that make it hard for the little guy (or occassionally gal) to assert any independence.

Ask around, and you’ll find similar lists. But I don’t think this is very helpful, because with the exception of the last, each of the items listed isn’t a cause of the problem, but a symptom of it. Written approval of the party leader, little orientation for MPs, power of the leadership over caucus — these don’t make our legislature weak. Rather, they are the sorts of things that happen in weak legislatures. If the Canadian parliamentary system has a weaker legislature than other parliaments, to properly fix that we need to understand why it is this way.

I’ve offered my own suggestions in the past: I think the overall quality of MPs is poor, and I also think there should be quite a few more of them (which might seem to contradict the first point, though I think they are actually related). I think the size of the country and the effect distance has on parliamentary life makes it hard to attract committed, long-term candidates from outside the central provinces. I also think the nature of our federation, especially the threat of Quebec separatism for the past forty years, has made it necessary to collect increasing amounts of power in the centre. There may be certain path-dependent effects, stemming from early decisions post-Confederation, or post-WWII, or what have you, though I’m not enough of a student of parliament to know.

At any rate, I agree that our legislature is weak. But pointing out the instantiations of that weakness doesn’t do much in the way of telling us how to fix it.


 
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Why is our legislature so weak?

  1. "Like many observers, he believes the executive branch (the PM and cabinet) is much stronger than the legislative one. Too strong, in fact."

    I believe that the real power in government lies at the levels below the Ministerial level of each Ministry/Department/Agency. Control rests with the Deputy Ministers and the levels just below them since they are the non-elected civil servants that generally maintain their status within the Ministry no matter who the Minister is. In large parts it is the high level civil servants who drive the day to day agenda of the government.

    The Deputy Minister is the functional head of the Ministry and the Minister is simply the disposable and titular political figurehead. Every civil servant knows that Ministers will come and go (some sooner rather than later) but they will remain no matter who may appear to be at the helm of the ship. While the Deputy can be turfed from their position because they do serve at the will of the party in power, they often serve for many years and over many different administrations, adapting their personal agenda to meet that of the government in power, thus preserving their own jobs.

    This is also the case in provincial governments where, unless their is a house-cleaning of Deputy Ministers, government agendas rarely perfectly reflect the will of the governing party, rather the agenda is an amalgam of what the Party in power wants and what the public servants believe is right for their Ministry.

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/

  2. "Like many observers, he believes the executive branch (the PM and cabinet) is much stronger than the legislative one. Too strong, in fact."

    I believe that the real power in government lies at the levels below the Ministerial level of each Ministry/Department/Agency. Control rests with the Deputy Ministers and the levels just below them since they are the non-elected civil servants that generally maintain their status within the Ministry no matter who the Minister is. In large parts it is the high level civil servants who drive the day to day agenda of the government.

    The Deputy Minister is the functional head of the Ministry and the Minister is simply the disposable and titular political figurehead. Every civil servant knows that Ministers will come and go (some sooner rather than later) but they will remain no matter who may appear to be at the helm of the ship. While the Deputy can be turfed from their position because they do serve at the will of the party in power, they often serve for many years and over many different administrations, adapting their personal agenda to meet that of the government in power, thus preserving their own jobs.

    This is also the case in provincial governments where, unless their is a house-cleaning of Deputy Ministers, government agendas rarely perfectly reflect the will of the governing party, rather the agenda is an amalgam of what the Party in power wants and what the public servants believe is right for their Ministry.

    http://viableopposition.blogspot.com/

    • Ministers do come and go, but currently in our federal public service, deputy ministers churn through the system at astonishing speed also, and minister's offices have no qualms about directing their ministries when the subject suits them, so I don't think your argument, which is plausible in theory, holds up in practice.

      • My infrequent dealings with public service leaders is that if they have clear direction from their political masters, they will follow. If asked to devise programs in a specific way, they will do so. If left to their own devices, they will fill the vacuum.

  3. Your argument that proposed causes are in fact symptoms put s the brakes on knee-jerk remedies so thank-you for that. I rather think that the balance of power lies in the relationship between the executive, the legislature, the courts and powerful non-government interests. This topic is too complicated to cover in sound-bytes.

  4. A weak legislature is a good thing. It allows leaders, who have a national perspective, to prevail over the petty parochialism of individual MP's. If we give MP's more power we will see more waste, as gaggles of MP's try to shore up the vote at home. We will also see much more dramatic ideological shifts when the government changes. Harper and Ignatieff need to keep moderate voters happy in order to stay in power. Their individual MP's only need the support of the average citizen of each of their districts. Citizens of Liberal-held riding are more left wing than the average Canadian, while citizens of Conservative-held ridings are more right wing than the average Canadian.

    I think we care too much about process and not enough about output. Look at the United States and you can plainly see where a process of decentralized control gets you.

    • The biggest problem in the US is that there are vast sums of money financing elections. Every other problem is distorted because of this critical flaw.

  5. The fact that so many parliamentarians can lose their seat in a given election, compared to Britain and the U.S., ensures that we only ever have a handful of career MPs who actually know how parliament works. More MPs, and smaller ridings would help to address this, though it has much to do with the way politics is polarized over region and not ideology. Or so says my copy of Ned Franks.

  6. Direct the $/vote and tax subsidies of the parties to the riding level.

  7. Go back to first principles. Why did Parliament ascend in power historically? What has happened in our Parliament that has changed that power dynamic?

    • Campaigns became increasingly regional and then national. "Ridings" ceased to be places that you could easily ride across. As a result centralized party organizations able to raise the necessary funds for mounting a campaign grew more influential. Some practices (like "loose fish" candidates, who would run on the promise of joining whatever party won the election) also died off as the patronage system was reformed. It is possible that voter identities changed as well away from being local ones. We are integrated into regional/national/global economies, not local ones.

      The fallacy of those handwringing about process is that they think the rules or parliament matter. In the long run rules evolve to reflect larger realities. You can change the world de jure, but you can't change it de facto. So long as individual candidates rely on parties for money, and so long as voters vote for parties rather than candidates MP's will be weak.

      If you want to give MP's more power and independence, you would have to change the way fundraising works, perhaps by allowing MP's to raise and spend large sums of money themselves, independent of the party.

      • I don't disagree with anything you say. But something changed in Candian Parliamentary history that weakened individual MPs' power in the House. What was it?

        • … continued.

          Now? Show me an MP who can fire off a comprehensive list of the federal government's activities. Not possible. MPs now run on (sometimes criminally vague) party platforms, and it is all they can do to keep up with the instructions from the backroom party brass and the PMO to be good soldiers and do as they are told, whether on votes in the House or activity in committee. People who think for themselves are only useful if they thoroughly understand their party's agenda and will self-censor, lest thinking aloud might blow a tire on the bus the party leader is driving.

          You may not be terribly surprised that I am indicting a federal government for bloat beyond sustainability; it is such a mess that NOBODY can actually keep complete track of the beast. Mr Potter calls for a bigger crowd of MPs. I call for smaller government.

          • "Show me an MP who can fire off a comprehensive list of the federal government's activities. Not possible."

            Not possible? Or not necessary? What has changed in how our Parliament operates that has changed the power balance between the leaders and the led?

        • Here's a thought: a century-plus ago, when the federal government had, what, thirty active files, individual MPs could invest the energy to sink their teeth into something and influence federal government issues. The government could probably even take on prosecuting a major war, or hanging a Métis father of confederation, or adding provinces, since there weren't bundles of other nonsense disctracting it.

          Continued…

  8. All one has to do is watch a couple of US Senators on TV, and then watch some Canadian Parliamentarians on TV, to realize why our Parliament is so weak.

    It seems the average Parliamentarian is a mental midget. A complete idiot. A used car salesman that stumbled assbackwards into being a party candidate who holds onto his/her party coattails to be elected.

    With this in mind, it's probably better than these people are so emasculated and not really in charge of the levers of power in our country.

    Or, maybe it's the chicken and egg situation again, and the reason our Parliamentarians are so weak is because people with ambition and talent won't be satisfied with being trained MP seals, leaving that role to others? Either way, it IS a problem. Why are our MP's morons? I don't know. I wish we could find the cause and fix it.

    • MPPs are underwhelming largely because anyone with intellect and ambition is largely wasted as an MP. MPs are glorified meat puppets, told to stand up, sit down and hurl insults on cue. Only a few dozen of the hundreds (the stronger cabinet or shadow cabinet members) are more than that.

    • I'll offer another theory (and that's all it is): there are a lot of people out there who would be good at the job, but who have some incident in the past that wouldn't pass the sniff test on the national stage. Cabinet ministers in the last few minority governments have undergone a fairly invasive screening process looking for hints of a brewing scandal before it starts.

      It's easier, let's say, to be a captain of industry, or head of a foundation, or commentator or pollster or cop or soldier or whatever, and damned good at your job and successful with, say, a penchant for young ladies (or men) or leave your second husband or wife for someone years your junior or enjoy a few too many on a Friday night, and still escape with not much more than tongues wagging in the halls.

      Try that as a politician, even as an MP, especially in a minority government, and you won't survive very long, even if, as scandal goes, it's not all that scandalous (like a marriage breakup in messy circumstances).
      (con't)

    • Furrthermore, I find that the Liberals have benefitted from the fact that they have been in power so long because it has allowed them to attract high quality candidates. The list of "quality" MPs on the Liberal side is rather long even though they lost quite a few stars.

      Harper could have done the same and taken advantage of his position to do the same kind of recruiting from academia and the private sector but we all know what the man prefers to surround himself with yes-men/women.

    • "All one has to do is watch a couple of US Senators on TV, and then watch some Canadian Parliamentarians on TV, to realize why our Parliament is so weak. "

      You must not have watched carefully. The US Congress has its fair share of bona fide imbeciles. The difference between the two is that the US allocates far more resources to its parliamentarians so that they can get their work done. On average, a member of congress has at least 2 legislative staffers who do nothing but research, one chief of staff and one assistant along with a bunch of interns year round. That's the bare minimum and this is in the House. The Senate is even more spoiled.

  9. A few observations – from one who has been on a nomination candiadte search committee.
    1) And fundamentally – there is a vast difference between a rural riding and an urban one. Example – the riding I presently live in covers 100,000 square kilometres – yup – approx. 100,000 people – one per kilometre – and we are not one of the most remote. Sadly, as I have told the party planners ad infinitum – it ain't the same here as "down there" in Queens Park or Ottawa! But do they listen – nope – they use the 80 – 20 rule – anything trhey put in place – they figure well – it will work for 80% of the ridings – but of course the other 20% can go fish again and again and again.
    2) You can figure most candidates who present themsleves as a) either having an agenda or b) a lawyer going through the motions in the hope of a judgeship down the line! Am I cynical or what? I have more but this will do for now…

  10. MPPs should be MPs (but same largely applies provincially).

  11. (con't)

    So even if you're the perfect candidate with a vision, and the drive, personality and intelligence that should make you successful, why would you even run if you know the race is done even if you do get elected?

    And so we end up with not necessarily the best people for the job, but those that are clean(ish) enough to get by. (Whose room they leave their briefing notes in after they get elected is another story).

    I dunno, I'm sure we all know people who might pass the test, but ask yourself, seriously; of those people, how many would actually make decent MPs?

    I'm not advocating handing the keys to the corridors of power to just anyone, especially those of extremely questionable character, but given the ongoing scandological atmosphere in Ottawa, if you so much as got a ticket for public intoxication during your college years, are you really going to run, even if you've got the tools for the job?

    • I think you have a point there, but I think the cause of that, and the real cause of the weakness of the legislative branch, is TV.

      There are a lot of good people who would make excellent MPs, but who are not the best public speakers. They may not have that charismatic something that "tests" well on the tube. Still, they can know their stuff, have a brain on their shoulders, etc.

  12. "I think the size of the country and the effect distance has on parliamentary life makes it hard to attract committed, long-term candidates from outside the central provinces"

    Two Points:

    1. I have wondered from time to time, especially when I lived in provinces on two extremities of the country, if there might be a better appreciation for our country (And therefore those that govern it) if Parliament were to engage in systematic "Road Trips", holding sessions in the provinces. Comments?

    2. Radio, Television and print media regularly refer to actions by the government using this phrase: "Ottawa says", or "Ottawa does"; in other countries I have noted that, the case of the United States, it more often uses: "The White House reports/says", etc. Or "10 downing Street" in the case of Great Britain. Using the word "Ottawa" tends to connote a "location" rather than a function.

    Canadians appear to be alienated from their government. What effect, if any, could these two actions have on addressing this issue of alienation?

  13. Parliament is only as strong as its electorate.

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