Have we given up on legislatures?

The House of Commons will sit for fewer days than it used to


Scott Stinson wonders whether we care about our legislatures (or whether our legislatures give us anything to care about).

The speaker was explaining that she didn’t think much of the work conducted in the provincial legislative assembly. “Most of my issues are around the quality of debate and the research and the fact that you can pretty well get up in the house of assembly and say whatever it is you like,” she said. “You don’t have to be concerned with truth.”

… It’s not an uncommon sentiment among members of the public, and if the statement was from one of those ubiquitous morning-radio bits where they stick a microphone in front of someone who is filling their gas tank to measure “the public’s” opinion, it would have been unremarkable. But this was the Premier speaking. Kathy Dunderdale, the newly elected Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

I won’t repeat everything I’ve said before (I’ll just link to it), but here’s one measure to consider.

The House calendar for 2012 shows 132 scheduled sitting days. That’s more than the House managed in previous years of minority government, but far fewer than in previous eras of majority government. Is Parliament now that much more efficient? Are the debates less contentious than they used to be? Is there less for the legislature to do because most of the nation’s problems are now solved? Would sitting for, say, 160 days in a year allow more than four days to debate and study the government’s last budget implementation bill or two four days to study the government’s omnibus crime legislation? Would it matter in any tangible way if those bills did receive more consideration?

There are good debates to be had about all those questions. Indisputably, most of what is said in the House is ignored, but—as Scott notes—Canadians like to have some vague sense that something is going on. See not only the hit Michael Ignatieff took after Jack Layton accused him of missing work, but also the hit the Conservatives took when they prorogued the House to start 2009. How little would the House have to sit in 2012 for it to precipitate a similar backlash?

This isn’t really about what we might find distasteful about Question Period. It’s about what we want our legislature to be and to do and what we—all of us—need to do to realize that. Maybe we’re fine with the House the way it is. I’d argue the decline in voter turnout is at least one suggestion that we’re not.

But now I’m starting to repeat myself.


Have we given up on legislatures?

  1. It’s an ideology. Mike Harris’ governement didn’t meet that much because they considered themselves to managers of the public realm. Parliament is a messy distraction for these idealogues.

  2. Isn’t the root cause still centralisation of power in the PMO? When legislation is delivered from the Langevin Block, and the government’s MPs are forced to toe the line and pass the bills as is, there’s no real point to debate. Why bother sitting longer when you can pass 800 page bills in 2 or 3 days? Are we getting value for our MPs’ salaries? Their job is to vote in lock step with their party leader, and to fill out the numbers on committees. 

    I don’t know if the provincial legislatures have the same problem, but it is notable that one Premier doesn’t think highly of the debate in her legislature.

    • Exactly — the Legislature/Parliament is seen as an impediment. Debate has been devalued. I could go on….

  3. Every legislature is the house of the people in that province and territory, as well as federally. It’s not something that we should forget. If we want our representatives to sit longer, we have the ability to contact them and ask them to consider doing so. We sent them there, and our obligation to the parliamentary system doesn’t have to end with a ballot being put into a box.

    Kathy Dunderdale does speak correctly here: “You don’t have to be
    concerned with truth.” That’s backed up by Beauchesne, one of the books of rules legislatures use. If a member called someone a liar, or stated that what another member said is a lie, there will be a ruling that the language is unparliamentary and the member will be asked to retract the language. There is no attempt to get at the truth as legislators aren’t interested in the factual nature of remarks.From Beauchesne (p.151):”It has been formally ruled by Speakers that statements by Members respecting themselves and particularly within their own knowledge must be accepted. It is not unparliamentary temperately to criticize statements made by Members as being contrary to the facts; but no imputation of intentional falsehood is permissible. On rare occasions this may result in the House having to accept two contradictory accounts of the same incident.”The number of days a house sits is of concern. While the opening of a session is up to government, the backbenchers and opposition can keep the house open by engaging in debate, putting forward motions and petitions, discussing bills thoroughly, and so on. It’s not all up to a cabinet or premier or prime minister, though collectively they do have a great deal of say.If people want their house to be open they’ll have to ask for it, write to demand it, organize for it to happen, and so on.Jeff Burseyauthor of_Verbatim: A Novel_a parliamentary satire

  4. When the government reflexively uses time limits on debate and committee work we are in trouble.  Harper has surrounded himself with ex-Harrisites who operate on the motto:  “You have to ask yourself, do you want democracy or do you want efficiency?”  I’m sure we all know how they would have us answer.

    • The  problem is that the kind of efficiency the PM wants is a rightwing dictatorship with himself as the dictator.

  5. We live in technocrat era where ‘experts’ supposedly know everything and the rest us are considered too dim to tie our own shoes. We have given up on Legislatures because we have given up on ourselves. 

    As one example, I think it is pathetic how little coverage Harper’s two Supreme Court nominees are getting in msm. There are one or two articles but our msm is profoundly incurious about two people who are going to have significant impact on our lives for decades to come.  I think I have read/heard more about how it would be scary to have American system where people know their Justices.

    Apparently, Canada is better country because we are ignorant of who our rulers are and we all know governance improves when apparatchiks operate in secret and are not held to any scrutiny. 

    Is Canadian society really promoting knowledge/debates or satisfied with mediocrity and ignorance? 

    Maclean’s ~ Why Your Teenager Can’t Use A Hammer:

    Remarkably, most of his Grade 11 students arrive not knowing which way to turn a screwdriver to tighten a screw. If he introduces a nut threaded counterclockwise, they have trouble conceptualizing the need to turn the screwdriver the opposite way. 

    Wente/Globe ~ Too Many Teachers Can’t Do Math …. 

    “Across the country, university math professors report that the math skills of students who are studying to become teachers are generally abysmal. Basic skills such as adding fractions or calculating percentages are frequently beyond them.”

    • The reasoning goes that if the Canadian Supreme Court justices were passing rulings that were unpopular to a significant number of people, we’d know their names.  So the converse reasoning is, since we don’t know their names, their rulings must be overall decent.

      Given Harper’s recent appointees, you may soon get your wish, Tony.

  6. When neo-cons are elected, what did you expect? Open government? Transparency? Fairness?
    Not pitting groups against each other? Not trashing anyone who disagrees with them? Spending
    money wisely, not on pet projects? Not do social engineering? And so forth.
    Guess what? Ain’t goona happen. Canada in 4 years will not be the same country anymore, after
    our Canadian styled Republicians get finished. We will be a shadow of our former greatness.

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