Saving the House of Commons

Seven ways to fix the beleaguered institution


As much fun as it might be to lament for the House of Commons, some of that energy might be put to use figuring out how to fix it.

Reform has been a bit of a preoccupation around here over the last few years and various proposals have been offered, noted and considered. And here is a collection of many of those proposals: real, structural reforms that could change the way our House of Commons functions.

There is much here to debate. And there are no doubt other ideas out there. But this could be the basis of an agenda for fixing the institution.

The Elections Act amendment
Amend section 67 of the Elections Act to remove the requirement that any candidate wishing to run for a party must have the signature of that party’s leader to do so. More here.

Question Period
As set out by Conservative MP Michael Chong: fortify the use of discipline by the Speaker; lengthen the amount of time given for each question and answer; allocate half the questions each day for Members, whose names and order of recognition would be randomly selected; dedicate Wednesday exclusively for questions to the Prime Minister; dedicate Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for questions to other ministers. More here, here, here and here.

Members’ statements
My own proposal: eliminate the time allotted for statements by members entirely or move those 15 minutes to a different time in the daily agenda. More here.

As advocated by Mr. Chong: “Speeches should be extemporaneous.  Again, the rule against reading speeches in Debate already exists.  It needs to be enforced.” More here.

Time allocation and closure
As proposed last month by the NDP, amend the standing orders so that: a Minister would be required to provide justification for the curtailment of debate; the Speaker would be required to refuse such a request in the interest of protecting the duty of MPs to examine legislation thoroughly, unless the government’s justification sufficiently outweighed said duty; criteria would be set out for assessing the government’s justification, which would provide the Speaker with the basis for a decision to allow for the curtailment of debate. More here.

The cabinet manual
Establish an equivalent to New Zealand’s cabinet manual: an agreed-upon and public guide to the rules and procedures of parliament. More here.

The Aucoin/Turnbull/Jarvis reforms
Codify the following: that elections occur every four years on a specific date unless a majority of two-thirds of MPs approve a motion to dissolve Parliament for a new election; that  the opposition can only bring down the government via an explicit motion of non-confidence that also identifies the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government that has the support of a majority of MPs in the House; and that the consent of a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons be required to prorogue Parliament. More here.


Saving the House of Commons

  1. – Ban softball questions: only opposition MPs can ask Qs in QP.
    – Allow broadcasters access to the feed from any camera angle at any time. Instant decorum.

    • I disagree – gov’t backbenchers should be allowed to ask questions just like any other MP (they do in the UK). They should be allowed to ask questions freely, however, even if their questions run contrary to government policy. No more scripted questions from ANY MP is what we’re after here.

  2. “Readers here will know Aaron has been making a Herculean effort to sketch how the House – and with it, effectively, Parliament – has diminished into “a sham”, to use Wherry’s terms”

    There’s been a lot of speculation over just what Aaron’s agenda might be – this sounds entirely plausible to me.

    Thx for all the hard work in pulling this together Aaron. It’s a tribute to the quality of the work that it’s really hard to find stuff to disagee with here than not. I like alot of these ideas – let’s do it!
    I intend to pass it on to where it hopefully will do some good.

  3. How soon can we get these enacted?

  4. Again I say, Citizen Recall plus streaming web-cams on every MP.

    Let the citizens see what their MPs are doing, and give the MPs reasons to always want their riding members happy. (As opposed to once every four years)

    If you want to get funky, alter MP’s pay each week based on a like/dislike rating system.

  5. ‘that  the opposition can only bring down the government via an explicit motion of non-confidence that also identifies the member who would replace the prime minister and would form a new government that has the support of a majority of MPs in the House’
    I dunno about this one… I think you’re putting the horse before the cart by having the new PM identified even before the old PM is still in office. Yeah, I know that sort of happens that way ’round election time when there’s a change in government, but… it isn’t the same. Just seems unnecessary to me. Wouldn’t it be obvious who the next PM would be anyway?

    Just nitpicking.

    • It might not be obvious at all, because the parties may not agree who should lead them and so would look to the Canadian public for guidance (aka, an election). But in that case, it’s too restrictive, because it only allows for a non-confidence take-over, not a “We don’t know who should lead, we just can’t follow this guy.”

      • Aren’t you guys a little off track here? I read that as in the coaltion scenario when it’s up to the GG to decide if the house can put together a plausible alternative govt without actually going to an election – which is entirely an acceptible outcome in our system of governance. Although it does seem redundant since it was fairly clear who the new pm might been at the time. Perhaps it is a measure intended to signal confidence and clarity to the public in such a situation?

        • That might be the intent but, as stated, it’s effects would be far more reaching.

          • I see the redundancy. But i’m pushed to see anything far reaching or sinister.

          • Far reaching because it defines those conditions as the only ones in which a motion of non-confidence can occur.

  6. WTH…is Wherry’s strong shift towards seriousness related to Coyne’s departure?

    (Not saying Wherry has never been serious over the past years, but still…)

    • What’s with that? The first i heard of it was on at issue last night. Bit sudden isn’t it? Is it an amicable departure? Why weren’t we posters told? Is it actually any of my business.[ hate those circular arguments]

      • Coyne is likely responding to market signals, maybe, probably, we aren’t that important and nope. Got it?? ;-)

        • Are saying in [your eliptical way] that Macleans is on the rocks, or Coyne or both? :)

          • Ha! I see what happened there.

            I wasn’t trying to make any big picture statement about Macleans (or the NatPoo, for that matter). I only meant that Coyne, being the free marketeer (admittedly with a reasonably well developed social conscience) that he is, likely received a very nice offer, one that he couldn’t refuse, one that will help him, as a baby boomer, get through his retirement years.

            Btw, in my web meanderings yesterday I did come across a post on a Sun Media website, IIRC, that basically said “With Coyne’s arrival at NatPoo, SunNEWS has become the defacto single voice of conservatives (and therefore truth).”

            And I’m fairly confident that Coyne won’t change his message or messaging very much at all at his new home: he’ll do just fine, and I’ll continue to access his offerings – generally I find them to be thought provoking without being dismissive.

            As to Macleans, I’m pretty sure it will survive, and I’ll be interested to find out who Coyne’s replacement will be. If Macleans does crash on the rocks within the next 18 months or so, it surely won’t be just because Coyne has moved along.

          • Agreed. That Sun Medis opinion is extremely optimistic. Somehow i can’t see AC going to bat for those clowns over at Sun tv. But he may become more pointed in his arguments – we’ll have to see.
            Wonder if Ezra is coming over or Mark is coming back…wow! I seem to have cleared the boards…what’d i say?

          • Btw… eliptical way….nice!!

          • I just like the word. Don’t imagine it is true. :)

          • Well lets just say I’ve been accused of worse!!

  7. Here’s another one: require serious questions and – more importantly – require the government to actually answer them. Partisan bluster doesn’t count as a question or an answer – and can lead to the assessment of fines.

    And when a question is directed to a Minister who is present, that Minister must be the one to answer (Tony).

    • This is not likely to happen with under our control freak PM.  

      • Do you honestly believe the Libs would support fundamental change that may limit their ability to run the country as they see fit if they ever get back to power again? That’s pretty naive. It is only the media talking about changes. The opposition spout platitudes but none of them are going to vote against their own self interest.

  8. I don’t mean to suggest that ALL these proposals are silly, but I’m guessing that’s what it’s going to sound like when I point out that ALL of these issues are related to behaviour that is in my opinion simply an extension of our voting system allowing minority groups to vote in majority governments.

    Yes, I’m quite serious.

    No matter the original intended function of our system, the fact is that parties have learned to take advantage of the First Past The Post system’s propencity to award majorities with minority support, by using highly charged and vocal minorities as their core, rather than what they are:


    To me it seems obvious that the incredible amount of pandering to the ideological fringes has led to the behaviour we see in parliament.

    And as long as our system awards zealot voters over the average Canadian voter, there are no rule changes that are really going to help, assuming they’d even pass in the first place.

    If the parties thought they had to answer to average Canadians in any way, shape or form, you wouldn’t see this nonsense.

    The only reform we truly NEED at this point, is one that will restore the majority of opinion to its proper place of relevance.

    • First things first. Let’s try some reforms and see if the voters come back to crowd out the zealots and the godamn spin merchants. If they don’t we need to take more drastic action – besides ensuring Mackay has to paddle home before another SARS team is ever tasked to him again.
      Personally i like the westminster system when it works – it can be extraordinarily reactive[ 1993 and 2011 Quebec] when it works. I don’t blame the system; i blame the parties and their refusal to put country before party.

  9. Agreed. That Sun Medis opinion is extremely optimistic. Somehow i can’t see AC going to bat for those clowns over at Sun tv. But he may become more pointed in his arguments – we’ll have to see.
    Wonder if Ezra is coming over or Mark is coming back…wow! I seem to have cleared the boards…what’d i say?

  10.  judging by the actions of the current government in this session, such reforms, although necessary, appear to have no chance of even being  considered by  parliament since they would allow debate of issues Mr. Harper is not willing to discuss.

    i admit being surprised By Mr. Harper’s attitude.  as an exceptionally savy politician he knows he can get any bill through parliament – i suspect it will take a miracle for the senate to have second sober thoughts on e.g. the crime bill – why does he risk offending a significant percentage of voters?


  11. Who was it who said that half the House should be randomly chosen by lottery like in ancient Greece?

  12. None of those changes mean very much if Canadians can’t actually elect the people they want to represent them. What has to go is the First Past the Post voting system that gives bogus “majorities” to one minority party that 60% of Canadians didn’t even vote for……never mind the millions of voters who mark their ballots and election after election elect no one at all. 

    Proportional representation is desperately needed. I’m in a good position to say this as a Canadian who has also voted under proportional representation in New Zealand. Last Saturday, the Green Party in New Zealand got 10.7% of the vote which elected 13 Green MPs to New Zealand’s 120 seat Parliament. 

    Until Canadians are able to elect the people they voted for……the changes suggested here are meaningless. 

    Democracy is about representation. Fix that first. 

    • Not to draw to fine a point but lets remember that 60% did not vote for any one of the other parties as well. The Cons may have got only 40% but the Libs only got 20% and the NDP 30%.

  13. How about a few other procedures adopted from the UK: a Backbench Business committee, Urgent Questions, proper Ministerial statements (which allow the House to question the minister after his or her statement), committee chairs elected by their fellow MPs, committee members elected by the respective caucuses (so no longer beholden to party whips)…

  14. Make the Cabinet Minister to whom the question is posed actually stand up and answer it.  It’ll cut down on Baird’s work in the House, but on the plus side we’d have to change his batteries less frequently.

    • If we adopted the UK’s daily Questions to the ministry (each day a different department (or group of smaller ones) is questioned rather than the entire cabinet together as we currently do) they couldn’t avoid answering. You should livestream the UK parliament to see what their daily questions are like. Just Google UK Parliament TV.

  15. What if our MPs were the people we actually voted for? Our current, take-no-prisoners politics is driven by winner-take-all voting. With a proportional voting system, there would be no phony majorities and they would have to learn to get along and share power. Proportional representation promotes a more consensual type of government and a more civilized style of politics.

    • In addition to electing MPs parties would be picking names off party lists and appointing them as MPs. Is that really what you want? A pile of party hacks sitting in parliament. You think the place is bad now.

      Thats partly why the system was not adopted in B.C. and Ontario. You may want consensus. I want somebody who can run the damn country. We have elections every four years. If we don’t like what the government does we can fire their sorry a$$es.

      However, to hamsting a government so they can never make a decision in this complicated world would be disastrous for the country.

  16. The proposal to lengthen the time of a question probably isn’t an improvement.  A question is one (1) sentence featuring a period at the end, it does not need more than the currently allotted time.

    The QP reforms are too Inside Baseball-y for me to evaluate.

    Re: extemporaneous debate: the story goes that one time Sir Winston Churchill forgot his debate notes and spoke extemporaneously.  He lost his train of thought, paused, sat down, and was heartily applauded.  Written, prepared questions and answers with accurate data at hand would seem to be preferable to off the cuff QP.

    Aucoin/Turbull/Jarvis reforms, as elucidated in their book “Ephemeral Knee Jerk Partisan Over-Reactions To Whatever Stephen Harper Did Yesterday”, seem arbitrary and less than democratic.

  17. – abolish Parliament, replace with citizen’s assembly based on sortition
    – Done!

  18. I understand the reserve needs help but where did the 90 mil go? Time to investigate. How many years did this cover?

  19. Seems like the real solution would be to have citizens who care about having ethical people represent them in parliament.

    If that’s not feasible, I guess these rules might help bring about better behaviour.

  20. Funny none of this was a real issue when the Libs were running the country for most of the past century using the tools of office as they saw fit.

    Trouble is now the opposition are being fed their own medicine back in spades and they don’t like it one little bit.

    The opposition is only interested in trying to dredge up the scandal de jour. Canadians aren’t buying it. Hence the improved polling for the government. If the opposition think castigating MacKay day after day about whether he told the truth is winning the hearts and minds of Canadians I suspect they are in for a rude awakening.

    The aboriginal issues have been there since the country was founded. Many Canadians probably agree with the government. Something is wrong and it needs to be fixed but there is enough blame to go around. Read the comments on the various blogs. There is not much sympathy for the plight of the people living on reserve which is sad.

    Harper has not given himself any new powers. He is simply working with the tools he has available to him. Do you think the Libeals are going to agree with any changes? They will whine and scream everyday but when push comes to shove they don’t want to impede themselves should they ever get back into government.

    So the media can run around with their hair on fire complaining about how parliament is working but nobody who counts is listening.

  21. A pile of appointed party hacks sitting in parliament is what we have now, because we have no effective means of passing judgment on a political party with our ballots and holding the party elites accountable.
    Proportional representation doesn’t mean that parties get to “pick names” off party lists. The party list is a list of CANDIDATES, published before the election and becoming part of what the party is putting forward in the election, like the party platform and the party leader. Do your homework.