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.