The Backbench Spring continues

Jean-Francois Fortin joins the reform party

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Newly independent MP Jean-Francois Fortin, late of the Bloc Québécois, stepped forward yesterday morning with a new proposal to reform the rules of Parliament. Here is the motion. And here is the letter Fortin sent to MPs to explain his three-part proposal.

Fortin’s thesis will sound familiar:

In recent years, a number of us have noticed that the powers of individual MPs have been in steady decline. Even though we were elected to represent the citizens of our respective ridings, power is being increasingly concentrated within the party establishment, within the leader’s inner circle. As a result, we have a situation where the inner circle imposes its will by depriving those MPs not in its good graces—or those who do not matter in the short-term political calculations—of the valuable time that should be spent addressing the needs of those who elected us. Whether it be spots on committees or the way oral questions are distributed, everything depends on the party leaders and their inner circles.

There is something wrong when the ability of MPs to do their job properly is entirely dependent on the whims of the party leader, and when they can be made to suffer for such minor considerations as whom they supported during a leadership race or as a result of electoral calculations.

So, what would Fortin do about this?

First, House leaders, whips and caucus chairs would have to be supported by a letter signed by a majority of the members of each caucus.

Second, each opposition MP would be entitled to one question in question period per week, with rules established for the transfer of that question to another member.

Third, MPs would select their own committee assignments, with the order for making those selections determined by reversing the order of precedence that determines when each MP gets to table a private member’s bill or motion. (Quick procedure lesson: At the start of each Parliament, the names of MPs, excluding ministers and parliamentary secretaries, are entered into a lottery that then determines the order in which MPs can present bills and motions. Fortin would flip that list so that the last person on the list would get the first choice of committee assignments, and so on.)

You can add all that to the proposals contained in both the Reform Act and Conservative MP Brad Trost’s proposal to have committee chairs elected by the House.

The first proposal simply comes at Michael Chong’s proposals for caucus leadership from a slightly different angle. Instead of putting a loose expectation in the Parliament of Canada Act that caucus will elect their House leaders and whips, this would require that House leaders and whips be formally endorsed by at least a majority of a caucus’s members. There is likely some value in this, but I confess that this particular field of study does not much excite me (possibly just because I’m not an MP).

The second proposal deals with a very tangible issue. At present, the lineup for question period each day is set out in lists that each party provides to the Speaker. Barring any decision of the Speaker to skip someone because of poor behaviour, the Speaker simply puts these lists together and calls on MPs in the prescribed order.

In a different world—a world that seems to have existed before Speaker Jeanne Sauvé started asking the whips for lists—MPs simply stood at the appointed time to show the Speaker that they were interested in asking a question. The Speaker then had the responsibility to pick one of those standing MPs to ask a question. (This still occurs during regular debate in the House; once an MP has finished speaking, other MPs stand in hopes of catching the Speaker’s eye.) This has the benefit of making it harder for the party leadership to control what questions will be asked, perhaps even allowing MPs from the governing party to ask actual questions.

I might prefer that set-up—presumably, some allowance would be provided for the leader of the Opposition and the leader of the third party to ask questions—but Fortin proposes a sort of midway point between the old system and the current system. It at least pushes the balance of power in the direction of the individual MP.

The third proposal gets at an equally tangible issue: the amount of power party whips have to control who sits on what committee. That power inherently usurps whatever independence parliamentary committees might have. And, without independent committees, we can’t really hope to have a Parliament that can effectively scrutinize government legislation and spending. (I’ve lately decided that committee work is the most inviting target for anyone who wants to fix Parliament.)

Fortin’s proposal might have the happy side effect of keeping parliamentary secretaries from sitting on committees—I’m not sure there’s any useful justification for having members of the government involved in committee work—but there’s a decent debate to be had about how to go about ensuring an independent selection of committee members. In Britain, committee assignments are determined by votes of each caucus. If you want to sit on a committee, you have to convince a sufficient number of your colleagues to agree.

There might be arguments against that system or in favour of Fortin’s design, but, either way, we get at one of the fundamental flaws with the current situation.