Ottawa

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.