The House: Considering reform

Last month, Mark Jarvis wrote here about potential parliamentary reforms as part of our series on the House. Shortly thereafter he asked if I had any thoughts on what he’d written and eventually I got around to writing something down. In the interests of continuing the discussion, here is the email I sent to him last week.

Let me state from the outset that I am not a professional constitutional scholar. Or even an amateur constitutional scholar. I am merely paid to put on a suit most week days and spend inordinate amounts of time watching politicians more closely than is probably advisable.

My woeful inadequacies thus acknowledged from the outset, I will happily offer a few thoughts.

First and foremost, I’m a big fan of writing things down. Unwritten rules are easily ignored. At the very least, they leave much room for debate—in many cases, too much room for debate. As such, I support the idea of establishing our own version of New Zealand’s cabinet manual. For the sake of everyone involved, we should arrive at some universal understanding of the rules.

There is probably a pretty easy argument to be made that we—as a country, from the general population to the press gallery to the politicians—fundamentally misunderstand or, perhaps more accurately, mistreat the notion of minority government. Or at least that we have strayed in our popular perception from a strict academic reading of what a minority Parliament means. There’s a debate to be had about popular will, academic purity and what constitutes legitimacy in a democracy, but ultimately we need some basis of understanding for how our ancient system was designed to function.

Your three reforms would obviously go a step further, introducing new rules to that system, but they seem to me to be in keeping with the spirit of the system as I have come to regard it: where Parliament and the individual men and women residing there are supreme. They also have the happy consequence of dealing with the most powerful corrupting influence on minority parliament: the constant possibility of an election.

If there’s one thing that has most made a mess of the last three years it is this. That an election might result becomes the dominant factor in every discussion and every debate. It is the prism through which the events around Parliament are understood. It defines and dictates news coverage. Political leadership becomes a test of manhood based on one’s ability to force his rivals into difficult spots. One could spend a lot of time lamenting for this and talking about how it should be somehow different—much like the fabled question of decorum in the House—but I suspect change will require something in writing. Like it will if Question Period is to be reformed (as in the case of Michael Chong’s reforms). Like it will if MPs are to be more individually significant (in the case of amending the Elections Act).

Ultimately we are in need of two things: a widely agreed upon and written understanding of how our system is to work and meaningful parliamentary reform. We need both a guide and a few changes to the rules. Of the latter, we need to be—as you argue—clear, specific and grounded in law. Change can’t be some vague spirit, nor is it likely to be massive and sweeping (sorry fans of proportional representation). It will, in many ways, be technical. But unlike so much else, if done correctly, it will be real and lasting and vital to the most vital thing of all: our democracy.

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