MP Michael Chong is to be congratulated for his private member’s bill, which he has called the Reform Act, 2013 – a bill designed to restore a measure of lost power and freedom to individual MPs, and to their respective party caucuses.
Whatever the fate of Mr. Chong’s Reform Act, it has already been the catalyst for a much needed renewal of the debate over the increasing concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and the ever decreasing legislative role of MPs.
The word renewal is important to note, because as one who was an MP for almost 30 years, I can attest to the fact that this was a concern as far back as the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when changes implemented in 1969 were seen to be marginalizing MPs. Although Pierre Trudeau was famous for his comment that MPs were “nobodies” fifty feet from the Hill, the truth is that the changes brought in at that time did much to make MPs nobodies on the Hill, which is a much more serious problem, and a situation certainly at odds with the power that voters expect – or used to expect – their MPs to exercise on their behalf.
It is hard to imagine now, given the concentration of power that presently exists in the PMO of a former Reform MP, but the Reform Party came to Ottawa in force in 1993 to address similar concerns. Even so, it was only following in the footsteps of those who had been part of a parliamentary reform process that began after the bell-ringing crisis in the spring of 1982. Ironically, that crisis was precipitated by Conservative objections to a Liberal omnibus bill that looks procedurally innocent compared to the ridiculous omnibus bills that now come before Parliament clothed as budget bills. Given the confidence convention attached to budget bills, this is another and very serious attack on the power of MPs to discern, debate, and decide what they will support and what they will not.
The Special Committee on Standing Orders and Procedures (82-84), and the Special Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (84-85), made dozens of recommendations, many of which were designed to enhance the power and freedom of MPs individually and collectively, over against their party leaders, and the Prime Minister’s Office. The election of the Speaker by secret ballot, rather than by Prime Ministerial appointment, the frequency with which private member’s bills are actually voted on, the removal of all language having to do with confidence from the standing orders, and enhancing the power of committees to initiate studies without prior reference from the government, are all examples of recommendations that were accepted and are now taken for granted.
Unfortunately, key recommendations aimed at more independence for MPs, which had to do with putting committee membership, once established for a session or for a parliament, beyond the reach of the party whips, were never implemented. MPs who demonstrate that they may be to open to real debate and discussion about the merits of their government’s legislation, or their party’s position on legislation, can still be removed in a heartbeat by their whips, and replaced with more obedient or uncritically ambitious souls eager to please. In a time when parliamentary committees have fallen on hard times due to unprecedented use of closure in committees and the use of non-transparent in-camera meetings to avoid public scrutiny of debate, revisiting the recommendations of these earlier attempts at parliamentary reform might be a good place to look in 2014 for a follow up to Mr. Chong’s Reform Act of 2013.
Bill Blaikie was an MP from May 1979 to October 2008, retiring as Deputy Speaker, and Dean of the House of Commons. He was NDP House Leader from 1997 to 2003, and served on the parliamentary reform committees in the 1980’s referred to in the above article.