Apart from the well-attended occasions of Question Period, major debates and roll-call votes, the House of Commons is nearly deserted. In theory, the chamber debates the major issues facing the country, but the sad truth is that most debates are unenlightening and boring. Speeches simply repeat the party line, the rule that speeches should not be read is broken all too often, and the purpose of debate is to fill up time, not to persuade or inform those present.
Debate still serves a useful purpose, because the delays and prolonged periods of the legislative process allow other purposes to be achieved: the education of the media and the public, the gradual formation and change in public opinion as business grinds its way through Parliament, the opportunity for interest groups to take part in the legislative process, and for media to play their part in informing the public and influencing opinions.
MPs have many things to do besides sit in the House. They serve on parliamentary committees, and they meet constituents and interest groups. In their constituencies, they meet many groups and individuals, and promote public understanding of government, or their own understanding of the problems facing constituents. They perform a vital ombudsman function for their constituents, and they represent Canada on official parliamentary excursions abroad.
Studies have found that the time devoted by MPs to their jobs far exceeds that of most working Canadians. MPs spend as much as 70 hours a week on their various tasks as elected representatives when the House is in session, and 45 when it is not.
One indicator of the attendance of MPs in Parliament is their presence at recorded divisions. But even this can be misleading. In minority Parliaments, such as Canada has had since 2004, the official opposition has to be careful that, in voting against the government, it does not over-oppose and, by defeating the government on some issue, trigger an unwanted election. In the current Parliament, it is quite likely that, although the Liberal Party does not admit it, some of its members are encouraged to stay away during a roll-call vote so the party can both vote against the government and avoid actually defeating it - absent members having a parliamentary version of diplomatic flu.
Except for the important parliamentary occasions of the initial days of debate on the Throne Speech, and on matters where a government will stand or fall depending on an uncertain outcome, most MPs vote with their feet and stay away during most debates. The party whips have the unenviable task of making certain that their cohorts are in the House in appropriate numbers. Sometimes, they have to offer additional encouragement or threats, such as warning members they won't get the reward of a trip abroad if they don't appear on demand and follow the party line when they vote.
Most of the time, once the exodus after Question Period has finished, the few members in the House either cluster around the member who is speaking or sit at their desks doing whatever work engages them. A question that so far does not appear to have been asked in the process of renovating the Parliament Buildings is whether the size and design of the chamber itself should be changed. Members have their own desks because, in the 19th century, the desks on the floor of the House were all the offices that members had. Since they now have ample office space, they do not need desks on the floor of the House.
The British House of Commons chamber, after it was destroyed by German bombs in 1941, was rebuilt to its previous dimensions, far smaller than the Canadian one and far too small to seat the 600-plus British MPs, let alone provide them with desks. Winston Churchill argued, successfully, that giving every member a desk would give them "a lid to bang" and prevent a sense of intimacy in discussion. "We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us," he said.
For most of the time, our House of Commons is like Canada itself: a vast sparsely populated tract dotted with isolated human settlements. Is this what we want?
C.E.S. Franks is professor emeritus of political studies at Queen's University and author of The Parliament of Canada .
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