Part of Reinventing Parliament, a series examining how to make Parliament relevant again. She wrote this in response to a query from www.samaracanada.com.
The biggest challenge facing Parliament is restoring the confidence that Canadians have in their democratic system.
Canadians want a Parliament that is representative. I’ve been hearing at the doorstep and on university campuses that Canadians want a Parliament that better reflects the choices that voters make at the ballot box. Progressive Canadians also want to see a diversity of individuals in the House of Commons, including women, aboriginal Canadians, visible minorities and LGBTQ. In order to be representative, decision-makers also need to consult. Legislation needs to be based on more democratic engagement and consultations with Canadians from coast to coast to coast, rather than on the ideology of a single party.
There is no doubt that parliamentarians will also have to reflect on ways to counter the cynicism that is caused by, among other things, the current government’s lack of respect for ethical standards, which undermines the confidence of Canadians towards their elected representatives.
We need more transparency in access to information and corresponding accountability from the government, and for the government to co-operate with the Parliamentary Budget Officer. I think that NDP finance critic Peggy Nash’s bill establishing the PBO’s independence tabled in 2011 was a positive step forward.
How to make Parliament more relevant to Canadians
I believe that changes to Parliament should be guided by the goal of increasing civil engagement and by the participation of experts and laypeople in decision-making. The legislative process should be more informed by wide-spread democratic engagement, continuous consultations with Canadians, and inclusion of under-represented and marginalized groups (based on ethnicity, gender, class/poverty etc).
Parliamentary committees should be privileged as one of the only formal tools that allow parliamentarians to consult experts and civil society during the legislative process. Parliamentarians on committee should not act on the orders of the Prime Minister’s office, nor should they produce reports drafted by the Prime Minister’s office. The Standing Committee on Environment during the early years of its existence was an example of the way in which a Parliamentary committee can be truly effective and advisory, producing in 1992 a report entitled, From words to action, which galvanized political action on acid rain.
Parliamentarians need to implement and institutionalize an evidence-based decision-making process. Countries such as Britain have appointed a Chief Scientific Adviser to advise the Prime Minister and the cabinet on science and technology issues. Evidence-based decision-making should be implemented horizontally (as of 2011, a departmental Chief Scientific Adviser position was also created in every government department in Britain). Governance needs to reflect the fact that environmental issues are relevant to many sectors (health, transport, fisheries and oceans, etc.), and this should be reflected in legislation in these sectors.
To ensure that Parliament reflects the political preferences of Canadians, we need electoral reform that injects proportional representation at the same time as retaining directly-elected constituency MPs.
How I would fix the system
As an opposition MP in a majority government system, I’ve found that respect for the role of Parliament and government accountability has been more important than ever. My wish list would include a limit the use of closure and time allocation to remove a government’s ability to unilaterally shut down debate in the House of Commons and a limit the use of omnibus budget bills. The tabling of omnibus bills makes it virtually impossible for opposition MPs to properly carry out their role of oversight.
I would also be supporting of a reform the process for amendments at committee stage. The role of committee should not become less important under a majority government. We know that under Jean Chrétien’s Liberal majority government, apparently half of bills came back from committee with amendments. Now, under the Harper government, this percentage is close to 0.
Laurin Liu is the New Democrat Member of Parliament for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, Que.
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