Jonathan Malloy is the Bell Chair in Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton University. His latest book is The Paradox of Parliament.
Over the past two decades, the parliamentary buildings in Canada’s capital have been undergoing a complete refit, from masonry repairs and asbestos removal to complete interior gutting. And after seeing little more than minor repairs since it first opened in 1920 – and after ominous warnings that it risked failure without serious fixes – Centre Block, which holds the very heart of our democracy, has been fully closed since 2019 in what the government calls one of the largest and most complex heritage rehabilitation projects in the world.
But it is Parliament itself that may be the longest-running renovation project in Canada.
Almost everyone seems to agree that it’s in bad shape, and that it needs to be fixed. The House of Commons, for instance, is regularly criticized for being dysfunctional and ineffective. In March, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee was brought to a standstill by a good old-fashioned filibuster, as Liberal MPs deliberately droned on and wasted committee time in order to block attempts to investigate foreign electoral interference – a logjam only broken a week later, through a deal between all parties. Then there are all the perennial complaints: that Question Period is about anything but answers; that MPs are robots operating under iron-fisted party discipline; that parties are happy to promise reforms when in opposition, but forget them as soon as they gain power. Gamesmanship is part of the everyday business of Parliament as each side tries to outmanoeuvre the other, and at times it does seem to be more simply for the sake of winning than the actual benefit of Canadians. And for many, particularly women, Indigenous people and racialized Canadians, the longstanding complaints are part of a deeper questioning of the entire institution.
But while nobody seems completely happy with Parliament, there’s disagreement about exactly what the core problem is, and thus, the nature of the solution. And that’s because Parliament is ultimately a paradox.
Parliament has two core functions. One is representation: Canadians elect 338 MPs and governors-general appoint 105 senators to speak for the nation. But the other is decision-making: To move from talking to actually getting things done, legislators need to organize into teams, with hierarchies and leaders to steer the way. There is a natural and long-standing tension between these two functions, and parliamentarians straddle them every day.
Most parliamentary reform efforts focus on the representation function, trying to find ways to empower individual MPs to operate more independently. But reform efforts need to recognize and incorporate the decision-making function as well, to ensure Parliament can act cohesively and productively.
Excessive party discipline, for instance, is often seen as Parliament’s chief problem and a barrier to the representation function. But parties are essential to the organization and operation of the House of Commons – that is, the decision-making function. And most MPs enjoy and benefit from being part of a team, even if they don’t agree with everything the whole team does. Party discipline may be excessive, but then again, we need to be more precise in determining exactly what constitutes “excessive.”
Much parliamentary business is an escalating game between political parties. The recent showdown in Procedure and House Affairs is a good example. The opposition tried to pass a motion that the Liberals didn’t like; the Liberals responded by clogging the agenda and talking out the clock; the Conservatives then escalated matters with a House motion to strike a larger inquiry. The logjam was then broken when the New Democrats sided with the Conservatives over the Liberals. This is, for better or worse, how Parliament often works: It is messy, but reflects the nature of democracy in which reasonable people will disagree, and must work out solutions.
Parliament works best in a big-picture sense, channelling great political parties in competition with each other; it does not work so well on an individual level. This leaves many MPs frustrated by their lack of independent agency. Much of the key business of Parliament – reconciling the paradox through compromise and negotiation – happens behind closed doors, in private caucus meetings and other opaque spaces. In public, MPs often seem to be little more than pawns. So on a collective basis, Parliament arguably works well, if imperfectly. But individually, it leaves much to be desired.
Parliament’s greatest current success, at least for the moment, may actually be the oft-maligned Senate. The institution has been transformed by the new appointment process introduced in 2016, which has left most senators without a traditional party affiliation – but the Senate has been able to self-organize into quasi-party “groups” to get business done. The largest, the Independent Senators Group, expressly acts only as a co-ordinating body and does not take policy positions. Arguably as a result, the chamber has become more assertive, amending and sending back key legislation to the House, yet ultimately deferring to the elected chamber if and when the House pushes back.
For some, the Senate is a parliamentary dream, an institution filled with good citizens who bring their best individual judgment to bear on legislation, mostly unencumbered by partisanship. But it could also be a ticking time bomb, as an institution in which no one is really in charge, and yet possessing awesome power. For its part, the Conservative Party has been unenthusiastic about the new system, arguing that “independent” senators are Liberals in all but name, and skeptical that their current deference will continue if and when a Conservative government comes to power.
The paradoxical nature of Parliament also means it struggles to completely succeed on representation when it comes to incorporating the increasing diversity of Canada. Some lament the decline of cross-party friendships and connections that in the past seemed to make Parliament more civil, and more able to reconcile the paradox, but historically, Parliament was a monoculture of white men. Though relatively diverse in class, region and language, there was a greater comfort with the nuances and norms of an institution designed by and built for men.
University of Toronto political science professor Sylvia Bashevkin writes that there are many reminders suggesting “female tones don’t belong in the dark, woody, masculine recesses of Parliament.” And women have long found Parliament overloaded with toxicity, encouraging aggressive posturing behaviour that is, in the words of former NDP MP Libby Davies, like “boys in a sandbox.” In her memoir Ladies, Upstairs!, Monique Bégin, who was a Liberal MP from 1972 to 1984, wrote: “I felt from the start that I was in forbidden territory where I was a tolerated exception.”
The challenge from Indigenous people and racialized Canadians goes even deeper, as they question the colonial roots of this institution imported from Britain. Indigenous MPs must wrestle with a deep dissonance that stems from working in a colonizing institution that didn’t even allow Inuit and First Nations to vote until 1950 and 1960 respectively, and that didn’t see the first MP with First Nations status until Len Marchand’s election in 1968. “I was more than a little nervous,” Mr. Marchand wrote about his first speech to the House. “My nerves weren’t just because I was personally shy; this was the first time, in all the centuries since the Europeans had begun arriving in what would one day become the Dominion of Canada, that any of us, the original inhabitants, had had the right to stand up in the centre of government and speak.”
Only in the past decade have Indigenous representatives begun to be elected in significant numbers – 12 in the 2021 election, comprising 3.5 per cent of the House for a group that represents 5 per cent of the country’s population – but the dissonance continues. After Inuk MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq announced that she would not be running for re-election in 2021, she said in one of her final speeches: “Every time I walk onto the House of Commons grounds and speak in these chambers, I am reminded every step of the way I do not belong here.”
The proportion of racialized Canadians in the House has risen from 4.4 per cent in 1993 to 15.7 per cent in 2021, but so has their proportion in the Canadian population, producing a continual representation lag. As Celina Caesar-Chavannes, a Black Liberal MP who was elected in 2015 and left in 2019 after a high-profile break with the Prime Minister, wrote in her book Can You Hear Me Now?: “I was acutely aware that the space was not made for me as I signed my name into history under the ornately framed picture of the Fathers of Confederation on the day of my swearing-in.” Others have reported the same sense of feeling they did not belong, and that the space was not meant for them, despite the simultaneous expectations and burdens placed on them as “representatives” of their racial group, often by white Canadians.
So Parliament does not work for a lot of Canadians. Parliament appears weak, or unwelcoming, or both. Why is this, and can anything be done about it?
Reformers have regularly looked to the British Parliament for ideas on how to fix our own institution. The British House of Commons does have a more assertive backbench culture, stronger committees, and a more powerful Speaker, and so there are regular calls to import British practices to Canada. Yet the U.K. House operates in a different environment. The Parliament of Canada struggles for pre-eminence in a way that its British counterpart does not, and federalism – the division of powers between it and the provinces – has long been a chief reason.
Ever since shortly after Confederation, Parliament has seen many of its enactments struck down by the courts as violating provincial jurisdiction. In the 20th century, “executive federalism” arose, in which many of the most important public policy breakthroughs occurred between prime ministers and premiers, or their cabinet ministers, while Parliament was made secondary. Earlier this year, for instance, great attention was paid to health care negotiations between the first ministers, with the federal government reaching agreements with each province. Where was Parliament?
The introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms brought another competitor to Parliament’s pre-eminence. Indeed “parliamentary sovereignty” was an objection to the creation of the Charter, and the notwithstanding clause was included expressly to give legislatures the last word. Arguably the Charter has done a much better job of defending rights than Parliament ever did, but regardless, it again means that Parliament is not necessarily the biggest game in town. These competitors dilute the power and pre-eminence of Parliament as an institution able to chart its own course and manage its own internal paradox.
So can Parliament be fixed? Ultimately, that depends on what we think is broken. We ask Parliament, and parliamentarians, to do many things. Some are done well; much is done quietly and competently; a lot is not accomplished well at all. And Parliament is generally better at the decision-making function – the big game between organized parties – than its representation role, especially when it comes to making space for individual MPs and diverse voices.
But little will get done without a clear appreciation of the overall institution, and the paradox at the heart of it. Much as our construction and renovation industries continue to see sky-high demand, “parliamentary reform” will continue to be a perennial fix-it business, with well-meaning half-measures, if we continue to fail to grasp how it all works – or doesn’t work – together.