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Conservative Member of Parliament Michael Chong tables his private member’s bill aimed at giving MPs more power, in the House of Commons on Dec. 3, 2013. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Conservative Member of Parliament Michael Chong tables his private member’s bill aimed at giving MPs more power, in the House of Commons on Dec. 3, 2013. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)


Here’s an idea for parliamentary reform: Shame Add to ...

The seemingly unstoppable discussion is already under way, spawned sometime over the weekend by the news that Conservative MP Michael Chong was about to drop a private member’s bill that, if adopted, would make major reforms to our democratic system. Included in that list is removing a party leader’s final sign-off on riding candidates and a provision that would allow for a leadership review when only 15 per cent of a caucus requested it. Both of which are no small thing.

No matter, maybe. Somewhere along this discussion process we’ll hopefully at least start to answer the question that appears to be at the heart of this matter. That is, what is it that we’re really after? We should look forward to hearing what that New Canada looks like to everyone who wants change. In the meantime, here’s one to consider. Perhaps what we should be seeking is something very simple: the ability to properly administer shame.

This does seem the most obvious thing missing from our system at the moment. It’s exactly the reason why someone like the minister for democratic reform can, stone-faced, stand in the House of Commons and not only neglect to address a question regarding a bill that aims to literally act upon two-thirds of the descriptors in his own job title, but instead somewhat erroneously attack the opposition over its record of allowing free votes. That kind of thing is, in a word, shameless.

Shame. It might work wonders if we could have it back, if not on a personal level, then at least the chance to watch it work against a government collectively from time to time. This is partly what the House of Commons is for. Debate, yes. But shame is there, too. A healthy dose will do any democracy a load of good. Already question period ought to allow for this. The opposition hammers the government over various alleged misdeeds or oversights, and the government – theoretically – responds with something close to a solution. It’s the emotion at the heart of being held to account, but the whole system tends to fall apart when it is, or appears to be, completely absent.

“Shame” has become nothing but an abstract term, lobbed against a government that either doesn’t care or, more likely, simply doesn’t take it seriously. In either case, we’re poorer for it. What shame does is provoke a shift, maybe even a u-turn. At the very least, it forces some consideration. Shame should not be met with indifference. So, it’s time to put it back to good use, to give it some meaning again. As it happens, there is one way to do that – that is, have a government, whoever it is, feel sheepish for once. We could re-calibrate our three-line voting to emulate the U.K.

We would have confidence votes, free votes and then the third, where the cabinet will stick together to vote as a bloc but the rest of the government’s MPs are allowed to do as they please. And it’s that third one has taken on a key characteristic in the U.K. that we should adopt. Namely that, as Mark Jarvis. et al., put it in Democratizing the Constitution: “The threat of the government being defeated on non-confidence if the government position fails to obtain a majority of MPs voting is understood by the House as a whole to have been removed. In this instance, a government’s loss is a loss of face rather than a loss of confidence.”

That might be nice from time to time. And it seems simple enough. Then again, to count on it being implemented and used likely requires a host of other reforms to go along with it. Still, at least we would know what we were aiming for.

Colin Horgan is the political editor at CTV News Channel’s Kevin Newman Live. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian and Maclean’s, and was a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics.ca.

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