CES Franks on democracy in Canada

2010-01-22

in Canada, Geek stuff, Law, Ottawa, Politics

CES Franks, of Queen’s University, has written an interesting essay describing the state of parliamentary democracy in Canada: “The Functioning of the Present-Day Canadian House of Commons: a paper prepared for the conference in honour of Peter Aucoin.” It focuses to a considerable extent on the reality of minority governments in Canada today, though also considers broader factors and long-term trends. For instance, the number of days per year in which Parliament is sitting has fallen by a third since the 1950s and the proportion of government bills eventually receiving Royal Assent has fallen from over 90% to just over 50%.

Franks also highlights the drift towards a bigger role for the provinces, with fewer national strategies and initiatives:

[M]y findings leave me with a sense of slight unease, and I am prepared to argue that the role of Parliament has diminished in recent decades and is continuing to diminish, to the detriment of good government in Canada. Further, much of the reason for this diminished role does not lie in the fact that we now have a Pizza Parliament with four parties and a likelihood of continuing minority parliaments. The causes lie elsewhere, and many are beyond the control of Parliament and government. They lie in fundamental changes in recent decades in the political economy of the Canadian Federation, in the increasing role of provincial governments as compared to the federal government, and in the unwillingness, rightly or wrongly, for better or worse, of recent federal governments to establish national programmes, policies, and national standards for the services Canadians expect from their governments.

In some ways, wider variation between the provinces doesn’t seem problematic. After all, there is nothing objectionable about populations with different perspectives being governed under differing rules, selected through democratic processes in which they participate. At the same time, there does seem to be reason for concern about the possible diminishing of the entity that is Canada. For one thing, there are major cross-cutting challenges that all provinces need to address, and it makes sense to do so in a cooperative way. For another, the temptations to make policy with only an eye turned towards the short-term consequences might be even greater for individual regions than they are for the confederation as a whole.

The full Word document is online, and linked from the Macleans website.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

. March 10, 2011 at 12:22 am

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.

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