What's Wrong With Parliament?
"The state conducts more than half the nation’s business... and Parliament has about as much control as it has over the stars"
CANADA is getting close to a total war effort in many directions. But Canada’s Parliament is one of the very few institutions in the country whose manner of working remains substantially unaffected by the war.
No one could be in the House of Commons without being struck by the willingness of the great majority of members to spend their time and their health and to give up family life and business prospects, with the hope of service as their only satisfaction. And yet, even before the war, students of politics recognized that we were not fully harnessing this willingness to serve by adapting the parliamentary machinery to the growing demands on Government.
Parliament has a varied role. The House of Commons is the grand register of the people’s will as expressed in a general election. Its job is to consider and enact legislation, to ventilate grievances, to keep the Government responsible to the people, to vote and control the expenditure of the people’s money. What goes on in Parliament gives the electors the basis for their votes at the next general election. The House of Commons is also the place where political leaders are tested and should be trained. It should be the forum of the nation where great issues are discussed and public opinion is represented and formed. Parliament should be the loudspeaker and the still small voice of the nation.
The performance of Parliament depends as much on its rules—on the way its proceedings are organized—as on the capacity of the members and the impact of public opinion. Yet these rules have not been changed in any important particular for years and years.
Present parliamentary procedure is almost entirely designed to deal with legislation. But the enactment of legislation has become a small part of the work Parliament should do. This fact has not been recognized in Canada. As a result we have done practically nothing to organize the work of the House apart from legislation; and the procedure we follow is inadequate to the needs of the time.
In Canada we are under the illusion that we have a parliamentary system which is practically identical with that followed by the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster.
It may have been once; it is not so today. It is true that the arrangement of seating, the location of the Speaker and the Mace, even the texts of the rules, are similar, if not the same, but important differences in the rules and procedure help to make the British House a more effective instrument—and the British are far from satisfied.
Scope of Government Changed
THE scope of government has changed. The main function of the state used to
be to hold the ring between competing interests. That was the neutral state. It has changed into the positive state, here and in Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Russia, China and everywhere else. The state is now looked upon as a primary agency for promoting economic welfare and improving standards of living.
Today the state is in business. In Canada it. is conducting more than half of all the business of the nation with devices like those in the Department of Munitions and Supply, and the Wartime Prices and
Trade Board. Over these Parliament has about as much control as it has over the movement of the stars. Yet Government agencies are making greater changes in our lives than have been made by all the legislation passed through Parliament in the seventyfive years since Confederation.
Since the war there have been over twentyfive thousand Orders in Council dealing with every conceivable kind of activity. We are today told what materials we can have, what to pay for them, what to do with them, whom to sell them to and at what price, and how to wrap them up and
deliver them. Our lives have been regulated in a way no one dreamed possible two years ago, and Parliament has had little or nothing to do with it.
No one who wants to win the war can doubt the necessity for quick executive action. The Government had the courage to take quick action to deal with rising prices in October, 1941, action never taken before in a democracy. Let us hope that it will have the courage to take similar action again should it become necessary. But unless Parliament has a say in these Orders, if not before they are passed, then after they are passed, the supremacy of Parliament and the responsibility to Parliament of the Cabinet for all practical purposes will have become empty forms.
The question is how can Parliamentary control be exercised without stopping necessary executive action?
The current practice we have of tabling all Orders is an empty form. What we need is machin-
ery to enableParliament to examine and report on all Orders having the force of a law of general application like, for example, the Mobilization Regulations or the various wage and price fixing Orders.
This can be done. Parliament should refer all these Orders to a special committee set up at the beginning of the session. All Boards should report to Parliament regularly and these reports should be referred to the same committee. The committee would hear representations, receive explanations from the department concerned and make a
report to the House. The debate on the report would give an opportunity for a discussion strictly related to the Order, an opportunity which does not exist today. The responsible Minister would explain the Order, answer the points, inform public opinion. Experience shows that the Government almost invariably accepts the report of a committee.
Thus Parliament would exercise control without interfering with executive action, grievances would be ventilated, errors corrected. The mere fact that an Order might come up for review in this way
would lead to more care in the drafting of all Orders. It is suggested, therefore, that;
1. Orders haring the effect of a general laic should be referred to a committee of Parliament.
There Was No Appeal
review should also single day shut up hundreds of tions. The owners
methods for the of executive action >e established. On a the Oil Controller gas stadid not
know the grounds for his action. The Oil Controller was prosecuting attorney, policeman, judge and executioner to enforce the laws he himself had made. There was no appeal and no legislative or judicial safeguard at any stage. We stood for it because “there was a war on.”
There is no reason why punitive action of this kind should not be taken in the ordinary courts. But in other cases where an individual business considers itself unfairly affected by an order there should be an appeal to some authority other than the person making the order. The War Contracts Depreciation Board and the Board of Referees have dealt with more difficult problems with great success. I suggest :
2. There should be an appeal to an administrative tribunal from the application of all Orders claimed to affect a single business unfairly.
3. Provision should be made for an appeal from all Orders requiring the service of any person.
4. All Orders by the Cabinet delegating authority should follow a definite pattern and give power of further delegation only within defined limits.
Arena Into Workshop
ONE REASON why Parliament has not functioned better is that 245 members cannot get down to close grips with a subject. Also there is not enough time for the whole House to deal with everything. Hence, the practice of referring specific matters to committees for study and report should be extended.
On a good committee the party line disappears. One member’s experience is that on ten committees m three years there was never a vote on party lines. In committees the atmosphere of the arena is changed for that of the workshop.
To be effective a committee must be small, not more than fifteen. Its members should be selected because of their interest in the subject rather than solely because of other considerations like province,
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race or religion. Committees should be set up early in the session and bring in their reports early, before the last minute rush.
The committee on War Expenditures lias done exceedingly useful work but it has been suggested that it has been handicapped by lack of technical assistance. A committee of this character should have attached to it one or two full-time people who are competent to prepare the material as is done at both Westminster and Washington. Without such assistance the committee is largely in the hands of the interested department.
Committees should sit regularly on matters like manpower and labor, financial and economic questions, reconstruction, external affairs and information, munitions and supplies, agriculture, the Navy, the Army and the Air Force. The United States Senate has forty-seven committees exercising great power. We do not need anything like that number. The close connection of our executive with our legislative branches makes it unnecessary. Fifteen working committees of our House, most of them only meeting through half the session, would do the job. My fifth point, therefore, is:
5. Whenever possible a matter of major importance should be referred to a committee of Parliament and where necessary the committee should be provided with adequate research assistance.
THE House cannot get through the business it should get through in wartime if debates are unduly prolonged. The alternative to the oratorical anarchy of today is that the Government, in consultation with the whips and speaker, should allocate a limited time for debate on each subject, and agree on a method of dividing that time.
Even more important is the necessity of relating discussion to one subject at a time.
In England, during the recent Debate on the Address, five days were allowed for the general debate (a large part of two of these was spent in secret session) and six days for the debate of special subjects introduced by private members’ amendments. In 1942 the Debate on the Address at Ottawa took twenty-one sitting days. There is no reason why every member in the House should be allowed to speak forty minutes on every stage of every bill or resolution that comes before the House. Most subjects could be adequately covered in a debate restricted to those who have special knowledge about the subject. When many speak everyone wants to speak. So we have had three or four debates in the year in each of which more than a hundred speakers take part, and because of this, last year the longest, most difficult, and most important Income Tax amendments ever introduced were dealt with in a bill which was distributed and passed the second to last day the House sat. I suggest:
6. The Government should take the
responsibility of limiting and allocating time for debate in consultation with the other parties in the House.
What has just been said applies with particular force to debates on the conduct of the war. The practice has grown up of having the main discussion of the conduct of the war on the War Appropriations Bills. If this practice is to be continued it would be sensible to introduce at the very beginning of the debate a breakdown of the war expenditures for all Departments (showing some if necessary by token amounts) and by agreement limit the discussion successively to the subjects itemized in the breakdown. If to this was added a timetable so that successive stages would have to be reached on specified days we would make possible orderly discussion and at the same time enable the hard-pressed Ministers to go about the work of their departments when their items were not under discussion.
The contrast between the British and Canadian practice in this respect is startling. Debate in the Canadian House in the 1941 War Appropriation Bills took 805 pages of Hansard and twenty-six days. The Leader of the Opposition spoke 954 times. Someone counted them.
In Great Britain the corresponding legislation, involving ten times as much money, was put through with forty pages of debate in three days.
To achieve something approaching this dispatch I suggest:
7. A breakdown of war expenditures should be introduced at the beginning of the debate on war appropriations and a timetable adhered to.
Some members of the Government seem to feel that Parliament exercises effective control of expenditures by debate “on the estimates.” But when are the estimates passed and how are they passed? In 1940 we passed 493 items totalling $191,623,349.69 on August 6. On August 1, 1942, we passed 190 items totalling $251,974,758. Both years the House passed a large part of the nonstatutory estimates on the last days of the session. The pressure to end the session, developed during the previous three weeks, had reached a pitch of intensity which would explode on any backbencher whose interpolations held the members there over another week end. This leads to the suggestion that:
8. A fixed time should be provided for dealing with the estimates of each department.
PERHAPS the most characteristic feature of the British parliamentary system is the question period. Undoubtedly it is the most important single instrument for keeping the Government up to the mark.
At Westminster each day is begun by a question hour—a full sixty minutes—during which between a hundred and fifty and two hundred questions are put by members to Ministers. More than half of these are supplementary questions put
orally. Practically all of them are designed to draw attention to a grievance or to urge a line of action on the Government.
There is hardly a shadow of this procedure in our House at Ottawa. A few questions are put to secure information about an appointment to a job or the award of a contract or the like. Under our practice Ministers would refuse to answer a large proportion of questions of the type asked at Westminster as involving questions of future policy. This restriction should be modified and:
9. We should adopt, or at least adapt to our own needs, the British question period.
Other changes which cannot be discussed here in detail because of space limitations but which should be considered are:
10. Provision should be made for adjournment debates as in the British Parliament. This device would enable members to bring to the attention of the Government and to the people matters of vital national importance at short notice.
11. Parliament should sit at more regular times during the year and not more than two or three months should elapse between sittings.
12. In time it will be necessary to make it possible for more members to give practically their full time to the job.
13. The Government should appoint
parliamentary undersecretaries to assist the Ministers.
14. The Senate should be given more work to do.
The suggestions made above, even if they were adopted (and there may be sound reasons why some of them should not be adopted) would not bring the millennium. But that we should modernize the machinery of Parliament I have no doubt whatever. The Government itself should either introduce the necessary measures or appoint a special committee of Parliament to draft them.
Furthermore, we need new devices to bring Parliament to the people and the people close to Parliament.
In many parts of the country, meetings are becoming fading memories of the old-timers. People look to the radio. In New Zealand all debates in Parliament are broadcast. The politicians say that the people like it, and that it does good to those who give as well as to those who receive. The broadcasting of all debates is made difficult in Canada by five time zones, two languages, limited channels and the competition of Bing Crosby. But there are other ways of bringing the radio into service. There should be a fifteenminute national broadcast each day summarizing what went on in Parliament the day before. There should be regular discussions of political topics for combining with study group work
along the lines of the Farm Forum.
Schools, churches, Army units, clubs of all kinds should interest their members in the working of democracy . with talks, study groups, practical demonstrations. In my own division we have what we call a Hansard Club which meets fortnightly during the session to discuss what happened in the House.
Government is a serious but by no means a gloomy business; the business of every citizen. Politics— the business of government — has become the most important human activity.
The plea that reform should wait until peace comes will lead us to be caught out after this war as after the last. The effect on national morale of the first glimmer of ultimate victory over the eastern sky was alarming. What has to be done should be done now.
Canadians are little interested in party politics. They are not even interested in issues and isms. A handful may still want a national government but every Canadian wants a national purpose.
What we want—what we need—is a Parliament so organized that it will be able to crystallize in action the people’s desire for higher objectives and provide new drivefor our national life. And every citizen can help his representative to do it.