Making the Minority Parliament Work
PETER DOBELL, FOUNDING DIRECTOR OF THE PARLIAMENTARY CENTRE
SEPTEMBER 30, 2004
Report by Brynna Leslie, SAP Canada
There have been so many successive majority governments at the federal level in Canada that Parliamentarians have forgotten how to use “gentlemanly cooperation” to get things done under a minority government, said Peter Dobell, the Founding Director of the Parliamentary Centre
Context: No one wants an early election
Dobell said the electorate sent a clear message in the June 2004 election that it wants all parties to cooperate and accommodate. The people don’t want another election right now.
The mainstream political parties also want to avoid an early election, said Dobell. Opposition parties are debt-ridden and need time to strategize. And the Official Opposition, the new Conservative Party needs time – at least until its convention in March 2005 – to solidify its platform.
The governing Liberal Party knows the time for another election is not around the corner, Dobell argued there are only two reasons the Liberals would go into an election early: 1) They are confident they will win; 2) They are defeated on a bill. Dobell said the former is unlikely since the people don’t want to go to the polls right now and the latter is unlikely to happen while the opposition is averse to an election.
Dobell pointed out that this is a new political environment for most MPs. MPs have become used to the dynamic of having a majority government. But under a minority government, if MPs want to push through policies that are important to Canadians, such as the Health Accord and Equalization Payments, they’re going to have to stop fighting and start cooperating.
The Importance of Individual Members
Dobell said the fractured parliament means individual members must remain prepared for an imminent early election (less than four years). This means they will be in constant campaign mode in their individual ridings to fend off contested nominations. It also means that party politics will become less important than the politics of individual members and their constituents.
Within the governing party, backbenchers will have a greater opportunity to voice their concerns. Private Members’ Bills will be given more attention. Partially this is because during the June election, many Liberals did not like the way the Prime Minister was running his campaign as the leader of the party. Members worked really hard in their individual ridings to win seats on their own merit, rather than on the Liberal track record.
These members will now work just as hard in the House to fight for issues that are important to their constituents and Dobell believes the prime minister will pay attention.
Dobell concluded by saying that members from all parties will have a greater role in forming policy through the use of Private Members’ Bills and also if a more cooperative committee structure is adopted.
Committees are a perfect venue for Members of Parliament to come together on a non-partisan basis and determine policy, argued Dobell. He had a number of suggestions for committee reform (all of which have been forwarded to all the MPs).
Recommended Committee Reforms:
- Elect Competent Chairs
Chair’s position will be analogous to the mayor of a city. He/She will need to develop a consensus among members of different parties
- Change Physical Set-up of the Committee Room
Committee set-up should have mixed (non-partisan) seating in order to establish an environment that fosters cooperation
- Parliamentary Secretaries should sit in committee
They should not act as a whip for their own members, as they have in the recent past. But they should be present in order to promptly take relevant information back to their departments.
- Revival of Green Papers/Standing Orders
Should return to the practice of producing a report that reflects the wide range of opinions on a subject (non-partisan) brought to the committee, but a paper that does not include recommendations.
The Green Papers should then be given time for discussion and debate in parliament, in order to attract media attention on the process of legislation.
This would also help the government to see where there was enough common ground among the parties to proceed with non-controversial legislation.
- Ministers should work closely with committee and its members
Ministers should make a priority of meeting with individual members on a regular basis, regardless of party affiliation, to establish common thinking on issues.
- Longer Appointments of Committee Members
Committee Members should be appointed for at least two years to provide some consistency to the committee.
- A Liason Committee should be Established
The Liason Committee would give advice on how committees may work better.
The Chair of the LC should be full-time (ie: not serving on other committees)
Conclusions and Final Remarks
With the vast array of public opinion in Canada, along with the general frustration with party politics, minority governments could again become the norm, argued Dobell. This was the case from 1957-1974 during which time there were five minority governments.
He believes this could make Parliament more relevant and interesting and possibly peak public interest.
Organizations outside of government will have to form solid relationships with individual parliamentarians that share their ideas/agendas. These members will have more power on a number of levels: In the House with Private Members’ Bills; in their parties, as parties struggle to maintain cohesiveness; In formulating policy, especially if committees take on more of the responsibility for formulating policy; and in their constituencies, where, due to uncertainty of the time frame for the next election, they will continue to campaign.
F. Abbas Rana from The Hill Times, a weekly newspaper in Ottawa, wrote an interesting article on this called Punjabi is now Fourth Language in the House
You can visit The Hill Times Web site at www.thehilltimes.ca.
The following is a list of Canadian MPs of South Asian origin:
- Gurbax Malhi
Telephone: (613) 992-9105
Fax: (613) 947-0443
- Ruby Dhalla
Telephone: (613) 995-4843
Fax: (613) 995-7003
- Wajid Khan
Telephone: (613) 943-1762
Fax: (613) 943-1768
- Navdeep Bains
Constituency: Mississauga-Brampton South
Telephone: (613) 995-7784
Fax: (613) 996-9817
- Ujjal Dosanjh
Constituency: Vancouver South
Province: British Columbia
Telephone: (613) 995-7052
Fax: (613) 995-2962
- Yasmin Ratansi
Constituency: Don Valley East
Telephone: (613) 995-4988
Fax: (613) 995-1686
- Gurmant Grewal
Constituency: Newton-North Delta
Province: British Columbia
Telephone: (613) 992-0666
Fax: (613) 992-1965
- Nina Grewal
Constituency: Fleetwood-Port Kells
Province: British Columbia
Telephone: (613) 996-2205
Fax: (613) 995-7139
- Deepak Obhrai
Constituency: Calgary East
Telephone: (613) 947-4566
Fax: (613) 947-4569
- Rahim Jaffer
Telephone: (613) 995-7325
Fax: (613) 995-5342