Thursday May 18, 2017

How to reform Parliament: 4 MPs from different parties aim to fix democracy

From left to right: Kennedy Stewart, Elizabeth May, Scott Simms, Michael Chong share their 'collaborative roadmap for Canadian parliamentary reform' in the book, 
Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada's Democracy.

From left to right: Kennedy Stewart, Elizabeth May, Scott Simms, Michael Chong share their 'collaborative roadmap for Canadian parliamentary reform' in the book, Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada's Democracy. (Kristin Nelson/CBC)

Listen 31:52

In an era of growing political instability around the world, a group of Canadian politicians say it's time to reform Canada's democracy before it's too late.

Four sitting MPs — from four different parties — share their practical ideas for improving Canada's political institutions in a new book called Turning Parliament Inside Out.

Contributors Conservative MP Michael Chong, Liberal MP Scott Simms, NDP MP Kennedy Stewart and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May hope their collaborative roadmap for Canadian parliamentary reform will restore the public's faith in Canada's democracy.

Reforming question period 

While question period has been labelled theatre, Stewart tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti it's really a stage for inside jokes — what he refers to as "the Ottawa bubble."

And after six years in politics, "this whole acting out on the floor" gets tedious, says Stewart.

Parliament book cover

Part of that acting and theatrics play into the number one issue Chong points to in question period and that is "90 per cent of the members in Parliament are mere spectators."

He explains that the dramatic change in the system over the last three decades has resulted in MPs having no rights in the House of Commons to ask questions.

"It's now up to the party leaders through the whips and House leaders to determine who asks and answer questions," Chong says.

As a result, Chong tells Tremonti only 30 MPs participate in question period — "the rest of us are just there to watch."

Chong suggests what is needed to reform this system is to take away the power of the prime minister and other party leaders who determine who get to ask and answer questions "and restore those powers to the speaker of the House of Commons."

Reforming electoral reform

For May, electoral reform reform is key to improving "the quality and the content of democracy in Canada."

"We are the minority of democracies in the world that we use this perverse [first-past-the-post] system that separates the popular vote from the seat count," May tells Tremonti, adding that most modern democracies use proportional representation.

She argues the system in place creates strategies that become nasty "dog-whistle-politics" and produces an electoral system that has made Parliament "an increasingly toxic place."

A proportional system would over time, May suggests, push parties to co-operate across party lines.

"Parties would start realizing … I can give credit to the leader of the Conservative Party or credit to the leader of the Liberal Party or the NDP without seeing it drain my vote at election time as people begin to figure out where do I put my vote to best get rid of the party I hate the most."

Parliament buildings Ottawa 1884

A view of the Centre Block in 1884, with its centrepiece the 55-metre-tall Victoria Tower. After being destroyed by the great fire of 1916, the Centre Block was rebuilt with a newly-designed and taller Peace Tower. (Library and Archives Canada/PA-003340)

Reforming parliamentary committees

Simms, who is on the standing committee of Fisheries and Oceans, says what makes a parliamentary committee productive comes right down to behaviour.

He says the reason the committee he's on has a reputation for being the most friendly is based on going beyond partisan lines.

"The committee is the master of its own destiny in theory … but it's judged on its behaviour, " Simms tells Tremonti, pointing to a current system that is failing because it behaves in a partisan nature.

Simms agrees with Chong's suggestion to move towards some type of independence for these committees to become more productive.

"I think the 10 members on committees should be elected on a secret ballot vote at the beginning of each Parliament just after we elect the speaker of the House of Commons," Chong says, and adds those committees of 10 MPs should meet to elect the chair on a secret ballot vote.

"Those votes should be mandatory so that the parties can't game the system and prevent a secret ballot election of both committee members and committee chairs — that will create 24 truly independent committees."

What's at stake?

In the book, Ed Broadbent, Preston Manning and Bob Rae all make a case to reform Parliament.

To start, Stewart says, the public's cynicism needs to be addressed before reform can happen.

"We need to reassure people that our institutions work and include them more. It is up to us now here in Parliament to make it better."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Kristin Nelson.