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BEYOND Question Periodor What really goes on in Ottawa
By ROY CULLEN
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2011 Roy Cullen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCanada's Parliament – A Proud Institution
Canadians seem to me to have a love/hate relationship with their federal parliament in Ottawa. On the one hand many Canadians, me included, believe that our parliament often exudes child—like behavior and is often not focused on matters that are really important to our citizens. The growth of tabloid journalism has contributed to an excessive coverage of the sensational, and regrettably to the baser instincts of citizens. On the other hand, Canadians follow events in Ottawa carefully and they see what goes on there as important and impactful on their lives. Regrettably a certain cynicism has developed about the integrity and capabilities of MPs and Senators. This cynicism has fostered apathy and voter turnout has diminished over the years. In the general election held on October 14, 2008, for example, only 58.8% of eligible Canadians cast a ballot. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. I believe that the advent of regional parties, like the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party, have made the House of Commons a more partisan place and heightened immature behavior. Although there are no 'magic bullets', we should look at the following as ways of reducing voter apathy and cynicism –
the Speaker and MPs should take steps to improve the decorum of members during Question Period;
politicians should be much less callous about promising things they can't deliver; and,
MPs and Senators need to be more mindful of the fact that they are subjected to, and rightly so, a very high standard of honesty and ethical behavior – and they should act accordingly.
The Parliament of Canada is modeled after Britain's Parliament - referred to as the Westminster model. Unlike presidential forms of government like those in the U.S.A. and Russia, our country's leader, the prime minister, is the leader of the political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons following a general election, and is able to form a government.
In our form of government, it is very useful, if you are the governing party, to have the prime minister and all of the cabinet ministers in your own caucus. Access to them is very readily available–unlike a presidential type of government where the president and the cabinet ministers are not in parliament. I would often discuss issues important to me and my constituents with ministers and sometimes the prime minister when in caucus on Wednesday mornings or in the chamber of the House of Commons. Meetings with them were relatively easy to organize as well.
At the time of publishing, the 41st Parliament was coming into being following the May 2, 2011 general election, but some seats were still being contested.
In Canada's 40th Parliament–the one that came about as a result of the October 14th, 2008 general election—the Conservative Party of Canada had formed a minority government.
The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) was able to govern, with the confidence of the House of Commons, with 145 of the 308 seats (or 47% of the total). The Liberal Party, together with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois, had the capacity to vote against the Conservative Party (as they threatened to do with the aborted coalition agreement that was signed in December 2008, and finally did so on a non-confidence motion on March 25, 2011) on a matter of confidence, the minority government would be defeated and Canada's Governor General would either dissolve Parliament and call a general election, or ask another Party or group within Parliament to form a government. The May 2, 2011 was the result of the March 25, 2011 Liberal non-confidence motion that was supported by the majority of MPs in the House of Commons.
Representation in the House of Commons is based largely on the concept of 'representation by population' or 'rep—by—pop'. Given Canada's current population of 331/2 million people, and with 308 seats in the House of Commons, this translates into an average of 108,766 people per constituency. This figure of 108,766 is very close to the population of Etobicoke North because it is a fairly typical urban riding. In Canada, however, representation—by—population falls away for the Province of Prince Edward Island. Under strict representation—by—population, P.E.I (122,000 population) would be entitled to only one seat. But it's guaranteed four. New Brunswick (population 750,000) should really only have seven seats but it is guaranteed ten.
Canada works on the 'first past the post' and not a proportional electoral system. While I appreciate and respect those Canadians who would like us to adopt a system of proportional representation in Canada, I remain firmly committed to a 'first past the post' electoral system.
The most compelling argument for proportional representation can be interpreted from the two tables which follow. On the basis of these results the Green Party, under a proportional representation system following the 2008 general election in Canada, would have been awarded 21 seats (6.8% of the 308 seats in the House of Commons) based on their attaining 6.8% of the popular. Instead, because the Green Party candidates were not 'first past the post' in any of the election campaigns across Canada, the result was not one seat in the House of Commons. In the 2011 election, the popular vote for the Green Party was diminished, but their leader, Elizabeth May, secured a seat in the House of Commons.
At the time of publishing this book, the May 2, 2011 general election had just been completed with many surprising and unprecedented results. The Stephen Harper Conservative Party will form a majority government for the first time; the Bloc Québec was virtually eliminated in the Province of Québec; the New Democratic Party will head into unchartered waters as the Official Opposition in the House of Commons; and the Green Party successfully elected their leader Elizabeth May to the House of Commons - another first.
In my view, however, the disadvantages of proportional representation far outweigh the plusses. In my view the three negatives are the following –
encourages splinter parties and perpetual minority governments;
lack of direct accountability between local voters and elected representatives (I will expand on this below); and,
faulty and undemocratic process for the selection of party candidates.
Meeting with elected Members of the Assembly of the Republic in Portugal in April 2007 in advance of Portugal's term as President of the European Union convinced me that proportional representation lacked the accountability that Canadians demanded.
These representatives had been placed on lists by their respective parties, in priority order, and won a seat in the Portuguese Assembly based on whether or not they were above or below the cut off line based on the percentage of the vote their political party had won–not very democratic in my judgment considering the lack of regional run—offs.
I recall asking these representatives how a Portuguese citizen living in Lisbon would seek help from a Member of the Assembly on a matter relating to a national healthcare issue. Because there are no locally elected representatives, I was told that a citizen with such a query, unless they knew, or knew of, a particular representative, would probably place a call to the switchboard at the National Assembly and they would be referred to a member of the Standing Committee on Health.
Contrast this approach to what would happen in Canada if an individual was seeking answers to a federal healthcare issue. This person would communicate with his/her local MP and if they considered that the response from the MP was not satisfactory, they would vote for another candidate at the next election if all else failed. This, to me, is accountability and this direct link to one's elected official incents them to listen and act on the concerns of the citizenry.
Being ushered into the House of Commons to take one's seat for the first time is quite an amazing experience. According to tradition, new members are supposed to appear to be dragged to their place, but I offered little resistance to Prime Minister Chrétien and Minister of National Defense David Collenette when they introduced me to the House and the Speaker and I was shown my seat!
In the 1993 general election, my party won 177 seats (out of a total of 295). With 60 % of the seats, this was clearly a majority government for the Liberal Party. In fact, whereas normally the government members sit to the right of the speaker (designated # 5 in figure below) I, and about 30 of my Liberal colleagues sat in what is affectionately called 'the rump' on the same side as the opposition members (designated #6 in figure below) and next to the speaker. The rump actually gives you a good vantage point for viewing the government ministers on the opposite side of the chamber and you get to vote last on the government side which can also be a plus since you are able to see first how all of your colleagues are voting.
Canada has a bicameral parliament meaning that we have two legislative chambers. Approximately half of the world's sovereign states are presently unicameral, including countries like the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Cyprus and New Zealand.
We have a lower house of parliament, being the House of Commons, an upper house, being the Senate, and of course the monarchy represented by the Governor General.
Currently, the Senate, which provides "regional" representation, has 105 members appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the prime minister, to serve until age 75.
Members are elected to the House of Commons whereas senators are appointed. Much controversy has centered on the partisan nature of Senate appointments and the fact that they are not elected. In December 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed eighteen new senators to give their party a majority in the Senate. As a result of a series of Liberal governments from 1993 until 2006, the Senate had become 'stacked' with Liberal appointees, and from time—to—time the upper chamber, according to some, has thwarted the will of the House of Commons.
The Senate is meant to be the place for 'sober second thought', and as a means of enhancing regional representation. The Senate is divided into four main regional areas: Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the Western Provinces, each with 24 seats. The Territories also enjoy Senate representation as does Newfoundland & Labrador; the latter with an allocation of six Senate seats, while the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut each hold one seat.
Because they are not elected, nor do they have to worry about being reelected, senators can often offer an objective view on issues, free to some extent from partisan bias and focused on what is good public policy for Canada. Of course it is never quite this simple because Liberal Party senators, for example, are quite sensitive to the political dimension of issues – and if they forget, their colleagues in the House of Commons are sure to remind them!
I have found senators to be generally very capable and hardworking individuals who are committed in the extreme to providing good government to Canadians. They can on occasion improve bills that have originated in the House of Commons. Some of the toughest questions I ever had when presenting government bills, and my own private members' bill on user fees, to parliamentary committees came from the members of the Senate standing committees.
While I have followed the debate on Senate reform with interest, to me it is somewhat of an academic question when considering whether or not to make the Senate an elected body. Given our constitutional hurdles, and the vested interest of the major provinces, in my view it is unlikely that fundamental change will come soon, if ever. In any case, I am not convinced that we need another elected house. Notwithstanding the criticisms, it is my view that the Senate, while not perfect, performs a useful and vital role for Canadians the way it is currently constituted.
* * *
How does one get elected, and serve, in the House of Commons? The first and most important step is to be nominated by a political party to be that party's candidate in the next federal election. It is possible to run as an independent, but the chances of electoral success are slim. Over the years, many of the Independents in the House of Commons have been expelled from, or choose to leave, their party caucus. In this role independents have sometimes held the balance of power (e.g. Chuck Cadman and John Nunziata), but not many MPs are elected as independents.
To run for a seat in the House, candidates must file nomination papers bearing the signatures of at least fifty or one hundred constituents (depending on the size of the electoral district).
An individual must be an eligible voter (adult and a citizen), as of the day on which he or she is nominated, in order to stand as a candidate.
If you like public policy and people, then you have a good chance of having a fulfilling career as an MP. The role is very demanding and hard on family life. My wife remained in Toronto when I was in Ottawa except for some special occasions and events in the capital, so for one hundred and thirty days of the year we communicated by telephone. Apart from the summer recesses, work days were long and punishing. In Ottawa my typical day began at 6 a.m. and I returned to my duplex at nine p.m. to watch the news and go to bed. Returning to my riding on a Thursday or Friday evening, I typically faced three to four events each weekend–from cutting ribbons, to attending community fairs and other events. Then it was back on the plane Monday morning to Ottawa to jump back on that treadmill. On a more positive note, I found the work of an MP to be very stimulating and interesting, and I enormously appreciated the opportunity to engage in discussion and debate on a variety of public policy questions, and to meet and engage with world leaders and leaders in our country on a regular basis. In addition, solving problems for my constituents, and seeing the resultant joy on their faces, was one of the most rewarding experiences one can imagine.
Those elected to the House of Commons come from all walks of life – former teachers, radio announcers, lawyers, small business owners, and many more. They arrive in Ottawa with no training on how to perform as an MP. Learning mostly comes on—the—job. True, there are orientation sessions for new Parliamentarians, but they are focused mostly on bread and butter issues. How to hire staff; what one's budget is; how the shuttle bus service operates on the hill; how to order equipment, stationery, etc;—these are important issues for a novice on the Hill and they need to be dealt with. What is lacking, however, is information on the role and responsibilities of an MP. There should be more offered to new MPs in the following areas since these are matters which MPs deal with on a regular basis –
difference between private members' business and government business;
voting procedures in the Chamber;
standing committee selection process;
confidence votes – role of the Whips;
holding the government to account through the estimates process, in the Chamber and in Committee;
purpose of Standing Committees and a description of all of them;
rules for speeches in the Chamber;
how to table a motion or private members' bill in the House;
house procedures and rules (e.g. quorum, 1st, 2nd and 3rd readings of Bills, closure, etc);
how to table a petition, make a statement in the House, ask a question during Question Period;
how to place a question on the order paper;
how to make an access to information request;
rules of decorum in the Chamber and at Committee;
how to request an adjournment motion;
the process for making an amendment to a Bill in Committee or in the Chamber;
translation and Hansard services available;
various parliamentary associations;
This list could go on and on and I don't recall being briefed, except in a very cursory way, on these topics when I arrived in Ottawa to take up my duties as an MP. Just before the 2008 general election, a Conservative Party colleague of mine in the House of Commons, John Williams, and I were having discussions with Treasury Board officials and representatives from the Canada School of Public Service about establishing training and educational programs for newly elected MPs with a curriculum that would address the topics above and other matters. With the election call, however, and with both John Williams and me not seeking re—election in 2008, this initiative will have to be taken up by others.
Excerpted from BEYOND Question Period by ROY CULLEN Copyright © 2011 by Roy Cullen. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Canada's Parliament – A Proud Institution....................1
Making Laws and Other Moments in Ottawa....................17
Committees, committees, committees....................61
Rum, Rations, Pay, Perks and Pensions....................79
On the opposition bench....................94
Home is Ottawa....................101
Samosas, halal lamb, beef jerky, pasta and Naan bread....................115
Representing Canada Abroad – If it's Tuesday it must be Strasbourg....................131
The illusive appointment to Cabinet....................149
Politics is a blood sport....................155
Sorry I missed you....................165
APPENDIX 1 : Question Period and Follow—up Adjournment Proceeding (Late Show)....................175
About the Author....................183