This is the first of two posts addressing the culture of governance in our country. This post deals with good governance and how Ottawa works, and the second looks at electoral reform.
Every election we hear a lot about reforming governance. But after elections we rarely see much real reform take place. This election needs to be different. Governance, and democracy, are under mounting pressure at home and around the globe. This means governance matters more than ever – to all of us.
When I first ran in federal politics one of my objectives was to help establish legal mechanisms to support Indigenous governments rebuilding and strengthen their governance in order to move away from the system of governance under the Indian Act. After four years in Ottawa, I now realize the scope of work to be done to strengthen our federal democratic system as well. As the Independent MP for Vancouver Granville, it is my commitment to work with other like-minded MPs across party lines to consider and develop ways to improve how our governance systems work which, over time, will change our political culture.
In this post I share some thoughts on what happens when those we elect actually get to Ottawa, how business is conducted, and some suggestions for how we can improve it.
Why does governance matter?
Recent polls and surveys re-iterate that many Canadians are disillusioned with government in Canada. This disillusionment is because we know governance matters – and when governance is poor we can feel the effects directly and indirectly.
As I often say in my governance work with First Nations, governance and government come in many forms but are always needed. Governance can be done well or badly. Research tells us that the quality of governance, even more than its specific form, has a huge impact on the fortunes of any given society and Canada, as a country, is no exception. Societies that govern well do better economically, socially, and politically than those that do not. Simply put, good governance increases a society’s chances of effectively meeting the needs of its people, and creating conditions where every citizen can lead meaningful, prosperous, and happy lives.
It is important that Canada continue to lead when it comes to good governance. All around the globe we see democracies under pressure and being challenged in different ways. This is unsettling. As I write, in the United Kingdom, the Westminster model is being tested over Brexit. While our variation of the Westminster model has generally served us well here in Canada, and where unlike in the United Kingdom we have a written Constitution, there is need for reform. Not mere tinkering on the margins – but real reform to ensure that our institutions evolve to meet our contemporary reality and the challenges of our time. Where they can continue to serve us all well into the future.
What are some of the challenges facing our governance system? And what Changes are needed?
Some people think our system of government is broken or sick. What I know is that governance systems are always dynamic. There is always room for improvement and every reason to fight hard to ensure the changes are in the right direction.
Here are four challenges, and areas of change, for how things work in Ottawa.
1. Encouraging Cooperation
While partisanship has had some useful and important roles in the past, the current forms of overt or hyper-partisanship are not serving us well. Things change, and in many ways partisanship as we currently practice it seems like a relic from another era, not well-suited to the diverse, complex, and interconnected society we live in today.
More and more I am of the opinion we need to support structures and procedures of governance that support how coalitions, co-operation, and collaboration around ideas can be built amongst diverse elected officials. This is different from a system where the incentives, expectations, and norms are for elected officials to support or oppose ideas and actions primarily based on the party membership of the individual who advanced them. In almost every facet of society we teach and preach that we should judge and evaluate things based on merit, thought, and consideration—not merely based on the characteristics of who said it. Yet in Parliament, MPs are expected, even hard-wired, to pre-judge an idea as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on who said it and based on their party membership. Rather than thinking about what was said, all this does is pit one group against the other, for no valid reason other than it is expected—politically expedient. It is also easy.
Frankly, structuring our systems of governance, including debate in the House and other political discourse, around opposing everything without thought but rather with conflict, dumbs down the conversation. Further, promoting false dichotomies is also dangerously polarizing as we all grapple with the impacts of social media.
Our world is changing, and we need to change with it. The issues we face today as a society are far too complicated for black and white positioning and far to important to be left to partisan politics. We are never going to be able to resolve the major challenges we face if our level of dialogue and engagement with each other does do not evolve—top of mind being climate action, the single biggest issue of our time, if not all time. We need a more efficient system with less systemic conflict built in and with a focus on ideas. We need to incentivize more consensus building and build this into our systems.
In the world of Indigenous politics I come from, decision-making is typically sought on a consensus basis. While everybody might not agree, and there is always strong debate, there is typically a coming together of minds to proceed forward on a particular path and ways to break impasses. I feel strongly that we need to find ways to work together more cooperatively in Parliament and to structurally make changes to support it. I am not suggesting that we move to a fully consensus based system, but we do need to reduce party control and change our parliamentary standing orders to make Parliament more relevant and representative through healthier debate and better decision-making. MPs need to be more than partisan mouthpieces for their party and/or unelected officials and must have and be a real voice for their constituents
2. Reducing the Control of Parties and Leaders
If we want to encourage more cooperation among elected officials, how much control and power should a party, its leader and un-elected officials have over an MP? And what law should govern?
All parties should allow for more independent thought and expression, and recognize that MPs need to represent their constituents first and foremost. Blind loyalty to a party or its leader is dangerous. So too is having MPs fearing the leader or the political repercussions of disagreeing with un-elected exempt staff (e.g., political appointees employed in the Prime Minister’s Office and other Ministerial offices). This environment is not conducive to good governance. It can lead to poor decisions being made for political reasons which may not be in the best interest of the country. There must be room for balance and debate by all elected leaders both within party and between parties.
In 2014, Conservative MP Michael Chong led a private member’s initiative, to make amendments to the Election Act to support greater freedom of caucus members – for MPs to represent their constituents and not simply toe the party line, for leaders to be more accountable to the MPs and not the other way around. You can read the Reform Act, 2014 here.
Unfortunately Mr. Chong and those supporting him were not able to achieve all of their goals in the Bill and, even where there was reform, the spirit and intent of the Reform Act is not being respected and implemented. My colleague and fellow Independent candidate the Hon. Jane Philpott and I found this out when we were expelled from the Liberal caucus earlier this year. Our expulsion was not in accordance with the Act. However there were no repercussions, as there are no penalties for breaking it. In fact, Jane rose on a point of order to inquire of the Speaker whether the rules had, in fact, been followed and he refused to answer – citing that he had no jurisdiction to do so. Conveniently, in this context, compliance with the Act can be avoided. The Speaker did say that the Parliamentary standing orders would need to be changed for him to be able to intervene. And he is right. They do. So let’s change them.
3. Reforming the Standing Orders
Standing orders are adopted by the House of Commons and are like by-laws. They govern the day-to-day operations of the House. You can read them here . Our standing orders have not been substantially updated in years, and they need to be. By doing so we can address the problems we face implementing the Reform Act, but we can also do much, much more. We can make the House fairer and provide for improved and wider debate. Without putting too fine a point on it, and not surprisingly, the standing orders disproportionally favour those in power, which perhaps explains why reform is so challenging. Once in power, those with power are not as keen to change the rules that allows them to maintain power even if it is not in the interest of good governance or evolving democracy.
Last Parliament, the Liberal government did, in fact, issue a discussion paper on changing the way Parliament functions that you can read here. It was, however, criticized by some for removing the ability of the opposition to resist the will of the majority and attempting to limit debate. Issues that the Discussion Paper addressed included the introduction of a question period dedicated to the prime minister (which was tried out last Parliament), the elimination of Friday sittings, limiting the ability of MPs to filibuster committee meetings, and allowing MPs to vote electronically. The discussion paper, in my opinion, did not go far enough.
The House Procedures Procedure and House Affairs Committee also reviewed the standing orders during the last Parliament. There were expectations across party lines that they would be updated after this review. The committee considered many of the same issues addressed in the Discussion Paper. It went further by considering extending the power of the Speaker to split omnibus bills and extending the time for the government to respond to written questions filed by MPs (from 45 to 65 days). Unfortunately, there was no appetite to take action and nothing came of the study.
In April, at the tail end of the last Parliament, a group of MPs from across party lines supported a sweeping motion, M-231, to substantially update the standing orders. This went well beyond the discussion paper and what the Committee considered. Unfortunately this motion also never went anywhere. The changes would have strengthened our democracy by empowering the Speaker, MPs, and citizens. It would have resulted in improved debate in the House, better scrutiny of legislation, and stronger involvement by citizens, including required debate of citizen petitions. It also proposed to restore power to the Speaker to determine who speaks in the House of Commons. The Speaker would also have had new tools to promote good behaviour and punish bad behaviour. You can read a summary of what the motion would have accomplished here.
There are other ways we can make Parliament more efficient than what has already been proposed. We could, for example, limit unnecessary debate to when and where it is needed. If on any given day you visit the House of Commons outside of question period, votes or exceptional circumstances, there is basically no one in the House. MP’s that are present shuffle around and sit behind the person speaking to make it look like there are more people for the cameras. In fact there is often no real debate. In many cases, MP’s simply read prepared speeches from their party and the clock runs. What a waste of time and energy. Part of the problem is that when legislation is debated there is a certain amount of time allotted regardless of whether the debate is useful or not. This is hugely expensive and gives the illusion of governance. By making debate real and more efficient we can get more work done as more business can be conducted. More Bills can be debated.
In summary, lots of ideas have been advanced but there has been little actual reform. With the right mix in Parliament after the next election and with leadership across party lines we can get the work of reforming the standing orders finally done.
4. The Need for Open and Transparent Government
The House of Commons and the Senate are transparent and open. Anyone can attend, both chambers are televised, and the words spoken are recorded verbatim in Hansard. However, Parliament is not the government. The government is the Executive (Cabinet). Cabinet is not open and is anything but transparent. It is designed and structured to be closed. When you swear an oath to be a Minster and become a part of the government, you swear not to disclose anything you learn as a result of being in Cabinet. This is a serious undertaking – one I take very seriously as a former Minister. While there are very good reasons why much of what is discussed in Cabinet must be secret, not all need be. Furthermore, when discussions are confidential, there must be mechanisms in place to ensure that Cabinet and the people working for the offices that support it, are following the rules and are not above the law.
So who watches over Cabinet? There is, I think, an assumption that people will follow conventions and ensure the rule of law is followed – that the norms of ethical conduct will prevail. However, what I have come to appreciate is that this cannot always be guaranteed. Having closed doors or limited oversight does not help matters. My experience has taught me that while we still need to ensure confidence we also need greater checks and balances on the government – on Cabinet.
In my opinion, there is room for government to be more transparent and accountable. I believe that our independent institutions must be able to investigate our government if there is reasonable evidence of wrong doing being done by the Prime Minister or Cabinet as a whole, as supported by the Prime Minsters Office (PMO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO). Absent this, as is the practice currently, there is far too much power in the hands of the PM and PMO. There is very little real accountability on a day-to-day basis. Going to the electorate every four years is not enough. I believe legislation is required to better regulate and control the PMO and PCO and to ensure appropriate rules for transparency and accountability of government.
Change is Possible
When I received my mandate letter as the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada I was confident that the good words with respect to setting a higher bar for openness and transparency in government that is accountable to Canadians truly meant something, and I still feel that way. As the Independent Member for Vancouver Granville, I will continue to work with colleagues across party lines to do my part to ensure that our structures and procedures of government continue to evolve and meet the needs of democracy.
Moving forward, some have argued that any attempt at changing the way Parliament works, ironically runs the risk of being getting bogged down in the very partisan politics we are seeking to curtail. However, when partisans seek to derail efforts to strengthen our governance system they are only proving the point – such behaviour is part of the problem. And to those who say that this is the way the system works, how it has always been done… To this I would say, just because it is the way the system works now or how it has always been done, does not mean it has to continue to be done that way—we can do better. I know we can rise above old patterns of behaviour and beyond hyper partisanship and focus on ideas. And those who do not rise above it should be challenged. What is clear to many of us is that changes are needed for the well-being of Canada, and in the right circumstances, we can and will get this important and foundational work done.
Note: If you would like to learn more about what others have said on the reforms that are needed to our structures and procedures of government please see:
- Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up (2019), by community organizer and activist, Dave Meslin;
- Democracy in Canada – The Disintegration of Our Institutions (2019) by long time Ottawa insider and civil servant, Donald Savoie;
- Turning Parliament Inside Out (2017), a series of essays by MPs that was co-edited by former MP and now mayor of Vancouver, Kennedy Stewart, Liberal MP Scott Simms and Conservative MP Michael Chong;
- Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada (2016), written by former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber;
- Unaccountable, Truth and Lies on Parliament Hill (2015), by former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page; and
- Tragedy in the Commons (2014), a series of interviews with former MPs that was published by Samara (an organization dedicated to improving civic life).