08 October 2003

Reforming the House of Commons

Remember John Turner? For those too young to remember, he was our prime minister for several weeks back in 1984. Now he's back and he's pushing parliamentary reform, as indicated here: "Power of Commons 'is a myth,' ex-PM says; MPs overpowered by PMO, bureaucrats."

Mr. Turner was speaking at the launch of a new Canadian documentary called Does Your Vote Count? which highlights a series of problems faced by members of Parliament. For instance, the video shows that from 1913 to 1979, the government shut down debate 31 times. From 1980 to present, closure has been used at least 166 times.

What ought to be done to rectify this imbalance between the Commons and the government of the day? Relaxation of party discipline would be an important first step:

On party discipline, Mr. Turner called for major changes to the role of party whips, who are responsible for telling MPs how to vote, occasionally threatening MPs that perks will be lost if orders are not followed. "I think the party whip should be lifted except on a throne speech, when the matter of the confidence of the government is at stake, or on a budget, where you're talking taxing and spending," he said.

He said powerful MPs would be an effective counter pressure to the federal bureaucracy, and that restoring faith among the public that their MPs can make a difference will go a long way toward reversing the decline in voter turnout.

Turner might also wish to take up the cause of electoral reform, which would go even further in boosting voter turnout.

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