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Redesigning Parliament? How about redesigning parliamentarians?
Friday, 8 February 2013 - 11:00am
For many years I have advocated “redesigning Parliament” in a variety of ways – elect the Senate, do away with the “confidence convention,” permit freer voting, strengthen the role of back benchers and committees, do away with ineffectual “take note” debates, restructure question period, and so on.
Since leaving Parliament, however, I’ve changed my approach somewhat to focus more on “redesigning parliamentarians.” By this I mean strengthening the values, knowledge, skills, ethical foundations, and inspirational and leadership capacities of those who want to sit in our elected assemblies. Doing so would not only improve the performance of those institutions but should also make them more amenable to structural and process changes.
For the last eight years I’ve pursued this objective through the Manning Centre for Building Democracy and the creation of our School of Practical Politics headquartered in Calgary. Because of my background and political persuasion, this effort is primarily directed toward aspiring politicians who subscribe to conservative values and principles.
More recently, however, I have joined with others in developing the concept of a cross-partisan Model Parliament for Canada – a 60-seat replica of the House of Commons which would also incorporate various structural features from the provincial legislatures. The purpose of this institution would be two-fold.
The first purpose would be to provide in-depth training to people of various political stripes who are serious about preparing themselves to sit in a democratically elected assembly. By interviewing former parliamentarians and the house officers of most of Canada’s 14 senior assemblies (the House of Commons, the 10 provincial legislatures, and the 3 territorial legislatures), we have produced a list of 25 courses which could and should be taught in such a Model Parliament. These include everything from lawmaking, budgeting, and representing constituents, to protocol, ethics, political communications, and balancing political life with personal and family life.
The second purpose of this proposed Model Parliament would be to serve as a “laboratory” for experimenting with proposed reforms for redesigning Parliament itself.
It is exceedingly difficult for the real Parliament and legislatures to experiment with any kind of structural or procedural reform because of the difficulty of getting all-party agreement, and because both government and opposition have a vested interest in resisting whatever reforms are proposed by the other.
But there would be nothing to stop the Model Parliament from experimenting with all kinds of reforms, from changes to the seating arrangement and the conduct of question period, to rewriting the standing orders, to making better use of new technologies. If the experiment fails, so what? Who knows and who cares? But if an experiment with some reform appears to be successful and well received, it could then be passed on to the House of Commons or some provincial legislature as a tested and credible reform well worth considering and implementing.
Last year, the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia, under the direction of Professor Maxwell Cameron, undertook a preliminary study to recommend some initial steps toward making the Model Parliament for Canada a reality. The study, conducted by Professor Gerald Baier and PhD candidate Michael Mackenzie, recommended the development of six initial topics, several alternative modes of delivery, and an experimental stage to test the concept and market acceptance before proceeding further. [See the study at http://www.democracy.arts.ubc.ca/2013/01/30/the-model-parliament-of-cana... A cross-partisan advisory committee has been established to assist with this initial stage. A survey of potential trainees – persons professing an interest in seeking election at the federal, provincial, territorial, or municipal levels – is also being undertaken to ascertain the willingness of such aspirants to elected office to more thoroughly prepare themselves for such a role.
So by all means let us identify and debate specific proposals for “redesigning Parliament” in order to restore the respect and confidence of Canadians in this important democratic institution. But let us also consider whether an educational and experimental institution like the proposed Model Parliament for Canada – dedicated to “redesigning parliamentarians” – could also play a helpful and complementary role in that restoration process.
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on February 8, 2013