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Democracy Cookbook: Democratizing the legislative branch

The Democracy Cookbook
The Democracy Cookbook

 

By Paul Thomas

The legislative branch of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is in trouble. As Canada’s second smallest provincial legislature, the House of Assembly has long had difficulty scrutinizing government spending and proposed legislation. The recent elimination of eight MHAs has only aggravated the situation.

 

Paul Thomas
Paul Thomas

 

Cabinet members, parliamentary secretaries and other government figures (such as the whip and caucus chair) now compose half of all Assembly members. If one also accounts for the Speaker, this leaves just 19 opposition members and government backbenchers to hold ministers to account. The comparable figure for the New Brunswick legislature is 30 members, greatly increasing its scrutiny potential.

Yet legislative capacity is not solely a product of size but also varies with the procedures employed. Indeed, the 2015 motion passed by the House in support of the reduction in seats also noted that “modernizing procedures would allow for greater involvement of all MHAs in the legislative process,” and called for reforms aimed at “enhancing the role of individual members.” However, no such changes were made.

Unless reforms are made now, the government’s control over the House appears likely to grow further.

Instead, the Assembly continues to operate under standing orders that were last revised in 2005. Unless reforms are made now, the government’s control over the House appears likely to grow further.

A recent study of Canada’s provincial legislatures demonstrated that smaller assemblies can use longer sittings and standing committees to enhance their ability to engage in scrutiny. Longer sittings allow more members to participate in debates and improve the odds that bills will receive thorough review. They also increase the number of times that governments must face the opposition in question period.

Standing committees allow legislatures to engage in parallel processing with different groups of legislators dealing with different issues simultaneously. The House of Assembly fared poorly on both fronts, having the second lowest average annual sitting hours of any provincial legislature and one of the least developed standing committee systems.

Introducing longer sittings is a straightforward reform that would yield immediate benefits for scrutiny. However, procedural changes to reinvigorate the standing committees would have an even greater impact on the House of Assembly’s capacity to connect with citizens and hold the government to account. In addition to allowing the legislature to focus on several issues at once, standing committees can also hear from witnesses, which allows citizens to engage directly with MHAs. Standing committee meetings also take place outside of the main chamber in a less confrontational atmosphere that can reduce partisanship and promote consensus.

Perhaps the most important reform would be to allow standing committees to undertake studies without a reference from the House. Given the Assembly’s limited sitting days, standing committees should also be empowered to meet while the House is adjourned. These changes would enhance their autonomy and allow them to deal with topics the government might rather avoid. It also would make them more proactive, with the capacity to suggest new policies instead of waiting for an assignment from the House. Another major reform would be to require that bills be considered in standing committees rather than being reviewed in the Committee of the Whole House. This reform would greatly improve legislative review by allowing witnesses to speak to the measures proposed. It would also give members more incentive to specialize in particular policy areas. These initiatives would be further strengthened if legislators were appointed to committees for the duration of a legislature, which would prevent parties from removing members who are too independent.

The process of reinvigorating all standing committees simultaneously may seem daunting, but one straightforward reform would be for the Standing Committee on Government Services to conduct pre-budget hearings like those conducted by standing committees in British Columbia, Ontario, and the federal Parliament. At present, Newfoundland and Labrador’s minister of Finance holds consultations prior to releasing the budget. However, those meetings lack the non-partisan, deliberative dynamic possible in a legislative committee. A recent study of the pre-budget consultations by British Columbia’s Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services found that they improve the legislature’s role in both policy-making and in representing the views of citizens. The key to the system is that the British Columbia government does not conduct its own parallel hearings, which leaves the committee as the sole source of pre-budget recommendations. The committee also releases its report well before the budget itself, which allows it to shape the government’s agenda. Adopting a similar system would help to restore the House of Assembly as a focus of public attention and ensure that all parties have a voice in shaping budget priorities.

Extending the Assembly’s sitting hours and reinvigorating the committee system may have marginal costs, such as those for committee transcripts. However, moving pre-budget consultations to the Standing Committee on Government Services would be revenue-neutral if the government followed British Columbia and ended its own consultations.

The same is true if bills were considered in standing committees rather than the Committee of the Whole House. Moreover, reforms like those described here were supposed to have accompanied the seat reduction completed at the last election. As such, any marginal costs should be considered against the savings realized from that change.

 

About the Author

Paul Thomas (Political Science, Carleton University) is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow who studies legislatures, parties and the behaviour of elected officials in Canada and the United Kingdom. His recent publications include “Religion and Canadian Party Politics,” co-authored with David Rayside and Jerald Sabin (University of British Columbia Press, 2017), and “Evaluating Provincial and Territorial Legislatures,” co-authored with Graham White, in “Provinces: Canadian Provincial Politics,” 3rd edition, edited by C.J.C. Dunn (University of Toronto Press, 2015).

 

 

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