Those were the days
'The Commons was the place where the most vital decisions were taken'
... In , MPs were regarded as independent-minded -- and not party yes
men. They were respected at home and in the Commons chamber, where they had
a decisive role as legislators and watchdogs of the public purse.
Indeed MPs had more authority and respect than our current 301
members, who suffer under the yoke of party discipline and a neutered system
of parliamentary oversight of the executive.
Unlike their counterparts today, those early MPs were somebodies. As Norman
Ward, the late parliamentary scholar, wrote of those formative years: "The
Member of Parliament was a strategic figure and a man of note." While the
prime minister and Cabinet had the pre-eminent role just as they do today,
the Commons got far more attention than it does now. Debates were listened
to inside the House and read outside.
One reason for the influence exercised by individual MPs were the Commons
rules, which in the 19th century permitted broad participation. MPs could
speak on any subject for as long as they could stay on their feet. They said
what they believed, not what the party whips directed them to say.
In those days, MPs acted as a real check on the government or on any party
leader whose ideas they disagreed with. A lot of those early MPs sat as
independents or as Sir John A. Macdonald called "loose fish" and "shaky
Governments were frequently defeated without being forced to resign or call
elections. In his first four sessions, Sir John A.'s Conservative government
lost votes five times on minor bills. Considerable time was devoted to
debating bills put forward by backbench MPs, and many of these private
member's bills were adopted.
As the academic, Roman March, noted in his book The Myth of Parliament:
"Debates were listened to because the Commons was the place where the most
vital decisions were taken."
The auditor-general and the Public Accounts Committee scrutinized government
spending. Budgets, spending estimates and legislation were given
clause-by-clause study in the Committee of the Whole. Ministers, with senior
bureaucrats beside them, had to account on the floor of the House for every
penny of department spending. That process was later eroded.
This so-called golden age of parliamentary power was gradually tarnished and
whittled away with the advent of strong national parties that brought strict
party discipline. This chipped away at the independence of MPs. New rules
were imposed over the preceding decades that shifted power from the
backbenches to the Cabinet.
When the Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, swept to power in 1984, they
promised major parliamentary reform. Jim McGrath, a veteran Tory MP, headed
a committee that recommended fundamental changes: free votes, effective
committees and measures to allow private members to create law. But Mr.
Mulroney, like Jean Chrétien, who made the same promises in 1993, kept a
stranglehold on committees, controlling every bit of business through
hand-picked chairmen and majority membership just as Mr. Chrétien does
today. Free votes, which are supposed to allow MPs to represent honestly the
electors who sent them to Ottawa, are treated by Mr. Chrétien as a dangerous
Under the Chrétien Liberals, questions from opposition MPs and ministerial
answers in the Commons question period were reduced to just 35 seconds, prov
iding sound bites for TV newscasts, but wholly lacking in substance.
Today, the last tool left to the Opposition to hold government accountable
is to table stacks of amendments, as the Canadian Alliance did to protest
the Nisga'a Treaty or as the Bloc Québécois has done with the Young
The rule changes implemented over the past 133 years have run completely
contrary to the purpose of Parliament, which is supposed to give the
people's representatives time and opportunity to question the government's
plans and spending.
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