21. Restoring Power to Parliament / Redonner le pouvoir au Parlement

(Policy papers 2012-2013)

The rule of the Prime Minister’s Office increasingly dwarfs the power of the elected House of Commons. Reforms to a broad range of parliamentary rules and procedures would go a long way towards shrinking the “democratic deficit” that is undermining Canadians’ attachment to their government — as would cutting the number of spin doctors cluttering up the bureaucracy. Streamlining the cabinet and integrating departments to reflect 21st-century priorities would save time and money and result in more informed and progressive legislation.

Le règne du Cabinet du Premier ministre éclipse de plus en plus le pouvoir de la Chambre des Communes, pourtant constituée d’élus. Réformer une vaste gamme de règles et de procédures parlementaires – tout comme réduire le nombre d’experts en communication qui valdinguent dans la bureaucratie – diminuerait en grande partie le « déficit démocratique » qui mine l’attachement des Canadiens à leur gouvernement. Rationaliser le Conseil exécutif et combiner des départements pour qu’ils reflètent les priorités du 21ème siècle permettrait d’économiser du temps et de l’argent et aurait pour résultat une législation mieux fondée et plus progressiste.



With the lack of checks and balances in the Canadian political system, our prime minister is perhaps the most unfettered head of government among Western democracies. During majority and minority governments of both the Liberal and Conservative parties, executive action by prime ministerial fiat has undermined the counterweight of Parliament essential to limiting arbitrary action in a parliamentary democracy.

At worst, this growing concentration of power in the PMO is the hallmark of a drift towards authoritarianism. At best, it signals a passivity among Canadian citizens who increasingly find the workings of their government to be irrelevant to their daily lives.

The most recent and glaring example of this abuse of power is Bill C-38, the omnibus budget bill, which contains 425 pages and amendments to over 60 pieces of legislation. With the bill subject to only minimal debate in Parliament, several of these unexamined amendments will be damaging to many of the principles and programs that Canadians value. The omnibus bill gives ministers more discretion, for example to define “suitable employment” in the employment insurance (EI) regulations; to create new categories of immigrants; and to decide what energy projects should be accepted or rejected over the objections of the National Energy Board.

Several reforms are needed if we are to constrain prime ministerial authority, curtail the politicization of the executive branch, and re-engage Canadians with their government. A good start would be to introduce limits to the PM’s power to shut down Parliament by prorogation (requirement for a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Commons), and new rules for the summoning (within 30 days of the date of an election) and dissolution of Parliament (fixed election dates — implemented but ignored by the Conservative government).

Instead of the prime minister having the power to appoint deputy ministers, associate deputy ministers, members of boards and commissions, and ambassadors, we should have an arm’s-length Public Appointments Commission. A fully independent appointments process should also be established for judicial and quasi-judicial appointments[20], including a meaningful parliamentary confirmation process.

Many of the bureaucrats working in Ottawa are “exempt staff.” These various policy directors, communications staff, advisers, and assistants are partisan political staffers who are not subject to the hiring rules of the federal public service. According to one estimate at the end of 2011, the federal government employed no fewer than 1,500 communications advisors and over 4,000 information officers. Instead of paying legions of political staffers — the total should be reduced by 50% — the money should go towards hiring enough non-partisan, professional civil servants so that Canadians who need important government services such as EI can access real people, not just voicemail or websites.

Reducing the size of the cabinet would also reduce the number of political staff. The current 39-member cabinet, which includes one associate minister and 11 ministers of state, leads to compartmentalizing within departments what should be shared with the whole cabinet. Altogether, a smaller cabinet would better reflect 21st-century priorities. For example, a sustainable development department would combine concerns about the economics of energy security and climate change, ensuring that environmental concerns are integrated into all cabinet and public discussions from the start.

Committees of the House of Commons have a vital role to play in examining the policies, programs, and actions of the government. They need to have adequate budgets through the Library of Parliament to function vigorously and independently. Their chairs should be selected through a secret preferential ballot, and they should be encouraged, where appropriate, to return with a unanimous report or recommendation by unanimous decision, as is the case in the United Kingdom. This would put greater pressure on committee members to engage in constructive consensus-building.

One of the most vital Commons committees is the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, charged with reviewing and reporting on government expenditures. A February 2012 report disturbingly concluded that the vast majority of spending is never examined, and any estimates not examined are simply deemed to be approved. Solutions include aligning the budget and estimates cycles, eliminating the “deemed” rule, requiring the government to release budgetary information in a timely fashion, and giving MPs the resources to properly examine the government’s accounts. As well, the Parliamentary Budget Officer must be given real independence to carry out his work.