Canada

After attacking the Speaker, would Poilievre consider parliamentary reform?

While his party has made a cause célèbre out of its battle with the Speaker, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has periodically waxed poetic about the House of Commons — suggesting that its green upholstery is meant to symbolize the fields of the English countryside where commoners met centuries ago before the signing of the Magna Carta.

The actual origin of the House’s colour scheme remains unclear.

The official guide to House procedure and practice says that, while the Senate’s use of red is explained by that colour’s connection to royalty, “the association of the colour green with the Commons is not so easily determined.” A briefing note from the United Kingdom’s Parliament states that the origin is “much less easy to explain” — though it does note that in the medieval period, “green was the colour of the pasture and the greenwood, of the village green used by all, in other words the colour of the countryman, the ‘common’ man.”

Either way, Poilievre’s fondness for such a romantic theory suggests at least a certain reverence for the institution.

“To serve here, in the House of Commons, is an honour for every member. Each of us should be proud to be responsible for working on behalf of some 100,000 people,” Poilievre told the House last October.

“At times, however, we forget the order in which power is exercised. We think that the prime minister is at the top, with the House of Commons below, and the people down at the very bottom, but the opposite is true. In a democracy, the people have the power. We serve the people, and the government serves parliamentarians.”

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Given his apparent respect for the House — perhaps even his apparent concern for the impartiality of the Speaker — it’s fair to ask whether Poilievre would embrace the idea of a House of Commons that is stronger and more independent than it is now.

Critics of how the last Conservative government (of which Poilievre was a member) approached Parliament might laugh at the question. Stephen Harper’s government became synonymous with omnibus legislation, using prorogation for political purposes, limiting debate and tightly controlling backbenchers and senators.

But having come up through the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, Poilievre should be familiar with at least the rhetorical appeal of parliamentary reform.

“Canadians are justly proud of our heritage of responsible government,” the Canadian Alliance platform stated in 2000. “But our parliamentary democracy is not all that it should be. Too much power is exercised by the prime minister instead of being shared by all our elected representatives. Excessive party discipline stifles open discussion and debate. Grassroots citizens and community groups feel that their opinions are not respected or heard.”

Poilievre was a supporter of and assistant to Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day. Twenty-four years later, Poilievre became leader of the opposition himself on a platform that championed “freedom” and vowed to fire the “gatekeepers” who were apparently holding Canadians back.

What could a Conservative reform agenda look like?

In a way, Poilievre owes his own leadership to parliamentary reform. It was a mechanism in the Reform Act, a private member’s bill introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong, that allowed Conservative MPs to trigger the caucus vote that toppled former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole in February 2022.

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Chong’s bill was intended to take one small step toward rebalancing the power dynamic between party leaders and backbench MPs. As successive generations of MPs and observers have lamented, Canadian party leaders exercise an enormous amount of power and control over their caucuses — even more than in comparable parliamentary democracies.

In 2017, Chong co-edited a book on parliamentary reform — Turning Parliament Inside Out — with Scott Simms, who was a Liberal MP at the time, and Kennedy Stewart, who was an NDP MP. In it, the three parliamentarians underlined the problem of excessive party discipline.

“Nothing moves in Ottawa” without the approval of party leaders, whips and their offices, they wrote. Those officials control promotions and committee assignments. They decide who gets to speak in the House and when and what they can say.

In the interests of strengthening Parliament (the theory goes), this kind of gatekeeping needs to be curtailed.

In that collection of essays, a half dozen MPs wrote about their experiences in the House and proposed remedies and improvements. At least two of those essays are particularly relevant now — the one written by Chong and another by Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who is now Poilievre’s critic for democratic reform.

Conservative MP Michael Cooper has in the past called on the Speaker to do a better job of enforcing decorum in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Cooper’s focus was question period. Ironically, he thought the Speaker needed to be more assertive about enforcing decorum.

“In particular,” Cooper wrote, “naming and shaming members who behave badly and expelling persistent offenders would have a positive impact.” 

But Cooper’s most interesting suggestions related to the rules and mechanics of question period. Thirty-five seconds — the time allotted for each question and response — is not sufficient and allowing for more time might lead to more substantive and interesting exchanges, he wrote. And the use of lists — which allow party whips to dictate to the Speaker who will be asking questions each day — should be significantly cut back.

(Cooper also suggested a ban on clapping and — full disclosure — cited some of my own research on that vitally important topic.)

Chong’s focus was the work of committees. At present, party leaders and whips are largely able to control who chairs each standing committee of the House and which members sit on which committees. They can also easily swap MPs in or out as they see fit.

Conservative MP Michael Chong rises during question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 3, 2023.
Conservative MP Michael Chong has said power over committees should be largely taken out of the hands of party leaders and whips. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Chong suggested that the House of Commons borrow from a series of reforms made in the Parliament of the United Kingdom. In the “mother Parliament,” the entire House elects committee chairs and each party caucus votes on committee membership through a secret ballot. Chong also suggested that the chairs be more fairly divided among the parties represented in the House.

What would Poilievre do?

All such reforms would, at least in theory, reduce the power of the executive branch by increasing the independence and potential power of individual MPs and Parliament — at least as long as MPs were willing to use that independence.

But a Conservative reform agenda wouldn’t have to stop there.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government created the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. Conservatives have complained that it is not sufficiently independent from government. Making NSICOP a full committee of Parliament would seem like an obvious next step for a future Conservative government to take.

WATCH: Liberal Party apologizes to Speaker over partisan ad

Liberal Party apologizes to Speaker for partisan ad

After the Conservatives called on Speaker of the House Greg Fergus to resign over an ad that attacked the Conservative Party and its leader, Pierre Poilievre, the Liberal Party is taking responsibility, pulling the post and apologizing to the Speaker, who is said not to have been involved.

At Kennedy Stewart’s urging — and against the wishes of Harper’s Conservative government — Parliament began accepting electronic petitions in 2015. For the sake of opening up Parliament and empowering citizens, MPs could adopt a mechanism that would allow petitions to trigger official debates in the House.

Poilievre, like every party leader before him, has any number of reasons to resist any changes that might reduce his ability to control the agenda. And his party’s treatment of the Speaker would suggest not deference to Parliament but rather an impulse to pick fights, push limits and challenge established institutions.

Perhaps one could ask what the commoners of centuries ago would have wanted.

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