It’s my first post-degree post, and it’s a long one.
A little while ago, I read up on Randy Hillier’s proposals to revolutionise the way the Ontario Legislative Assembly, and indeed government in Ontario, works. My reaction is mixed (partly because the proposals lacked enough detail, and partly because some are just plain bad ideas) but there’s so many good bits I thought I needed to emphasise them.
Private Members Bills
Removing Government Monopoly on letting bills get Third Reading:
Makes sense – if a government wants to vote a motion down, let them do so. But at least have the debate.
Fortnightly Night Sittings for Private Members Bill third readings:
I can imagine these sittings won’t be heavily attended. Not sure if that’s a good idea; I prefer my representatives to make their decisions in the cold light of day. I can see the need for extra time for debating third readings though.
I like the idea of recording abstentions, though it’s interesting that it doesn’t differentiate between those who choose to abstain and those who simply are not able to be present to vote, and people do those for different reasons. It seems unfair to lump them in to one number, so I would hope that recorded abstentions would be about the former, not the latter.
Compelling committees to hear all bills referred to them for review:
Hmm. Not sure about this one. Depends how you define ‘hearing’ all bills. Does it mean a positive vote on whether to pass the bill from committee, actual hearings for each bill, or some other requirement? What if the committee doesn’t feel it can give the bill a thorough enough hearing to decide whether it should be passed? What if the committee is inundated with bills referred to it and legislates in haste? Then you’d have bad legislation on the statute books without a government being held to account for it. This seems like it needs a bit more thought to be workable.
He also mentions that perhaps committees should be able to schedule the bills in their passage through parliament, citing the UK’s backbench business committee. It could be done, I suppose, on a rota system – over the course of a month, a day is scheduled for each committee to put some of its bills down for debate. So far as I know, it’s not done anywhere else but that isn’t necessarily a point against it. I just think it would be difficult to get a workable scheme that the government would agree to!
Reading motions aloud upon introduction
Makes a degree of sense in giving them some air time. You might have to give the Speaker permission to cut members off if their motions are too long to prevent filibustering.
Making motions binding on government
OK, I have some fairly big reservations here. In some respects, I fully agree that MPs should have some power over (for example) government regulations since they’re secondary legislation, but there’s a reason we separate executive policy formulation and legislative action. Full policy formulation is a complex and intricate process and requires thinking through to prevent unintended consequences. That’s why bills have to go through several votes and rounds of amendment before becoming law*.
For example, what would the limits be? The UK civil service differentiates between policy development and policy delivery (to use the rather annoying buzz-word); would a motion be able to constrain the delivery of government policy as well as the facts of it? Imagine the detail these motions could constrain government to! It’s US-style constraint of government without US-style scrutiny of government.
Essentially the proposal creates a new class of law-making; one which takes less time than passing a real government bill and is subject to less scrutiny. Despite the fact it affects less people (it can only constrain government actions), that still leaves a lot of lee-way for these motions to constrain people’s rights. A single vote of the legislative assembly could constrain the government to not provide services to a specific class of people or for the government to discriminate against a specific group of people. That kind of stuff may well be necessary in modern government, but let’s have it done by legislation that’s examined by committees and voted on at least twice by the Legislative Assembly.
I’m happy for legislatures to vote down individual statutory instruments. I’m even in favour of legislatures amending those instruments, somewhat radically apparently. But in terms of policy formation and implementation, I’d rather leave it to a government which the Legislative Assembly will hold to account rather than the whims of a rather busy and potentially rather partisan legislative assembly.
Motions of Confidence no longer to depend on the agreement of government and opposition:
Any proposal to let motions of confidence be debated is better than the situation which occurred under Dalton McGuinty. Ontario’s standing orders are truly messed up in that a motion of confidence can only take place on the agreement of the government and opposition. How in hell does that make sense? But letting them happen on opposition days, it doesn’t completely sort of the weirdness because the government controls when opposition days are (though you do have to have them in the current session)! Even in the UK (not known for its resistance to government fiat), it is a strong established convention that the motion of confidence takes precedence and the government makes time for a debate on it in the very near future. While that in itself isn’t IMO strong enough protection, it’s something at least.
Backbench motions debated at least once a month:
I suppose it depends on the sitting calendar of your assembly, but this seems alright. There’s no mention of how it is determined which motion is called for debate, merely (unless I’m misunderstanding) that the clerk publish the order of debate. Is that in first come first served, subject to some balloting principle, or something else? Also really wouldn’t you want it a bit more common than once a month? A secondary debating chamber could be used, like the Australian Federation Chamber, UK Commons’ Westminster Hall, or the UK Lords’ Grand Committee. Unfortunately in those, no business for which votes could occur take place because of the difficulty for members, which wouldn’t be very good for the new Ontarian motions regime which can have binding effect. At least, no legislature has yet sorted out the difficulty. We can live in hope…
Extended sittings for private members motions:
Nothing wrong with this; makes perfect sense that if business finishes early, private members motions should then be debated each day in a rotating party order.
Co-sponsorship of bills/motions:
Nothing wrong with members from the same party being able to co-sponsor bills/motions. Makes perfect sense, especially as he suggests for regional concerns though I’d expect more than regional concerns could come up.
Changes to Standing Orders to be voted on by secret ballot:
Certainly this would help the fight against the whips. It’s not an easy question though, and it depends if the loss of accountability of individual MPs for their vote is outweighed by the potential gains in fighting the party-carve up. Depends quite how threatened MPs feel by the whips on that matter.
Debate on the merits of regulations:
Ontario’s legislature has no power to annul regulations, although if motions had binding effect it would. Hillier wants members to be able to table a motion to debate that regulation and, if passed, a motion to debate the merits of the regulation must happen within that session for up to two hours. Firstly, you’d want to make clear that any debate on the merits of a regulation must be able to annul the regulation, otherwise the government could get around that easily by simply having a motion like ‘this House regrets regulation X’. It would seem to me the best idea would be to set aside a couple of hours every month to debate motions to annul regulations (whether under the Hillier motions regime or a statutory provision allowing the Assembly to annul regulations akin to the UK).
There definitely should be more scrutiny of regulations though. I don’t know any jurisdiction that does it well, to be honest.
Enabling the Regulations Committee to examine regulations for delegating power unusually or inappropriately:
A very good idea, exercised in the UK and Australia at the very least.
E-Petitions to stand alongside paper petitions:
Nothing wrong here, but who presents them? An MP has to present a paper petition, does an MP have to present an E-petition? It could leave constituents feeling a bit cheesed off if no one actually takes them up on their petition and presents it to the legislature. I mean, petitions have no effect once presented anyway, so if they lack even a presentation what kind of result is that?
Improving online access:
As someone who’s tried to look through the records of the Ontario Legislative Assembly’s website, yes please!
I hope some progress is made on these reforms. There’s so many good ideas that could be developed, I’d love to see the result.