Randy Hillier’s proposals: Making government accountable

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.

Recording Abstentions:
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!

Motions

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.

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7 Responses to Randy Hillier’s proposals: Making government accountable

  1. Re: Compelling committees to hear all bills referred to them. The reality in Ontario is that private members’ bills simply die in committee. Even in instances where a committee might have little else before them, they almost never, ever, decide to take up a PMB. The only way most PMBs make it out of committee stage is when we’re approaching a prorogation or dissolution, or if the government wants to introduce a major programming motion, and the house leaders negotiate that some PMBs from each opposition party will be passed in exchange for getting some key piece of gov’t business passed rapido presto. Then what happens is that the PMBs in question just get yanked out of committee, recommitted to the House and get 3rd reading on the spot via unanimous consent, no debate.

  2. Hillier’s proposals were interesting in that he seems to be the only MPP who has bothered to actually research this stuff and inform himself about what other jurisdictions do differently. Not to be mean, but the members of the Standing Committee on the Legislative Assembly, who are currently supposed to be looking at changing the Standing Orders, are pretty clueless about how the actual standing orders work, so trying to possibly change them is a bit of a lost cause. If you read the Hansard of some of that committee’s meetings from the previous session and the current, it’s pretty dismal stuff. They all have this ingrained belief that ultimately, the government has to get its business through, so they can’t make any changes that would hamper that or slow that down in any way.

    As for the want of confidence motions… Prior to the 1970s, there was nothing in the SOs about want of confidence motions. Then in 1976, a committee reviewing the Standing Orders proposed the following:

    “In each Session the Official Opposition shall be entitled to three non-confidence motions, and the Third Party to two. Such motions may be put at any time upon proper notice during the Session, and the debate on each such motion shall be not more than one sitting.”

    That was adopted on a provisional basis. In 1978, new Standing Orders were adopted and the above was changed to pretty much what we have today:

    63. (a) In any Session, upon proper notice, the Official Opposition is entitled to not more than three motions of want of confidence in the Government; the Third Party is entitled to not more than two such motions, and any other recognized party to one.

    (b) Debate on a motion under clause (a) shall be at a time allotted by agreement of the House Leaders and restricted to one sitting, including an allowance of ten minutes for taking the vote, for which purpose the Speaker shall interrupt the proceedings and put the question without further debate.

    (c) If a recorded vote is requested, the division bell shall be limited to five minutes.

    (d) No amendment may be made to a motion under this Standing Order.

    That was under a PC minority government. Maybe the fact that it was a minority government situation is why things were worded that way?

    • pp549 says:

      Actually, that would make a lot of sense. A minority government would be very keen to control when a confidence vote happened.

      And yes, I’ve begun to go through the archives of the committee and most members seem to be in favour of the elective dictatorship style of government: the government gets its business, as and when it wants it. It’s sad, but depressingly common all over the world. It takes a long time to change the culture of an institution I suppose.

      • What’s sadder is that this was addressed back in 1975 by the Camp Commission in their 4th report:
        “The practices of the Legislature regarding the scheduling of its business would seem to us to have been shaped over long years by a powerful but rarely expressed myth that the important role, ahead of any others, for the Ontario Legislature is to let the Government govern. That is, the prime purpose of the Ministry and the adminstration is to provide services and facilities to the citizens of Ontario, and to report on this to the Legislature on occasion for approval. There isn’t much place in this myth for the parliamentary and democratic ideals of participation, confrontation, examination and discussion of policy and policy alternatives in the Legislature, or any basis of equality in importance with the theme of the Government governing.”

        At least they called it what it is (or should be) – a myth.

    • pp549 says:

      I’d not heard of the Camp Commission before. I don’t suppose you know of any links to the text of the report online? Google gets me some of the select committee reports on it, but not the reports of the commission itself.

      It’s astonishing how easily the majority can assert its power; the House of Assembly of Upper Canada began its life with standing orders being very undefined and geared almost exclusively to passing bills quickly and largely remained that way until at the very least the union of the provinces in 1841. Even a passing look at the history of parliamentary procedure from the late 19th Century to the late 20th century for any Commonwealth realm is a trend away from parliamentary debate and decision on policy and toward executive dominance, and it’s quite sad.

      It’s strange how myths such as these propagate. For much of the 20th Century British MPs fervently believed that a single government defeat in the Commons lobbies on any whipped motion meant that the government had to resign. It’s bizarre given that historically that’s just not a constitutional fact, but perhaps sustained periods of majority government and tight whipping operations contributed a lot to that attitude.

      • Unfortunately, I don’t think the various volumes of the Camp Commission (or more properly, the Ontario Commission on the Legislature) are available online. I would think that some libraries might have them (university libraries in particular). It was an independent commission (e.g. not a select committee of the Legislature) set up by the government of the day. There’s a fairly well-known essay by Graham White about it available online – The Life and Times of the Camp Commission.

    • pp549 says:

      Thanks! I’ll see if I can’t find it somewhere.

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