The Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Parliamentary Reform: Prime Minister’s Questions and Backbench Independence

The mandate letter issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau  to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, Dominic LeBlanc, contains several modest – but realizable reforms – that would immediately improve the character of Parliament.

The intention to establish ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ modelled after the United Kingdom, whereby one day a week is devoted to questioning the Prime Minister for 30 minutes, is a good idea. In the United Kingdom and Canada, question time or period, respectively, is held Monday to Thursday for 1 hour. However, in the United Kingdom, question time does not involve the Prime Minister but the rest of the ministry, which allows their shadow cabinet counterparts to regularly question individual ministers about their portfolios and performance.

The current practice in Canada, where the Prime Minister attends the daily question period when in Ottawa, does have its advantages, as the opposition parties hold the Prime Minister to account on a daily basis. However, this has reinforced the dominance of the Prime Minister to the detriment of individual cabinet responsibility, as the ministry is overshadowed by the opposition parties’ preoccupation with questioning the Prime Minister.

Question period has essentially become ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ in Canada, and this is at the expense of collective responsibility, as well as the individual responsibility of ministers for their briefs. Adopting the British practice of Prime Minister’s Questions would signal a desire to move away from prime-ministerial government that intensified under the Harper government and to return to a cabinet-centred approach to government whereby the Prime Minister is simply ‘first amongst equals’.

Lessening Party Discipline

The mandate letter to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons also calls for a lessening of party discipline and more free votes for Liberal MPs. Most governments begin their time in office with such noble intentions, and the test will be whether the Trudeau government can relax party discipline and tolerate having its legislative agenda defeated by Liberal MPs voting with the opposition parties.

While the defeat of a government bill by its own backbench is a feature of the United Kingdom, an independent backbench may be the product of the larger size of the British House of Commons and the fact that most backbenchers realize that they will never be cabinet ministers, or even parliamentary private secretaries.

The career of most British MPs is that of the backbenches. This career realism within a Parliament such as Westminster creates the environmental setting that has allowed a class of independent backbenchers to emerge, thrive, and be sustained against the will of the front bench.

Additionally, there are far more ‘safe’ seats in the Westminster Parliament, and British MPs do not face automatic reselection as the party candidate each election.  A sitting MP in the United Kingdom is more secure than their Canadian counterpart, and this contributes to the greater independence of Westminster MPs that reside on the backbenches.

In the United Kingdom, the government is equated with the ministry and a Conservative backbencher would never self identify as part of the Cameron government, as the government and the caucus are distinct bodies. In Canada, the government is synonymous with the party in office, and a backbench Liberal would self identify as a member of the Trudeau government. This suggests that there are important cultural differences between these two parliaments that also determine the degree of backbench independence.

The modest size of the Canadian House of Commons, the relatively small size of the government caucus in comparison to the United Kingdom, and the comparatively large proportion of the government caucus that are either in the ministry or serve as parliamentary secretaries, may be the real reason why disciplined caucuses are the norm in Canada.

On its own, loosening the party whip will not produce the equivalent of the 1922 Committee that exists in the British Conservative Party, which is an institutional manifestation of backbench independence within Westminster. There are other forces at work that explain the high cohesion of Canadian political parties and the endurance of party discipline than the voting instructions communicated to MPs by the Whip’s Office.

A lessening of party discipline would only produce an independent backbench if other changes occurred – a significant reduction in the size of the cabinet, an overall expansion in the size of the House of Commons, and the automatic reappointment of sitting MPs as parliamentary candidates.  As none of these are likely to occur, party discipline will remain a characteristic of the Canadian House of Commons.

A Gender Balanced Cabinet

There is, however, one change to the selection of the ministry by Prime Minister Trudeau that may, in fact, partially advance the goal of backbencher freedom but with a gendered outcome and twist – the decision to appoint a gender-balanced cabinet.

The cabinet prospects for male Liberal MPs have worsened, whereas those of female Liberal MPs have significantly improved. For instance, of the 50 Liberal MPs that are women, 15 are members of the ministry and 12 are parliamentary secretaries, for a total of 54% (27/50) of the female Liberal caucus being directly appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau.

This career realism may result in greater freedom on the part of backbench male Liberals but greater adherence to the party Whip by the Liberal’s women caucus, which may become the law of unintended consequences simply because it’s 2015.



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