A MONTH OR SO ago, talking about the parliamentary session now resuming, Prime Minister Pearson said he had 25 “essential” bills to be enacted and 15 more that he called “desirable.” But, he added, when time is deleted for departmental estimates and other routine business, only 46 sitting days remain in which to deal with the legislation.
Obviously the Prime Minister doesn’t really expect to put 40 pieces of legislation, many of them both important and controversial, through parliament with an average debating time of 1.15 days apiece. Nevertheless, he wasn’t exactly joking. It really would be “desirable,” even if not strictly “essential,” to dispose of all 40 bills this year — if only because the prime minister already has no fewer than 93 more items on his legislative list for 1968.
What does this preposterous logjam mean?
It means that mere tinkering with rules of procedure is not enough. Of course a lot of time now wasted could be saved by mending the rules, but not all that much time. The real fault is not just with obsolete rules or verbose politicians, but with our parliamentary system itself. There simply are not enough hours in the day, or days in the year, to carry on the nation’s business in the 20th century by the methods traditional since the 17th. Fundamental change is required.
What sort of change?
It could take many forms, but one thing is essential. We must abandon the notion that the legislative process is a trial by combat. Governments must stop behaving as if every act of parliament were a partisan victory for them, and a feather in their caps. Oppositions must forget that ancient slogan, as absurd as it is evil, that “the business of the Opposition is to oppose.”
We can no longer spare the time for these antiquated rituals. Nine tenths of the nation’s business today is not so much controversial as complex. It deals with matters on which reasonable men may differ, but not necessarily on party lines. And any reasonable man’s concern should be, not that his own opinion (or that of his party caucus) should prevail intact, but that the difficulties obvious to everyone should be tackled with everyone’s full strength.
This sensible objective cannot be attained under our present system, but the reorganization that would make it possible need not be so drastic as to dislocate our political machinery. All it needs is a new cooperation and a new trust between Government and Opposition. Let there be one more stage of consultation — after cabinet approval, let there be Privy Council discussion in which Opposition party leaders would take part. For the nine tenths of the work that is not controversial in the partisan sense, let all-party working groups be appointed who would be expected to present an agreed draft of legislation, and whose work could be accepted as automatically as both Houses used to accept the reports of the Senate-Commons Committee on Divorce.
We do not suggest that these committees should work in secret. All their proceedings could be open and on record. What they need is not secrecy, but deliverance from the obsolete rituals of combat that still govern the deliberations of the whole House. And by thus undertaking the hard work of drafting complex but politically innocent statutes, they could clear the parliamentary decks for the remaining 10 percent of all legislation that is genuinely controversial, and on which governments stand or fall.
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