TABLE OF CONTENTS
MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS:
This paper outlines the main functions of
a Member of Parliament: his or her representative, legislative, surveillance and
legitimation roles. The paper considers each of these from a theoretical standpoint and
looks at the practical means whereby Members perform them.
Though the term "Member of
Parliament" may apply to both Commoners and Senators, here it is employed in its more
colloquial sense to denote a member of the House of Commons.
The most obvious task of Members of
Parliament is to represent their constituents. Each Member represents one of the 301
constituencies now comprising the House of Commons.
It is uncertain whether, as
representatives, MPs ought ideally to interpret, and ultimately mould, public opinion, or
whether their purpose is rather merely to relay their constituents views to those in
positions of authority. Proponents of the latter "delegate" approach maintain
that sovereignty is best exercised, to the extent practical, by those in whom it
ultimately resides, the people. In the 35th Parliament, this view is strongly upheld by
members of the Reform Party. At a parliamentary conference, as a sitting Member, Diane
... In its simplest terms, democracy is
rule by the people - not rule by a prime minister, not rule by a prime minister and his
cabinet, not rule by members of Parliament belonging to the government party, or even by
all 295 members of Parliament, but rule by the people.
Yes. MPs have a mandate from the people.
Yes, MPs are trustees for the people. But ultimately, and most important of all, MPs are
delegates of the people.(1)
Yet, notwithstanding its appeal to
democratic purists, many authorities argue that the delegate conception of the MPs
representative function is inadequate for a number of reasons, and particularly because it
denies the "plural" nature of Canadian society. Most constituencies are
socially, politically and economically mixed, so that MPs are frequently elected with less
than an absolute majority of the electors votes. Given the many concerns with which
MPs must deal -- often urgently -- it is impossible for them to return to their
constituents for instructions or to hold a plebiscite on every issue. The delegate
approach assumes that Parliament is nothing more than the sum of its parts -- a forum for
warring local factions -- and the national good, by extension, a mere amalgamation of
Although the issue has yet to be resolved,
it would not be presumptuous to suggest that many MPs believe they ought not merely to
respond to public opinion but rather to interpret and mould it. Former Nova Scotia Premier
and Leader of the official Opposition Robert Stanfield once suggested that MPs need to
"be ahead of public opinion in some respect."(2)
Many MPs maintain that it is not only their right but, more importantly, their moral
obligation to provide leadership in the face of changing public opinion. Indeed, denied
this leadership role, MPs are reduced to the level of sheer political opportunists -- a
state that sacrifices both the individuals moral integrity and the overall dignity
of Parliament. Thus, generally, MPs look beyond the myopic concerns of locality and region
towards the larger national interest. As a result, the Parliament they collectively serve
becomes more than a sum of its parts. The British philosopher Edmund Burke wrote:
Parliament is a deliberate assembly of one
nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purpose, not local
prejudices ought to guide but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the
Members of Parliament represent their
constituents in many ways; for example, by representing their views in the House of
Commons and suggesting policy initiatives on their behalf. By partaking in the legislative
process, MPs give constituents at least an indirect role in the shaping of important
policies affecting their lives. A Member may make a short statement on any topic under
Standing Order 31 immediately prior to the start of the daily oral Question Period. MPs
may also raise matters during Question Period in the hope of influencing a Minister to
alter or initiate policies more in keeping with the views of voters. Members may also
appeal to Ministers either by letter or more directly.
The Member of Parliament may also move
adoption of a Private Members Bill during the time allotted to Private Members
business. Although a public bill, a Private Members Bill is sponsored by a Private
Member, and is not part of the governments proposed legislative package. Prior to
24 February 1986, procedures governing the consideration of Private Members
Bills resulted in the death of most such bills before they received Second Reading, and
their introduction was useful primarily as a means of publicizing issues and encouraging
action by the government. Under current procedures, at least a few Private Members
Bills have a genuine chance of being passed, in addition to performing their earlier
functions. Individual Members may also seek to raise a notice of motion both to provoke
debate on general government policy and to explain the views of constituents.
Under reformed procedures adopted in the
last decade, the Committees of the House provide enhanced opportunities for Members to
perform their representative role. In legislative committees (provided for by the rules of
the House, but not used during the 1st Session of the 35th Parliament, 1993-1995), as well
as in standing committees, Members may participate in the detailed clause-by-clause
scrutiny of bills following Second Reading. In standing committees, Members may
participate in the review of Order in Council appointments, the examination of
departmental estimates, policy documents and plans, and the carrying out of investigative
studies. In committee, where membership is kept deliberately small and procedural rules
relaxed, Members may speak freely and frequently, questioning witnesses (including
departmental officials and Ministers) in the hope of influencing eventual government
MPs may also seek to influence the members
of their own party to adopt specific attitudes and policy proposals along the lines of
those advocated by electors. Apart from casual exchanges among members of the same party,
such intra-party persuasion normally finds expression in the partys caucus. Here,
assembled privately, Members may attempt to influence their partys stance towards
specific issues in directions that reflect favourably upon themselves and, by extension,
their constituents. In addition, Members from the same province or region may band
together to form a common front, or regional caucus, with the intent of more effectively
articulating regional concerns. Conversely, MPs may attempt to influence party stances on
issues by more public means. MPs appreciate publicity and reporters cultivate politicians
in a search for news; hence the two are natural allies. The astute MP can turn this uneasy
relationship to advantage in the interests of his or her voters and party.
Another important aspect of the
Members representative role is the "ombudsman" function. Faced with
problems involving the federal government and its departments, constituents often appeal
for help to their MPs. It is a rare parliamentary day that a conscientious Member does not
receive phone calls and a score of letters from electors with unemployment insurance,
welfare, farming, legal, pension, immigration or financial problems that they want taken
up with bureaucrats or ministers. An MPs mediation can often produce results or trim
the red tape.
Any realistic assessment of the
representative role of the Member of Parliament must take account, however, of partisan
considerations. Since many MPs owe their electoral success to their political parties,
"party politics" may occasionally dictate the sacrifice of constituents
concerns. For their part, Members view the party both as a means of promoting shared
policy objectives and of mobilizing mass support at elections. The party provides the
financial and administrative machinery to help an MPs re-election. In Canada, the
party expects loyalty and has a way of leaving mavericks twisting in the wind.
Of course, the effectiveness of MPs in
representing their constituents depends to a considerable degree on the position they
occupy in the House. Cabinet Ministers, as Members of the Executive, are best placed to
ensure that the interests of their constituents are duly considered in the formation of
Removed from the process of policymaking,
the ordinary MP must vie for input into central decisionmaking with the bureaucracy,
interest groups and other MPs. His or her voice is therefore often only one among many.
Nor has a backbencher the resources available to Ministers anxious to press their views.
Paradoxically, it can be argued that
opposition MPs are freer to represent their constituents than are government backbenchers.
Because governments must often make unpopular decisions, the governing partys need
to appear united is normally more acute than that of its opposition counterparts. If the
party in power can maintain the appearance of solidarity, it will be more successful in
convincing the public that the decisions it has taken -- however unpopular -- are the
right ones. The range of issues on which government Members choose to speak out and the
extent to which they make their voices heard, may be limited somewhat by their career
While government supporters may not be as
willing to press the interests of their constituents to the point of publicly criticizing
the government, in private they have greater influence. Ministers and ministers
staff are more likely to give them a hearing, and the caucus of government members can act
as a brake or as a goad. Even as he emphasized the role of caucus as an instrument of
party discipline, Mark MacGuigan, a former prominent Member, admitted that "strong
caucus opposition to any government proposal imposes an absolute veto on that
Ordinary MPs perform only an indirect role
in the legislative process. Whereas at one time Parliament was the primary source of
legislative initiative, today the legislative role of Parliament and its Members is, for
the most part, not to formulate but to refine policy.
The onus of legislating is largely borne
by the government but, however strong that may be, it depends on the votes of its
supporters in Parliament. Even the most loyal may resent being taken for granted and, on
controversial, emotional issues, may show it by abstaining. Moreover, MPs may attempt to
effect changes in proposed legislation through bartering their voting support. In a
minority government situation, this bargaining leverage may be considerable.
Members of Parliament also may exert
direct influence over legislation in House committees. The study of departmental
estimates, for example, gives them the chance to criticize and possibly alter
appropriation projections. Committee rules empower Members to accede to, revise downward,
or even deny the governments appropriation demands outright, thus making potential
legislators of committee members. This potential influence over government spending policy
is acknowledged in the familiar dictum respecting parliamentary "control of the purse
Apart from the examination of departmental
estimates, Members may also exert direct influence over legislation in committee during
the normal detailed scrutiny of a bill following Second Reading. An MP may attempt to
convince his fellow committee members of the desirability of certain changes in view of
what he or she perceives to be inconsistencies or possible oversights in the proposed
Revisions to the rules of the House have
further broadened the powers of committees and, in doing so, have enhanced the legislative
role of MPs. The government can now refer a bill to committee before Second Reading --
agreement in principle -- and thus enable committee members to propose a much wider range
of amendments than before. Committees can also be instructed to investigate a subject and
to draft and bring in a bill.
Perhaps the most direct means by which an
MP may "legislate" is by sponsoring a Private Members Bill. The five
weekly hours allotted to the consideration of Private Members legislation afford
individual MPs the opportunity to champion causes of particular import or interest to them
and, on occasion, to achieve the passage of legislation.
The greatest legislative influence of
Private Members is probably exercised indirectly, however. Speeches during debate on a
government bill or representations made during the daily Question Period seek to persuade
the Cabinet to move in directions advocated by individual MPs. The party caucus may also
serve as a forum for indirectly influencing government policy.
Individual Members may also attempt to
influence policymakers privately. Members may telephone, write, or talk to Ministers and
senior officials to discuss their policy concerns in the hope of persuading the government
to change existing or proposed legislation.
Finally, MPs may influence government
policy indirectly through recourse to the press. Members public championing of
specific alternative policy options -- if it is successful -- may foster a public mood
hostile to proposed or current government legislation.
This theoretical understanding of the
Members role needs to be qualified, however. Party discipline, for example,
constitutes an important limitation on the influence of individual MPs. As one former MP
noted in 1978:
The most important constraint on the role
of the private Member is his party affiliation ... I cannot emphasize this point too much.
Members are conscious that they entered the House as party members. This fact is part of
the environment of politics. It limits what role a backbencher can envisage for himself.(5)
Although there may be a few more free
votes in the House today, little has changed since then.
Government Members very rarely break party
ranks to vote against government policy, and Opposition parties, anxious to appear united,
frown on public dissent by Members.
Parliament is an imperfect instrument. Its
Members are subject to the stresses of doing demanding work for thousands of voters under
the constraints of tight schedules. Thus, it is naive to expect that an MPs
legislative tasks will always be satisfying exercises in statesmanship. The MP learns to
use parliamentary mechanisms to bring about optimum results from a system necessarily
founded on compromise. Committees, valuable sounding boards on which to test public and
expert reaction to proposed measures, are such a mechanism. Unlikely to thwart government
purposes, they are nonetheless a useful antidote to the ills of bureaucratic and executive
In a parliamentary system of government,
the executives freedom to govern is necessarily balanced by accountability to the
legislature. Accountability is embodied, for example, in the traditional doctrines of
individual and collective ministerial responsibility. If the public is to be protected
from potential government arbitrariness and assured of wise spending, Parliament must
carefully scrutinize government activity, a responsibility usually assumed by the
Scrutiny of government spending is thus an
important element of the MPs surveillance role. It takes several forms, notably the
examination by MPs of departmental estimates in committee. They may question ministers and
officials about departmental spending plans. If projected spending appears excessive, the
committee report may propose reduction or elimination of specific expenditures.
Members of Parliament also play an
important surveillance role in the post-audit stage of government expenditures on the
occasion of the yearly and other reports of the Auditor General to the House of Commons.
Seizing upon the Auditor Generals examples of government waste and inefficiency,
Members often publicize such criticisms as well as voicing their own in the House of
Commons, House committees and through the press.
A further examination of the
governments spending policy is provided during the budget debate, which consists of
four days of discussion (not necessarily consecutive) of the governments taxation
and general financial policy, following the Budget Speech of the Minister of Finance.
Given that the rules of procedure are relaxed in the course of the Budget debate, MPs are
afforded a freer and more relaxed forum in which to interrogate the government about
Another special debate -- albeit not
confined to budgetary matters -- takes place following the Speech from the Throne in which
the government outlines its major legislative initiatives for the upcoming session of
Parliament. The Throne Speech Debate consists of six consecutive days during which MPs may
question the governments proposed legislative package.
Apart from the Budget and Throne Speech
Debates, Opposition parties also have at their disposal 20 so-called "allotted
days" during which they may debate any element of the governments proposed
spending plans. These 20 days, divided into three supply periods, were initially intended
to compensate Opposition parties for debating time lost after the major reorganization of
supply proceedings -- and the abolition of the Committee of Supply -- in 1968.
Theoretically, this means of surveillance is further reinforced by the fact that motions
of non-confidence, challenging the continued viability of the government, may be raised
eight times during the parliamentary year. Because three such motions are allotted to each
supply period, they are a potential and continued threat to the party in office.
The Commons committee system also provides
for the scrutiny of government activity by Members of Parliament. Under Standing Order
108, the standing committees are endowed with wide surveillance powers, including the
power to send for "persons, papers and records" and (with certain exceptions)
wide powers to study and report on legislative, policy, and long-term expenditure plans
and management issues related to departments within their mandates. They are also
specifically empowered to review Order in Council appointments. Legislative committees, if
struck, would also be empowered to summon departmental officials and other expert
witnesses, along with documents and records, in the course of their scrutiny of the
legislation referred to them. In both legislative and standing committees, Members are in
a position to undertake the well-informed examination of legislation and other
The most celebrated forum in which Members
exercise their surveillance function is the daily Question Period. In the few minutes
immediately before Question Period, however, Members may attempt to chastise the
government for action or inaction by making, under Standing Order 31, a statement of
import to themselves and their riding. During the Question Period itself, Members may
interrogate Ministers about alleged cases of mismanagement of public funds or any area of
perceived government bungling.
Members ability to "keep the
government in check" is not boundless. It is hard to assess projected government
spending, for example, if one lacks technical expertise, or is faced with complex
departmental spending programs. House committees studying government estimates are
empowered only to approve or suggest decreases in specific appropriations, not to shift
government priorities. Such committees "work under the axe" -- they must report
by 31 May of the fiscal year or their reports are simply deemed to have been made.
The last function of the Member of
Parliament is that of "legitimation." No political system not maintained by
coercion can long survive without the consent of its citizens; such a system is inherently
unstable. Citizens of a democratic country like Canada respect its laws as the product of
a political system they support and perceive as just. Because dissenters accept the
generally perceived legitimate nature of the law-making process, they (normally) willingly
acquiesce in of majority decisions out of respect for, and support of, the overall
In legal matters, conventional wisdom
posits that justice must not only be done but must also be seen to be done. Similarly, the
exercise of government should take place in public. MPs play a valuable part in enhancing
the perceived legitimacy of the policy process. To the extent that Canadians perceive that
their varied interests are truly represented in the House of Commons -- and duly
considered by the government before it formulates legislation -- they are likely both to
perceive the House of Commons as a legitimate forum for the making of public policy and to
acknowledge the legitimacy of subsequent government legislation.
Another means by which the MP legitimizes
the policy process is through voting. In the same way, Members participation in
Question Period, House debates, and committee proceedings all attest to their overriding
faith in the policy process.
There are, however, occasions when parties
"play politics" with sensitive public issues, thereby arousing public cynicism
towards the policy process and its participants. The long tradition of strong partisan
discipline in Canada may preclude serious discussion of important issues among political
parties. Government members may feel compelled to praise government action that Opposition
parties feel compelled to denounce. When the positions taken by individual MPs on issues
of concern are effectively staked out in advance by the dictates of party discipline, the
credibility of MPs as seriously committed supporters or opponents of specific policies may
The frequently acrimonious nature of
debate in the House of Commons may also serve to undermine Members stature; there is
a temptation for MPs to "play to the gallery," thereby exaggerating the apparent
tension of debates.
Members of Parliament have many roles. In
theory at least, they are to be constituency representatives and ombudsmen, orators and
law-givers, policymakers and watchmen over the government and bureaucracy, loyal party
members and sensitive family members. In reality, they are human beings who cannot hope to
cover adequately all these bases. As an ambitious, policy-oriented backbencher, Mark
MacGuigan found that parliamentary demands were "considerable" and constituency
cases "staggering." His activities were hectic and did not provide much time for
study and reflection:
... at least three half-days each week in
the House to ensure that a quorum was always maintained; attendance at major debates and
divisions; attendance at Question Period "for both excitement and information";
membership in two standing committees and later, the Chairship of the Special Committee on
Statutory Instruments; caucus meetings for three hours each Wednesday morning and caucus
committee meetings in lunch and dinner breaks; twice-weekly French classes, "being
determined to become bilingual"; a one thousand-mile round trip each weekend to
constituency and home in Windsor; approximately 200 public functions and 200 visits to the
homes of constituents in each year; and a large volume of constituency business (some
5,500 cases a year).(6)
To be successful over the long run,
Members of Parliament must find a balance between their personal, party, and parliamentary
lives. This involves deciding which of their parliamentary roles to emphasize. A great
many decide to focus on their representational role because acting as
"ombudsman" in particular can offer not only political, but also the greatest
personal satisfaction. Other Members are attracted to politics to achieve certain policy
and legislative goals. The reform of the procedures of the House over the past
30 years, and particularly over the past 10, has opened many more avenues by which
they can exert an influence.
Canadian Study of Parliament Group.
Seminar. "Year 7: A Review of the McGrath Committee Report on the Reform of the House
of Commons," 2 December 1992.
Canadian Study of Parliament Group. Ottawa
Conference. "Parliamentary Reform: Making it Work," 13 May 1994, Ottawa.
DAcquino, Thomas, G. Bruce Doern and
Cassandra Blais. Parliamentary Democracy in Canada. Issues for Reform. Methuen,
Franks, C.E.S. The Parliament of Canada.
University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1987.
House of Commons, Special Committee on the
Reform of Parliament. Report. 1985.
Jackson, Robert and Michael Atkinson. The
Canadian Legislative System. 2nd Revised Edition. Macmillan, Toronto, 1980.
Jackson, Robert and Doreen Jackson. Politics
in Canada. 3rd Edition. Prentice-Hall (Canada), 1994.
MacGuigan, Mark. "Parliamentary
Reform: Impediments to an Enlarged Role for the Backbencher." Legislative Studies
Quarterly, III, 4, November 1978.
Pross, Paul. "Parliamentary Influence
and the Diffusion of Power." Canadian Journal of Political Science, June 1985,
Stanfield, Robert. "The Opportunities
and Frustrations of Backbenchers." Canadian Parliamentary Review, 4, Autumn
Tremblay, Manon and Marcel R. Pelletier. Le
Système parlementaire canadien. Les Presses de lUniversité Laval, Quebec,
Van Loon, R. and M. Whittington. The
Canadian Political System. 4th Edition. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, Toronto, 1987.
Whittington, Michael S. and Richard J. Van
Loon. Canadian Government and Politics. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1996.
"Parliamentary Reform: Making it Work," Canadian Study of Parliament Group,
Conference, 13 May 1994, Ottawa, p. 35.
Robert Stanfield, "The Opportunities and Frustrations of Backbenchers," Address
delivered to the 6th Seminar of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, November 1980.
Edmund Burke, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Henry Rogers, ed.,
Vol. 1, Samuel Holdsworth, London, 1842, p. 180.
quoted in Robert J. Jackson and Doreen Jackson, Politics in Canada, 3rd Edition,
Prentice Hall (Canada), 1994, p. 347.
John Reid, "The Backbencher and the Discharge of Legislative Responsibilities,"
Proceedings of the National Conference on the Legislative Process, University of Victoria,
31 March-1 April 1978.
quoted in Jackson and Jackson (1994), p. 350.