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Roles of an M.P. and Responsibilities as a Cabinet Minister

Notes for a presentation by David Kilgour, P.C., M.P., Edmonton Southeast
to the Parliamentary Page Training Program
Room 308, West Block - Ottawa
25 August, 1997

It is a real pleasure to meet all of you today. Individually you represent young talent, achievement and enthusiasm collectively, you are the future of Canada, you are the future leaders of this country whether in politics, industry or arts, your generation will draft policies which will determine the quality of life for all Canadians as we enter the 21st century. During the next twelve months, in your new role as pages in the House of Commons, you will live and breathe the history and action of one of our country’s oldest political institutions. The experience I’m sure you are unlikely to ever forget. Carey Hill, a former House of commons Page commented in such words on her year in Canada’s Parliament: "The House of Commons Page Program can really be called a cooperative education program for the faculty of citizenship: it offers young Canadians the opportunity to experience the country’s problems and solutions where they begin, and where they end - at its heart".

This morning I would like to provide you with a brief overview of the role of the Speaker of the House, the Deputy Speaker of the House and Members of Parliament. Also, I will discuss briefly my new responsibilities as Secretary of State for Latin American and Africa.

The 36th Parliament of which you’re going to witness the first year is going to be the most exciting one Canadians experienced in a long time. The June 2 federal election resulted in a country divided along regional lines with almost every region bringing its own party to the House of Commons. As the new Parliament is recalled some time in September and 301 MPs representing five parties assemble in the House of Commons many Canadians will be asking: Is the 36th Parliament poised to become a regional cockpit? Can we successfully reinvent our fragile regional relationships with each other in a rapidly refederating world and all remain Canadians?

Speaker of the House

The Speaker of the House is an office inherited from Great Britain that "dates back at least 600 years" and whose "principal function was to act as a spokesman for the House in its dealings with the House of Lords and the Crown." Over this period of time, the office has changed from one of a mere spokesman, to one of advancing policy, and then, finally, to one of a non-partisan presiding officer charged with overseeing the procedural aspects of House business.

In Great Britain, there is a principle of continuity of office whereby the Speaker, upon election, "renounces all party affiliation and, when seeking re-election to the House, runs as Speaker." Re-election of the Speaker is almost certain since he is not usually opposed. Finally, when he retires, he receives an appointment to the House of Lords and a pension.

A number of legal documents govern the Speaker’s position. The Constitution Act of 1867 establishes the position of Speaker and requires election of a member to the position immediately after a General Election, which only recently has been done by secret ballot, for a term which lasts through the life of a Parliament. The Act also delineates that the Speaker is to preside at all meetings of the House of Commons, and establishes the Speaker’s right to a casting vote in the event of ties, which is the only time when the Speaker has a right to vote. In presiding over sessions of Parliament, the Speaker maintains an atmosphere of decorum where members have a reasonable opportunity to speak and be heard, thus facilitating debate.

The Speaker has two other primary responsibilities beyond that of presiding officer and spokesman. First, he is responsible for the House administration, comprising more than 1700 individuals providing services to Members of Parliament. Second, the Speaker is chair of the Board of Internal Economy, one of the most powerful committees on the Hill. The Board is responsible for the House budget and the establishment of guidelines for the use of all resources provided to the Members for use in carrying out their parliamentary functions. These resources include goods, services, and premises, in addition to funds. The Board also authorizes expenditures and renders opinions on the propriety of any funds spent or resources utilized. It also must approve most legal processes affecting an MP while Parliament is in session.

So, for example, the Board may refuse to allow an MP to be released from his Parliamentary duties to make a court appearance. Or, when the RCMP is investigating an MP for alleged criminal violations regarding the use of House resources, the RCMP must first bring the search warrant request to the Board of Internal Economy for authorization.

Deputy Speaker of the House

The Deputy Speaker of the House, the position I held in the last Parliament, is not an elected one, as the Speaker’s office is. Instead, the newly elected Prime Minister appoints a Member to this position, as well as appointing Members to other positions, such as Assistant Speakers.

The Members of Parliament holding these offices continue to represent their constituencies to the extent possible under a strict party system and continue to ensure that their voters’ concerns are advanced to the right places while carrying out the added responsibilities of their appointment. This can be challenging since the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, at least, are neither to criticize nor defend the government or the opposition parties on their policies due to the need to remain impartial.

The Deputy Speaker has all of the legal powers a Speaker has and acts in the Speaker’s place in his absence. The Deputy Speaker also acts as the Chairman of Committees of the Whole, is a member of the Panel of Chairmen for the legislative committees and a member of the Board of Internal Economy. He is also required to have "full and practical knowledge of the official language which is not that of the current Speaker of the House."

Like the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker is expected to be impartial. However, the Deputy Speaker is entitled to engage in debate and participate in voting, unless acting in the role of Speaker in the Speaker’s absence. Yet, while the Deputy Speaker may engage in debate, precedent and practice has resulted in the Deputy Speaker refraining from participating in debate, thus retaining the appearance of impartiality.

The Role of a Member of Parliament

In general, MPs in Canada are expected to be legislators, lobbyists for constituent causes, ombudspeople, and advocates. However, the most obvious role of the MP is to represent his/her constituents.

Each member represents one of 301 constituencies in the House of Commons and in the words of 18th-century political philosopher Edmund Burke defining standards of elected representatives: "It is his duty to sacrifice his repos, his pleasures, his satisfaction, to constituents; and above all, ever and in all cases, to prefer their interests to his own."

Members of Parliament represent their constituents in many ways; for example, by representing their views in the House of Commons and proposing policy initiatives on their behalf. By participating in the legislative process, MPs give constituents at least an indirect role in the shaping of important policies affecting their lives. An MP 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 intervene with Ministers on behalf of their constituents either by letter or more directly.

The MP may also move adoption of a Private Member’s Bill during the time allotted to Private Members’ business. Although a public bill, a Private Member’s Bill is sponsored by a Private Member, and is not part of the government’s 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 initiate 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 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 policy.

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 constituents in the party’s caucus. Here, assembled privately, Members may attempt to influence their party’s stance towards specific issues.

Another important aspect of the Member’s representative role is the "ombudsman" function. Faced with problems involving the federal government and its departments, constituents often turn for help to their MPs. On a typical day a Member receives 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 MP’s mediation can often produce results or trim the red tape.

For example, in 1996 alone:

  • My constituency office in Edmonton sent out 843 original letters, mostly on behalf of constituents;
  • There were 30-50 telephone calls each work day to the Edmonton office;
  • During the year, three of us in the Edmonton office met privately with approximately 1.267 individuals or delegations. Not all their problems have been solved, but we attempted to help virtually everyone who sought our assistance;
  • I attended about 48 events/functions in Edmonton;
  • There were two Town Hall meetings;
  • Approximately 357 meetings were held with people in Ottawa, including delegations, receptions and appointments;
  • I composed or signed 2.129 original letters in the Ottawa office, mostly on behalf of constituent, and made
  • 25 two-way trips between Edmonton and Ottawa.

Legislative Function

In the past, 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 task of legislating is largely carried out by the government of the day. MPs may attempt to introduce changes in a proposed legislation either through bartering their voting support or by direct scrutiny of the legislation in House committees. For example, the study of the departmental estimates, gives MPs the opportunity to criticize and possibly alter appropriation projections - a role referred to in the familiar dictum as parliamentary "control of the purse strings."

Apart from the examination of departmental estimates, Members may also directly influence 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 he or she believes necessary to improve the proposed legislation.

Revisions made to the rules of the House in the 35th Parliament 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 - something that was rarely done in the past. The means committee members from all parties now have the opportunity to make major amendments to bills. Already, several bills were sent to committee before second reading, including Bill C-43. The Commons industry committee made significant amendments to this bill on lobbying. 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 Member’s Bill. The five weekly hours allotted to the consideration of Private Members’ legislation afford individual MPs the opportunity to promote causes of particular import or interest to them and, on occasion, to achieve the passage of legislation. Many new MPs in the 36th Parliament will probably seek further changes in the way private members’ bills are dealt with and debated in the House. Though reforms introduced to date in private members’ business gave MPs an increased role in the legislative process, more is seen to be needed to allow more MP participation in what is now the exclusive territory of the cabinet and government. An article by Iain Wilson, "Making a Difference: Private Members’ Bills and Public Policy" cites the dismal Canadian success rate of private bills in becoming the law: of the almost 3,000 private members’ bills introduced between 1968 and 1987, only twelve were enacted. Elsewhere in the world, the record is comparable. In New Zealand says Wilson, no private members’ bill has been passed in the last 40 years (as of the late 1980s). In Australia, 51 private members’ bills have passed in the last 76 years. In contrast, Wilson points out, "of 100 or so private members’ bills that have been introduced in the British Parliament every year since 1980, an average 13 a year have been passed."

The Chrétien government's commitment to reforming Parliament resulted in a marginally enhanced role for private MPs in their duties as public policy makers. Reforms in the last Parliament made it more responsive to Canadians and the work of individual MPs more relevant. Governments, we are told, will be more accountable to the House of Commons and, through it, to Canadians. The initiatives to revise parliamentary rules announced in the House of Commons in the last Parliament should give MPs greater power to amend government bills and initiate legislation, and strengthen the role of MPs in developing the spending priorities of government. The three main parties have also agreed to ask the Commons procedures committee to study further reforms, including free votes, electronic voting and the idea of giving constituents the right to recall their MPs.

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 policy makers 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.

Watchdog Function

One of the important functions of our House of Commons and MPs in our Westminster model is the surveillance function - to be an effective watchdog over the cabinet and bureaucracy so that neither abuses its responsibilities to Canadians generally. Our daily Question Period is much admired because ministers daily face oral questions on their responsibilities from opposition and government MPs.

Scrutiny of government spending is an important element of the MP’s surveillance role. MPs examine departmental estimates in committees where 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. MPs also play an important watchdog role in the post-audit stage of government expenditures on the occasion of the annual or other reports of the Auditor General to the House of Commons. The budget debate provides another opportunity to MPs to examine the government’s spending policy. In the House of Commons, during four days of discussions following the Budget Speech of the Minister of Finance, MPs may provide their input on the government’s taxation and general financial policy.

The Speech from the Throne in which the government of the day outlines its major legislative initiatives for the upcoming session of Parliament provides another opportunity for a special debate in the House of Commons. The Throne Speech Debate consists of six consecutive days during which MPs may discuss the government’s legislative agenda.

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 government’s 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 that 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 he 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 governmental activity.

In the opinion of many Canadians, individual MPs role to represent his or her constituents in Ottawa and to become significant in policy-making is largely limited by party discipline. Experts say that our House of Commons has the toughest party discipline in the entire democratic world. Since I was first elected in 1979, all the political parties represented in five parliaments have voted in uniform party blocks on virtually every one of the literally thousands of votes taken in the House.

Reforming the role of MPs is vital to "nationalizing Ottawa" because of the widespread public cynicism caused by the perceived unresponsiveness of our national institutions in the view of most Canadians.

Private members will probably only become significant in policy-making when our voting practices change. The 36th Parliament with its unprecedented composition of five parties can succeed in improving the occupational credibility of all MPs.

Responsibilities as Secretary of State (Latin America and Africa)

As you may know, following the June 2nd federal election I was appointed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien to the cabinet and entrusted with responsibilities of Secretary of Sate, Latin America and Africa. This portfolio is within the larger ministry of Foreign Affairs and one of my key roles is to assist the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Lloyd Axworthy with his workload by representing Canada at the political level in the countries within my geographical responsibility.

My Ministry current deals with some 26 countries in Latin America and 41 in Africa. My responsibility will be not only to advise the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the developments in these countries but also to further Canadian interests and encourage Canadian business in the region and to help build bilateral relations between Canada and the countries involved. On many occasions, I will visit countries in my geographical area to attend to important matters, to participate in conferences, congresses, etc., and to meet with the leaders of the country. Conversely, I will receive foreign visitors and resident foreign diplomats from those countries in Ottawa.

An important part of my job as Secretary of State (Latin America and Africa) is to enhance Canadian export opportunities to the region. In this capacity, I will work closely with the Minister of International Trade to boost Canadian trade and investment in Africa as well as to help prepare another, I’m sure, successful visit of a Team Canada to Latin America.

This is, in general, the essence of my new role. I look forward to carrying out my new responsibilities; the region I will deal with is diverse culturally, politically and geographically. There are many complex issues to be resolved and there will be plenty of challenge and never a dull moment!


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