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MPs sick of state of debate in Parliament, but divided on how to fix it: Samara report

By Samantha Wright Allen      

MPs expressed interest in reforming the process for private members' bills, committee chair elections, and Friday sittings, but no idea earned majority support across parties.

Changing how Parliamentarians elect committee chairs, by secret ballot rather than with party leadership input, was one of the reforms that earned support in the latest Samara Centre for Democracy survey of sitting MPs. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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A majority of MPs aren’t happy with the state of debate in the House, suggest the results of a new survey of elected officials, but there is no strong consensus on the way forward to reform Parliament.

Results of the Samara Centre for Democracy study, conducted in May and June by the non-profit and released first to The Hill Times, “stand out as the only public effort to capture MPs’ personal evaluation of the Commons and assess cross-partisan support for different reforms that could make a difference to MPs’ influence and effectiveness,” the report says.

One hundred MPs responded anonymously to the survey fielded by the nonprofit, which promotes civic engagement in politics.

“I was really struck by how much alignment there was among sitting MPs on what they thought some of the problems were,” said Jane Hilderman, Samara’s executive director, of the 62 per cent of MPs who said they were unsatisfied with the level of thoughtful and civil debate, and meaningful exchanges of views.

Jane Hilderman, Samara’s executive director, says there may be need for more education with MPs divided on reforms. Photograph courtesy of Samara Centre for Democracy

But that agreement ended when MPs considered a handful of reforms suggested by members of the All-Party Democracy Caucus.

“That was a little bit surprising, from a research perspective, to see that gap,” she said, while the report concluded: “It’s possible that this problem is so deeply entrenched in the culture of Parliament that MPs are reluctant to even consider reform in this area, or don’t know where to start.”

Though the results don’t offer a clear path forward, or a critical mass for one reform, MPs expressed an interest in changing the lottery system for private members’ business (56 per cent), and modifying how committee chairs are elected (51 per cent, but this earned the greatest cross-partisan support). While 67 per cent of respondents indicated support for eliminating Friday sittings, only 50 per cent of the opposition party members agreed. Last year, the Liberals dropped a bid to get rid of Friday sittings, among other changes to the House’s Standing Orders, after sustained pushback and filibustering by opposition parties. 

Importantly, none of the reforms the survey presented earned the support of a majority of MPs from each major party. Of the respondents, 55 per cent identified as Liberals, 19 per cent as Conservative, 13 per cent as NDP, and three per cent as other.

It’s the first time Samara has worked with an organized group of Parliamentarians—the year-old All-Party Democracy Caucus—and the new survey yielded the centre’s most successful response rate from sitting MPs. The nonprofit planned to meet Sept. 25 with the all-party group, which Ms. Hilderman called “a great piece of infrastructure,” to discuss the results and next steps.

“Surveys are very good at giving you a description of what the picture looks like, but not always the best at helping you understand why it looks that way,” Ms. Hilderman said, adding the feedback suggests the need for education and more work finding an idea that has enough cross-partisan support to push forward.

Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld is co-chair of the All-Party Democracy Caucus, which helped organize the study. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Caucus co-chair Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld (Ottawa West-Nepean, Ont.) previously told The Hill Times the responses will be an “incredibly useful tool” for the caucus to  “determine where there’s momentum.” The report recognized her efforts, alongside Conservative MPs Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), Bruce Stanton (Simcoe North, Ont.), and Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), and NDP MPs Kennedy Stewart (who has since resigned) and Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, Man.).

Scrutiny of government policy, spending, and legislation was flagged by 50 per cent as disappointing. And more than half of MPs from the major parties agreed that their work suffers because they don’t have enough time consider those key issues. That, combined with inadequate resources for deliberation—like office budgets, staff, and access to policy expertise—were among the top difficulties MPs identified.

Researchers said when two of the top three problems impact MPs ability to weigh policy decisions and oversee spending, that raises questions “about whether the House of Commons can perform one of its most integral functions.”

The state of collaboration was one of the few questions that “generated a notable difference” between how men and women perceived their workplace. Women were especially critical, the researchers observed, with 76 per cent indicated saying they weren’t happy with collaboration across party lines, while only 40 per cent of male MPs said the same.

“I don’t want to read too much into gender essentializing, that women tend to be more collaborative in approaches as leaders, but it might signal that women’s expectations were different in terms of what they thought the workplace of Parliament would entail that what they discovered when they got there,” Ms. Hilderman said.

At least 31 per cent of respondents were women, who made up 27 per cent of seats at time the survey was conducted.

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Samara Centre for Democracy’s name change. 

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