October 11th, 2000

Time to reform Parliament
Empowering MPs would help small business owners

A recent report by the Public Policy Forum demonstrating the marginal influence held by Members of Parliament over government policy, is bad news for small business owners, and demonstrates clearly that a major reform of the Parliamentary process is in order.

The organization conducted a survey among executives in charge of government-relations at Canada's 800 largest corporations, as well as senior government officials, to determine who they felt wielded the most influence over the federal government's decision making process.

Cabinet Ministers and staffers in the Prime Minister's Office topped the list, followed by Deputy Ministers, Cabinet Committee members, Assistant Deputy Ministers and Presidents of Crown Corporations. MPs came in just about last, ahead only of Senators, and junior public sector employees.

The increasing irrelevance of MPs is a growing problem for small business owners whose only link to Ottawa is often through their elected representatives. Unlike big businesses which are represented by powerful industry associations, and get access to senior government officials through hired lobbyists, corporate donations and fundraising dinners, SME owners are often left out in the cold. It is one of the main reasons that government policies, to the extent that they benefit businesses at all, tend to favor big businesses as opposed to their smaller counterparts.

The fact that elected officials wield less influence than senior bureaucrats or backroom hacks in the Prime Minister's Office, may come as a bit of a surprise for those accustomed to thinking about Canada as a democracy. But it is an open secret to anyone who spends any amount of time in Ottawa.

The stripping of MPs' authority is one of the lessor known, but important legacies of the Trudeau administration. When he came back to Ottawa in 1980 following the defeat of the Clark regime, Trudeau devoted himself almost single-mindedly to the patriation of the constitution.

In order to free himself from the burden of dealing with MPs and cabinet officials, Trudeau delegated considerable authority to his Chief of Staff James Coutts, who soon controlled virtually all access to the PM. This system gave Coutts considerable power since in Ottawa access means influence. Although the new approach gave Trudeau breathing room to deal with his priorities, it left MPs increasingly out of the loop when it came to giving input on policy matters.

Trudeau's decreasing number of contacts with non-bureaucrats, also eventually resulted in his slowly losing touch with the Canadian public, and contributed significantly to the Liberals' disastrous showing under John Turner in the 1984 election.

Despite the obvious weaknesses of an excessively powerful PMO, the system was perpetuated by the Mulroney administration, and continues today under Jean Chrétien. His Chief of Staff Eddy Goldenberg and a few choice assistants continue to control access to the PM, and exert considerable influence over selections to the various Parliamentary Secretary and committee positions.

Further eroding MP's power has been the increasing tendency of governments to force them to vote along party lines, even on measures detrimental to their own constituents. This has been especially prevalent during the Chrétien administration which is frightened of losing its fragile majority in the House of Commons. But the result is a group of cowed, ineffective, government MPs.

"Pierre Trudeau was right when he said MPs were nobodies 50 yards away from Parliament Hill," says John Nunziata, an independent MP who once sat as a Liberal, until he was kicked out of caucus for voting against a budget measure. "But today many government MPs are nobodies even on Parliament Hill."

The solution says Nunziata is to take way some of the power accorded to the PMO - which can basically make or break government MP's careers, -- and devolve it to Parliamentarians. "There should be true elections for Parliamentary Committee chairs, and more free votes in the House of Commons - especially on issues that would not result in the defeat of a government if it loses a vote, says Nunziata. "With the current government, every vote, is a confidence vote."

Allowing more free votes in the House of Commons would give MPs power similar to that held by U.S. congressmen, who hold out for concessions on matters affecting their districts, in return for supporting government measures.

"Parliament is becoming less relevant," says Nunziata, who is toying with the idea of running for the Canadian Alliance in the next election, in part because the party favors many of the reform proposals he advocates. "Like Winston Churchill said, in order for the Parliamentary system to survive it must evolve."

Nunziata is right. More power needs to be taken out of the hands of bureaucrats and transferred to elected officials. Otherwise small business owners are going to have to find new ways of making their voice heard in Ottawa, possibly by increasing support for industry lobby groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.


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