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House has to get with it, be more family friendly (The Hill Times)

Feb 29, 2016

 

This article was originally published in The Hill Times. It was written by Nancy Peckford on February 29, 2016. 

House has to get with it, be more family friendly

 

While we must never sacrifice the principle of a deliberative Chamber, the House can do things differently—and for the better. It’s time to be bold.

 

The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
NDP MP Christine Moore with her baby, Daphnée. Nancy Peckford says this Parliament has an unprecedented opportunity to redeem the public view and increase the access of Canadians to the institution by making it more family friendly, but it will take courage and a willingness for everyone to think outside of the box, academics included.
 
 

The challenging work of the Procedures and House Affairs Committee is now under way. The task: modernizing the House which means modifying how the House of Commons conducts business so that it is more family friendly, productive and inclusive. It’s something that successful companies in the private sector have done for decades—leveraging technology and giving employees the tools they need so that morale stays high and innovation prevails—all of which can significantly improve the bottom line.

 

Understandably, the House of Commons committee studying the possibilities for modernization is proceeding cautiously as it’s a complicated exercise. No one wants to be accused of possibly reducing time for MPs to debate legislation, introduce private members’ bills, and table constituents’ concerns. Members are extremely cognizant of the optics of MPs changing things in a way that could be viewed as self-serving, and rightly so.

 

But many of these changes could stand to make Parliament more accessible and responsive to Canadians, something that should be wholly welcomed. The acting clerk of the House, Marc Bosc, has also been clear. Parliament has been in a state of evolution since its conception and Members of Parliament have adapted—for the better. In his address to PROC last week, he reminded MPs that in the 1960s, the total unpredictability of when the House would adjourn for the summer was addressed through supply motions providing for much-needed clarity. It was a big change.

 

In the early 1980s, the House made another radical move—this time to adopt a parliamentary calendar which clearly defined sitting weeks and non-sitting weeks. This was so that MPs could better plan for constituency weeks and maximize their time while back in their ridings. The sky did not fall—and in the end, both changes were exceedingly positive steps to modernize the institution. There just haven’t been enough of them. As an example, former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps, and several other MPs since who have become new mothers/parents while serving, have confronted the significant limits of current parliamentary conventions. With the election of the new Liberal government, there is a real opportunity to introduce changes that are badly overdue.

 

Yet, a discussion of any reduction or reorganization of sitting days, such as the elimination of Friday sittings, runs the risk of being characterized as a “holiday from Parliament”—as it was by a seasoned Carleton professor, Gary Levy, who appeared at PROC last week. Never mind that MPs are doing double duty in their ridings during so-called break weeks, as they attend countless community functions both day and evening, stickhandle the often complicated cases of constituents struggling to access a cumbersome and often unresponsive federal bureaucracy, and liaise with their provincial and municipal counterparts, among other things. These are the same MPs attempting to have a semblance of a home life while in their ridings as they seek to spend much needed time with a partner and/or children.

 

To diminish the significance of break weeks in the riding is to ignore the crucial balance every MP is seeking: to understand the needs and realities of constituents so that they inform an MP’s deliberations and activities in Parliament. We live, after all, in a representative democracy. In a country as large and diverse as Canada, Canadians are counting on MPs to be connected, informed, and engaged in their communities. Anything less would further aggravate the repetitional crisis already confronting politicians’ writ large—that MPs are disconnected, self-interested and overpaid.

 

This Parliament has an unprecedented opportunity to redeem the public view and increase the access of Canadians to the institution—but it will take courage and a willingness for everyone to think outside of the box, academics included. The cost of not doing so is that, 20 years from now, the House of Commons will still have less than one-third women in its ranks, there will be few MPs with young families, not to mention a discernible lack of diversity when it comes to life experience. Prospective candidates from under-represented groups, including women, need to see that it is possible to have a life, including a family, and be a Member of Parliament too—or they will not run in sufficient numbers.

 

In that vein, the acting clerk has introduced the idea of a parallel Chamber—a concept and practice adopted in both Britain and in Australia. While it sounds radical, it’s a remarkably simple idea as it enables MPs to work smarter, not harder, to advance parliamentary business. Essentially, the House would create dedicated time and space during sitting weeks for debate only—so that Members can get on the record regarding a piece of legislation, to give a standing order statement, etc. The difference is that votes would not be taken and quorum would be significantly reduced, freeing up MPs who could choose to be in their ridings on particular days.

 

Without the prospect of votes, this concept could also potentially facilitate the use of technology so that MPs could possibly participate in a debate or give a statement via the internet without necessarily being in person. This would make an enormous difference for Members who need to be away from Parliament in order to give birth, care for a sick child, or elderly parent, or who may be sick themselves and unable to travel to Ottawa.

 

Members of PROC have expressed considerable intrigue regarding the concept. Equal Voice is equally interested. The acting clerk reminded MPs in his appearance that the House has considerable latitude to modernize the institution in order to optimize its functioning for contemporary times—and ensure that MPs are able to do justice to the job on behalf of all Canadians. While we must never sacrifice the principle of a deliberative Chamber, the House can do things differently—and for the better. It’s time to be bold.

 

Nancy Peckford is executive director of Equal Voice. 

 

news@hilltimes.com

 

The Hill Times

 

Link to original http://www.hilltimes.com/columns/2016/02/29/house-has-to-get-with-it-be-more-family-friendly/45415?

 

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Thanks also to the Government of Canada (Status of Women & Canadian Heritage) for their financial support.