At the time this paper was written Denis
Vaugeois represented Three Rivers in the Quebec National Assembly. We were
grateful for his permission to translate and publish an extract from his report
entitled "L'Assemblée nationale en devenir".
For some time now there has been talk of
parliamentary reform in the Quebec National Assembly. An important recent
development was the distribution to all members of a working paper prepared by
a member of the Parti Québécois caucus. This report, the final chapter, of
which is translated and reprinted here, should be of interest to legislators
across Canada. A summary of the entire report appears in the "Recent
Publications" section of this issue.
Beyond his role as a member of a
parliamentary majority or a member of the opposition, each MNA is a
representative of the constituents of his riding. Should not his first loyalty
be to the voters in his riding and to the Assembly?
The importance of political parties and
local or national organizations on the one hand, and the power of the leader
(especially a leader whose party obtains a majority of seats) on the other,
creates a situation where the member is quickly pressed to be a party man and
to support the government rather than to identity with the institution itself.
Awarding Power to the Legislator
To be meaningful, parliamentary reform will
have to strike a new balance between parliament, the government and the public
service. True parliamentary reform will be achieved when the two latter concede
some measure of real power to parliament. Beyond certain changes affecting
parliamentary committees, this process should provide more power to individual
The Prime Minister heads the Government and
the parliamentary majority. His true, inevitable and total authority should
depend essentially on the support he gets, not only from his parliamentary
majority, but from as many members as possible on both sides of the Chamber and
from all parliamentarians, if possible. The National Assembly really comes to
life and asserts itself when a unanimous vote is taken in times of crisis.
The assigning of greater importance to the
role of members should not be taken to mean they have insufficient work or that
something has to be found to occupy their time. For this reason I have avoided
speaking of "revitalizing" the role of the legislator. The issue here
is not to find more work for him to do, but rather to enable him to make a
different contribution, one in keeping with the mandate given to him by his
constituents and with the parliamentary institution to which he belongs. He has
to be given power! If that is done the party establishment will better be able
to ensure that the fundamental principles of their political party are upheld
and the rights of citizens defended. In this respect, members can offer more
support for the private citizen than can a minister who is more likely to be
influenced by the public service.
The Quorum and Other Problems
Far from lightening the MNA's load, the
present rules seem to complicate his job by demanding that he be present an
inordinate amount of time. I would recommend that the number of members
required for a quorum be reduced and that the rule of quorum be enforced only
when a vote is called.
In most European Parliaments, the a quorum
rule is no longer enforced. If the rule does exist, parliamentarians rarely
resort to it. In the British Parliament, for example, members return to their
office or head for the committee rooms once the question period is over. It is
said that the British House of Commons (like the House of Lords) can operate
with just three members present; the Speaker and one member on each side of the
Chamber. There are usually more than two members present, but not many more
even though in the British House there are 635 MPs (and only 437 seats!).
Television screens have been installed
throughout the corridors of Westminster to help MPs and their staff to follow
the proceedings of the House. Furthermore, the order paper of the day is
regularly announced and MPs come and go according to their interest. A great
many British MPs participate in committees of which there are two kinds: those
set up by the government to consider the budget or government bills and
so-called select committees which examine various questions determined by the
committee members themselves. Studies have shown that a large number of MPs
participate. They attend because they know they can accomplish something!
When the National Assembly is in session,
the MNA divides his time during the week between his riding and the Assembly.
Each MNA usually sits on three committees and acts as an observer on two or
three others. At his riding office, he welcomes individuals and groups of
citizens. People come to see him for all sorts of reasons, and often as a last
resort. This procession of visitors continues in Quebec City where the MNA devotes
most of his time to resolving problems that have accumulated while he was in
Depending on how much energy and drive he
has, a MNA can add to his workload by promoting projects to enable his
constituents to benefit as much as possible from government programs and
policies. Sometimes, he will even fight tooth and nail with his caucus or the
minister and his advisers to have a government program amended in such a way as
to reduce delays, combat red tape, comply with a request or satisfy a need
expressed by individuals or groups in his riding or region.
Potential initiatives for members are
limitless. Some have a remarkable performance record in terms of bringing
programs to completion, helping the government to avoid mistakes and battling
injustices. This aspect of their work is not well known. They do, of course,
have the opportunity to stress their achievements at official functions, but
the bulk of the work they perform remains unknown to the public. There is very
little a daring, hardworking and intelligent member cannot accomplish if he is
ready to make the effort and tenacious enough to follow through.
It is unfortunate. therefore, that contrary
to popular belief, the ordinary MNA has very little power, either individually
or collectively. Naturally, given the nature of his job, he does have an
audience to which he can appeal. This is the source of strength. especially for
members of the opposition, although members of the caucus have the advantage of
being able to call upon the ministers or their staff. But members have very
little to offer in return. Ministers clearly have the upper hand.
Despite all this. the MNA manages to get
things done. He argues and pleads; sometimes winning and sometimes losing. He
should never give up the fight but rather accumulates his grievances for sooner
or later, he will have his turn at bat!
Ironically, the MNA often has too much or
too little information at his disposal. He is constantly inundated with
communiqués and press releases from ministers and departments. Even in the
National Assembly, he is swamped with reports. The problem is in not having the
information when he really needs it the most. For example, in order to
criticize decisions which have been taken, it is useful and often essential for
him to have basic background information on the matter. Of course, a member
must become somewhat of an expert on the concerns of his riding and this also
requires some information network. This is no easy task! As far as many people
are concerned, the member is there only to enable the National Assembly to
rubberstamp decisions made by government officials through the departments.1
In addition to the hours spent in the
National Assembly, the MNA spends even more time in committees. He must keep up
with his party's activities. sustain the energy of his supporters, particularly
during fund-raising drives, at conferences and at national and regional council
meetings. He must participate in all kinds of meetings, speak out on behalf of
his party and so forth. He truly puts in a full week's work!
One way to give Parliament a real
legislative role. an opportunity to act and control mechanisms is to provide
members with sufficient specialized personnel. Another way is to enhance the
status and financial means of the member. Consequently. amendments to the
proposed National Assembly Bill should be used as means of improving the
working conditions of MNAs.
As a French député, André Chandemagor has
noted, faced with a powerful, durable government supported by a necessary,
albeit encroaching, bureaucracy, who can guarantee citizens the right to
exercise their freedoms? Who will protect them from abuses that they are likely
to increase as the size of the state grows? Who, if not Parliament? In November
1965, Dr. Horace King, then Speaker c the British House of Commons, made the
following statement at, symposium in Geneva, "Who will protect the people
from the technocrates? I would hope that the answer would be the
parliamentarians. But first they have to acquire the means to do so, or we have
to give them to them.."2
To achieve this objective, we obviously do
not have to double, the size of the public service. However, we could consider
assigning to special parliamentary committees financial or legal experts who
could act as resource people. Furthermore, the staff allowance awarded to each
MNA could be revised to enable him to hire at least one assistant to help with
his parliamentary activities. Aside from a secretary provided by the National
Assembly, the MNA does not have sufficient funds to hire anyone except staff
for his riding Office. In France, the member has one or two
typists-stenographers and two assistants. Closer to home, the federal MP
receives more than $60,000 to hire staff for his office.
Given the current state of the economy, the
question of the indemnity paid to members is a particularly thorny issue.
Despite the circumstances, MNAs are honest and courageous enough to raise the
question of their indemnity. It is, however, a good idea to inform the people
properly about this situation. In 1966, Jean Charles Bonenfant stated that
"the MNA is now no longer a man of leisure who spends the winter in Quebec
City to relax. He is viewed increasingly as a person occupying a fulltime
position who differ from true civil servants only by the recruitment system to
which he is submitted and by his lack of specialization".3
Fifteen years later we could add that what distinguishes the MNA from a civil
servant is that the latter has some job security and earns a better salary! In
fact today MNAs have often left a higher paying and sometimes permanent job.
His current salary was frozen in 1978 and indexed at 6 % in 1980 and 1981.
In 1974, parliamentarians received an annual
indemnity $21,000. Bill 87, which was voted in December of that year, contained
a provision whereby the indemnity would be indexed annually on the basis of the
average weekly salaries and wages earned for overall economic activities in
Canada. However, in 1976, parliamentarians decided to limit the increase in
their indemnity to 7.9 % in consideration of inflation fighting measures. The
following year, their indemnity increased by 13.4 % to $27,800. In 1978, it was
decided that their indemnity would be frozen at this level. It as agreed, under
the terms of Bill 120 passed in December that henceforth, the maximum annual
increase would be 6 %. Thus, as of January 1, 1982, the indemnity of an MNA was
$35,096, instead of $45,000, as it would have been under the provisions of Bill
87. The decisions made in 1976, 1977, and 1978 by the MNAs did not have the
desired effect. The media made very little mention of them, preferring to dwell
on the retirement pension plan which is of lesser importance now that the
amount of the basic indemnity is declining.
Some people like to bring to mind the fact
that the MNA receives both an indemnity and a tax-free expense allowance of
$7,500, thereby suggesting that the MNA's salary for 1982 is $42,596.
One must remember the limitations on the
perquisites to which MNAs and ministers are entitled. Many people believe that
they have access to so-called expense accounts. Aside from the set allowance of
$7,500, the MNA is entitled to 52 return trips a year to his riding from Quebec
City, at the rate of 18 cents a kilometre. In addition, since September 1980,
he is entitled to a maximum reimbursement of $1,000 a year upon presentation of
receipts for travel expenses incurred for political activities outside his
administrative region. Finally, those MNAs outside Quebec City are entitled to
a maximum of $5,400 a year to cover accommodation costs in Quebec City.
MNAs travel less than ministers, but when
they do, they have to pay their own transportation costs in addition to their
hotel and restaurant bills. They have to attend all kinds of meetings, party
conventions and special caucus sessions which are held in various regions.
Furthermore, they must accept countless invitations.
MNAs and ministers living in Montreal come
out ahead. They have a pied-à terre in Quebec City and their residence
in the Montreal area. They only have to pay their own expenses when they travel
outside these two major centres. Contrary to what some people believe, those
who live in Quebec City are at a disadvantage, since they must cover all of
their travel expenses and they often travel to Montreal.
Some ridings are so large that an MNA
sometimes has to spend the night at a hotel when visiting his own riding. He
does so at his own expense. Special reimbursements are only given when an MNA
travels outside Quebec on authorized government business. As the Speaker of the
National Assembly has said people think that we are millionaires. When there is
a raffle, they automatically expert us to buy three books of tickets. The same
holds true for all sorts of charities.5
It may be argued that the whole question of
indemnities and other allowances will influence the recruitment of political
officials and that the number of such recruits is likely to decrease as
conditions become less attractive. Who can blame a well established
professional, a career public servant, a renown journalist, a prosperous
businessman or an influential public figure for refusing to "jump into the
According to editors like Gilles Lesage of Le
Soleil it is unwise for MNAs to vote themselves a substantial salary
increase at a time when citizens are faced with runaway inflation, record high
interest rates, an energy crisis and disastrous unemployment.6 They
wonder to what extent the representatives of the people, who are not
specialists, but rather generalists responsible for defending the interests of
the voters, can detach themselves from their constituents? Parliamentarians may
be justified in seeking a higher salary and improved benefits but they should
guard against being too generous to themselves and turning their backs on the
majority of the people whom they represent.
Regardless of how things stand. a solution
will have to be found sooner or later. In this respect, the formula proposed by
the Jean Charles Bonenfant Committee in November 1974 takes the political edge
off of the salary issue. It directly ties the indemnities of parliamentarians
to the salary earned by public servants in a specific category. The committee
calculated the average salary earned by class IV administrators in the Quebec
public service.7 Moreover. it appears that this system has been
successfully adopted in several countries, including Austria, Finland and
France.8 Another way of resolving this salary issue in a politically
acceptable fashion would be to conclude an agreement with the parliaments in
Ottawa and Toronto.
While the allowance granted over and above
the basic indemnity is sometimes questioned, we have good reason to stress the
advantages of the retirement pension plan enjoyed by Quebec MNAs. The pension
plan, which came into effect on January 1, 1958 by virtue of an Act respecting
Members of the Legislative Assembly, provides for a pension corresponding to 75
per cent of the total contributions made, after a minimum of ten years'
participation. Following the abolition of the Legislative Council in 1968, the
plan was revised to ensure for the MNA a retirement pension after only five
years contributions and at least two elections. Furthermore, an indexation
formula similar to the one in effect under the Quebec Pension Plan was
introduced in 1969 so that pensions are now indexed to the cost of living. The
abolition of the Legislative Council was an important event in the revision
process of the MNAs' pension plan. A more generous pension plan was likely to
make a politician more independent, while enabling at the same time the
authorities to stop bailing others out. Politicians today have increasingly
shorter careers and the "hazards of the job" have led most
parliaments to establish pension plans which guarantee to parliamentarians some
measure of security when they are defeated or resign. There is no question that
some pension plans are more generous than others.9 Many agree that
changes should be made to the Quebec parliamentarians' plan, especially since
the Government has expressed its intention of revising the pension plan of
provincial public servants.
It should be noted in passing that while it
provides generous benefits, the benefits of the current pension plan have been
greatly exaggerated by some reporters. A member elected in 1976 who left the
Assembly now would be entitled to an annual pension of approximately $7,000. A
minister would be entitled to about double this amount. It is true that with
the indexation provision, the amount of the pension, depending on the members
age, could over the years, reach $50,000.
These are all delicate issues which should
be examined in the context of a proposed new National Assembly Bill. There is a
definite relationship between parliamentary reform and the working conditions
of MNAs, at least as far as the current government is concerned.
Various recommendations contained in this
report would, in addition to providing some measure of equilibrium to a
democratic system, have the advantage of providing MNAs with various
interesting tasks. For many government backbenchers, the Assembly Chamber is
really the anti-chamber of the Executive Council. In every respect, there is
too great a difference between the status of an MNA and that of a minister. In
our opinion, sound reform measures should be introduced to reduce the gap which
exists between the working conditions and the salaries, as is the case
particularly with France.10
The possibility of chairing a standing
committee, being committee rapporteur, chairing a parliamentary task force or
even just serving on a committee provide interesting options for members who
are used to merely making up the quorum. We might adopt the British formula of
junior ministers or the French formula of State secretaries or heads of
mission. Similarly, there would be some advantage to defining more clearly the
role of parliamentary assistants.
Role of' Parliamentary Assistants
The position of parliamentary assistant was
created by legislation introduced in 1954 by Premier Maurice Duplessis. He
wanted to lighten the parliamentary and administrative workload of members of
his cabinet whose workload had increased to such an extent that it had become
practically impossible for them to attend sittings of the Assembly and to
perform their day-to-day tasks.11 The legislation set the number of
parliamentary assistants at eight but this has subsequently been increased to
A survey was recently conducted to find out
how parliamentary assistants perceive their role, to what they attribute their
appointment and what problems they encounter.12 It revealed the
following points: the responsibilities of parliamentary assistants are vague;
sometimes legislative in nature, but more often administrative. They vary a
great deal, depending on the ministers. The reasons for being appointed are
varied: reward for services rendered, replacing a former assistant, regional
impact, interest displayed for a particular issue, request of a minister who
has too much work, etc. The problems encountered stem both from the imprecise
nature of the duties and from the favouritism on which a number c appointments
With respect to parliamentary reform it is
certainly possible to foresee some important responsibilities for parliamentary
assistants. While some will continue to free ministers from various
administrative or parliamentary responsibilities, it would be a good idea to
assign most of them a clear mandate. I would suggest the parliamentary
assistants be primarily concerned with the study c bills and particularly with
the formulation of subordinate legislation and its consideration by the
National Assembly. They could also be given one or more other specific tasks
which should be made public at the time of their appointment.
If parliamentary institutions are working
properly the laws passed will express the wishes of both individuals who make
up the state an the state itself. There will be a vigorous and honest
surveillance of the government and the bureaucracy based on information
necessary for the conduct of public affairs. Parliament has to take it rightful
place beside the government and the public service. Th means of so doing are
within the grasp of parliamentarians. It is up t them to seek and to find the
Notes1. I cannot resist the temptation to recall an
experience I had in my own riding. Some citizens were the victims of
legislation adopted in two phases: 1971 and 1979. They had lost their case in
court and the only recourse available seemed to be a private bill. I appealed,
with the help of a third party, to the legal service of the department in
question. The official confirmed that only a private bill could resolve the
problem. However, I was told that before acting I should go back to the
department with my bill and they would determine whether there was any need to
inform the deputy minister of the problem. Upon being told that the MNA is a
legislator they replied, in effect, that we could not be allowed to threaten
2. André Chandernagor, Un
parlement pour quoi faire?, Paris, 1967, p. 80-81.
3. J.-C. Bonenfant,
"L'évolution du statut de l'homme politique canadien français" Recherches
sociographiques, Vol. 7, No. 1 (January-August 1966), p. 118.
4. Some MNAs from large,
isolated ridings are entitled to a number of other reimbursements.
5. See La Presse,
July 1, 1981.
6. Le Soleil, July
7. Rapport du comité
consultatif sur les indemnités et allocations des parlementaires du Québec,
8. Ibid., p. 36.
9. Randall Chan,
"Pension Plans for Canadian Legislators: A Comparative Study", Canadian
Parliamentary Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter 1981-82), p. 29.
10. In France, the
indemnities of members and ministers are similar, namely 240,000 F and 300,000
F respectively. Moreover, the French Parliament offers interesting
opportunities. The positions of questor (somewhat the same as a member of the
Council) and committee chairman or rapporteur are highly coveted.
11. See Le Devoir,
December 9, 1954.
12. D. Sévigny, " The
Role of Parliamentary Assistants in the National Assembly", Bulletin,
vol. 10, No. 2 Quebec National Assemby, 1980, p. 45.