Just a few months ago, in June 2004, the National Assembly of Quebec launched
an important exercise in parliamentary reform, when two documents containing
numerous proposals were tabled almost simultaneously. One of these was
prepared by the Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions and
Government House Leader and the other, by the President, or Speaker, of
the National Assembly. This article summarizes the main points of the
two proposals and concludes with a few comments on parliamentary ethics,
an important issue currently being examined by a special committee of the
This is not Quebecs first reform effort since the current Standing Orders
were adopted in 1984. The Standing Orders have been amended a few times
over the years to iron out certain problems with their application. The
first reform was set in motion in 1996 by then President Jean-Pierre Charbonneau.
It aimed to enhance the role of MNAs and, at the same time, that of the
institution itself, without changing the operation of the National Assembly
The proposals put forward last June are both based on this 1996 reform,
given, among other reasons, the need to ensure that parliamentary reform
remains a seamless, steady process. While the proposals outlined in the
two documents differ significantly from each other, they are nonetheless
organized under four broad themes identified by both the Minister for the
Reform of Democratic Institutions and the President of the National Assembly:
Bringing citizens closer to the National Assembly;
Promoting Members independence and initiative;
Increasing the efficaciousness of the Members work, in particular by modernizing
the way in which the National Assembly operates; and
Reaffirming a democratic equilibrium in parliamentary proceedings.
The desire to bring citizens closer to the National Assembly, which is
the first broad theme, has been expressed a number of times at both the
political and the administrative levels. Because communications technologies
continue to evolve and the citizens expectations about their participation
in public affairs continue to grow, the National Assembly must be quick
to adapt and translate this resolve into concrete actions.
Both reform documents propose a revision of the exercise of the right to
petition. The right of every person to petition the National Assembly for
the redress of grievances is set forth in section 21 of the Quebec Charter
of human rights and freedoms. The procedure for exercising this right
is provided in the Standing Orders of the National Assembly. Yet the current
rules make no provision for further action on petitions after they have
been tabled in the Assembly. That is why the President of the National
Assembly proposes that the temporary rules on petitions which were in effect
from December 6, 2001, until the end of the 36th Legislature be made permanent.
Under these rules the Government would be obliged to reply in writing within
60 days after a petition has been presented in the National Assembly. The
President also suggests that a system be set up to allow citizens to initiate
and sign petitions on-line, through the National Assemblys website.
The Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions, for his part, proposes
that a standing subcommittee on petitions be struck. This subcommittee
would be empowered to decide whether a petition is receivable and could
hear the petitioners representatives, if necessary, before reporting to
the National Assembly. Petitions would be accepted both electronically
and on paper.
To provide broader access to the public consultations held by parliamentary
committees, both reform proposals suggest using videoconferencing technology
when warranted and, during general consultations, allowing short statements
by citizens who have given notice that they wish to address the committee
but who have not filed a brief. The President of the National Assembly
also suggests continuing the experiment started in 2000 with on-line consultations.
The Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions proposes that a
committee examining a matter affecting a particular region or locality
ought to travel to that region or locality to receive testimony on site.
Another of the Presidents proposals relates to how a citizens conduct
may be called into question in the National Assembly. Many MNAs and citizens
have indicated the need to establish guidelines with respect to the adoption
by the Assembly of motions likely to be detrimental to citizens rights.
The Presidents reform proposal suggests two distinct ways of addressing
The first would prohibit the moving in the Assembly of any motion that
calls into question the conduct of a person other than a Member for words
spoken or actions performed otherwise than in the exercise of a public
office, except in cases involving contempt or a breach of privilege;
The second would allow debate on such a motion only after the person concerned
has been given the opportunity to be heard by the Committee on the National
The Members' Initiative
The second broad theme has to do with the Members independence and initiative,
which have always been at the crux of parliamentary reform. This concern
demonstrates a sustained will to make the National Assembly itself more
independent in relation to the Government in order to achieve a better
equilibrium between the Legislature and the Executive. Several proposals
under this theme are aimed at giving Members greater independence and allowing
them to show more initiative so that they may exercise their roles as legislators
and as overseers more freely and without feeling constantly obliged to
toe the party line.
The first step in giving Members greater independence would be to allow
them to elect the person who will chair their proceedings and protect their
rights and privileges. According to the rules now in effect, any Member
may propose the name of some other Member to be President of the National
Assembly. This power is theoretical, however, since the National Assembly
must vote first on the Premiers proposal, which is usually the outcome
of an agreement among the parliamentary groups. Temporary rules in force
during the second session of the 36th Legislature provided that the President
of the National Assembly be elected by secret ballot, and the Presidents
proposal is that these temporary rules be made permanent.
The President of the National Assembly and the Minister for the Reform
of Democratic Institutions have both formulated proposals to encourage
While Members are in principle free to vote as they wish, this right will
remain purely theoretical as long as its exercise is limited by restrictions
stemming from the constitutional convention of responsible government.
Both reform proposals therefore seek to give Members more room to manoeuvre,
but each in its own way.
The President would allow the confidence of the Assembly in the Government
to be put to the test only in certain circumstances expressly set forth
in the Standing Orders, such as the votes on a want of confidence motion,
on a motion by the Minister of Finance to approve the Governments budgetary
policy, on a motion to pass the annual appropriation bill and, finally,
on any motion regarding which the Government has expressly stated that
its responsibility is at issue. Any other matter could, in principle, be
decided by a free vote.
The Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions would have the Government
House Leader inform the caucus when the matter at hand involves the responsibility
of the Government and the support of all caucus members is consequently
required. The Leader would likewise inform the caucus when a matter is
a key component of the Governments program that only Ministers and parliamentary
assistants are required to defend or, finally, when a matter is not vital
to the coherence of the government agenda and all caucus members, including
Ministers, may vote as they see fit.
The Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions also proposes that
when the National Assembly has carried a want of confidence motion or any
motion to which the Government is opposed, or has negatived a Government
motion or bill, a motion of confidence be deemed to have been requested
by the Premier and placed on the Order Paper in his or her name under Business
Having Precedence. The motion would then be discussed during a two-hour
limited debate at the next sitting.
Modernizing the Assembly
Both reform documents also include proposals to encourage initiative on
the part of all Members of the National Assembly. Since the current Standing
Orders came into effect in 1984, only motions filed by Opposition Members
can be debated during a period of time set aside as part of the Orders
of the Day on Wednesdays. Under the Standing Orders in effect from 1972
to 1984, however, all Members except Ministers could present motions on
Wednesdays. The President of the National Assembly proposes that, for the
sake of equity, Members of the Government party once again be allowed to
file motions for debate and that such motions be debated twice a year on
Tuesdays or Thursdays so as not to encroach upon the time reserved for
business standing in the name of Members in Opposition.
The Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions proposes instead
that one hour of every sitting be devoted to business standing in the name
of private Members from either side of the House. The matters to be debated
could be chosen by a random ballot and could include bills as well as motions.
Reasserting the role of elected Members is an ongoing concern at the National
Assembly, since the credibility of the institution is partly tied to how
Members are perceived. Since the effectiveness and visibility of Members
work are two key factors in achieving this goal, it is under this third
broad theme that we find the greatest number of proposals. This theme encompasses
all proposals aimed at improving the organization and effectiveness of
Members work as well as those that would give the standing committees
means to enrich parliamentary debates. Here are a few of them:
Both reform proposals would continue the rationalization of the calendar
and hours of meeting of the National Assembly that was begun in the 1990s.
Both propose to increase the number of sittings by opening the spring sessional
period in mid-February rather than in mid-March and the fall sessional
period in mid-September rather than in mid-October. The Minister for the
Reform of Democratic Institutions would abolish the so-called intensive
sessionsduring which the Assembly sits from 10 a.m. to midnight Tuesday
through Fridayeach of which now lasts about four weeks, while the President
of the National Assembly would shorten them to about two weeks each.
Another proposal by the Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions
concerns the recognition of parliamentary groups. Under the current Standing
Orders a parliamentary group is any group of twelve or more Members returned
to the Assembly by the same political party, or any group of Members returned
to the Assembly by a political party that has received 20 percent or more
of the popular vote in the most recent general election. Except for the
President, Members who do not belong to any parliamentary group sit as
independents. The Standing Orders therefore permit no changes to the status
quo during a legislature even if, in that same time, the makeup of the
National Assembly does change.
The Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions proposes to make
the rules more flexible. He would lower the percentage of votes required
for recognition as a parliamentary group from 20 to 15 percent. Furthermore,
he would allow the recognition of a parliamentary group as soon as a political
party is represented in the House by six or more Members, regardless of
whether this minimum number is attained in a general election or through
changes during the course of a legislature.
In another line of thought, although some progress has been made over the
last 20 years, it would be accurate to say that our parliamentary committees
still have not achieved the independence and effectiveness that the adoption
of the Standing Orders in 1984 had led us to expect. This discrepancy is
due, among other reasons, to the fact that their workload is far from equally
distributed, the number of hours during which they can sit is significantly
limited, the Government House Leader has a hand in how their work is organized,
and resources, especially support staff, are lacking.
Both proposals would therefore redefine the areas of jurisdiction of the
parliamentary committees and create a new committee called the Committee
on Relations with the Citizenry. The President also proposes that responsibility
for the verification of the financial commitments and for the accountability
exercises required under the Public Administration Act be returned to the
sectorial committees according to their respective areas of jurisdiction.
These tasks have been the responsibility of the Committee on Public Administration
for several years but have proved too much for a single committee.
Maintaining a democratic equilibrium in parliamentary proceedings is a
basic principle of our parliamentary law. It is essential that the National
Assembly protect this equilibrium in order to preserve the credibility
of the debates held within its walls. To reaffirm this principle, both
reform proposals contain several measures aimed at upholding and even extending
Members right to speak.
The current Standing Orders set no guidelines for the recourse to a motion
to suspend certain rules of procedure, with the result that its effects
are almost unlimited. This exceptional procedure allows the Government
House Leader to make a motion to suspend the rules in force and to replace
them with rules of his or her own choosing. As a result, important measures
are sometimes passed without having been fully debated. The Government
regularly uses this type of motion to rush a series of bills through to
In an attempt to continue the reform effort started during the last legislature,
the President proposes that the National Assembly make permanent the temporary
rules regarding the exceptional procedure that were in effect from December
6, 2001, until the end of the 36th Legislature. These rules would guarantee
a minimum amount of time for debate at each stage in the passage of a bill
and would allow the Government to use this procedure for only one bill
at a time. The solution proposed by the Minister for the Reform of Democratic
Institutions would be to facilitate recourse to the closure motion. Such
a motion, when carried, obliges a committee to conclude its detailed consideration
of a bill and to report to the National Assembly, which then finishes such
consideration in the committees stead. Moreover, as in the Presidents
proposal, a motion to suspend certain rules of procedure would apply to
only one bill.
Proposals have also been made with regard to the role played by ministers
in committee proceedings. Under the current Standing Orders the minister
sponsoring a bill is a member of the committee to which the bill has been
referred throughout the committees consideration of that bill. Again under
the current Standing Orders a minister may be a member of a committee for
as long as the committee is considering some matter if the motion referring
that matter to committee so provides. Previous reform efforts have argued
in favour of significantly reducing the role of ministers in committee
proceedings, in particular within the legislative process.
The Presidents reform proposal argues in much the same vein but does not
call into question the status of the minister sponsoring a bill as a member
of the committee considering that bill. However, he proposes that this
status be expressly limited to the committee stage of the legislative process
and to the continuation of debate on the budget speech in committee. The
Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions proposes that a minister
never in any circumstance be a member of a committee but that ministers,
like other Members not appointed to serve on any committee, be entitled
to take part in the proceedings of any committee but not be entitled to
The Subject of Parliamentary Ethics
The transparency that is so highly valued by our media-driven society and
the publics lack of confidence in politics daily reinforce the requirement
that public office-holders, and above all elected Members, act ethically.
In that context the Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions
has proposed that a code of ethics be adopted and that an ethics commissioner
be appointed as part of the parliamentary reform. This ethics commissioner
would report to the National Assembly and would be appointed with the approval
of two thirds of the Members. A parallel proposal by the President of the
National Assembly suggested that a working committee on parliamentary ethics
be established. The committee, made up of MNAs, legal experts and public
servants of the National Assembly, began its work in October 2004.
Through a comparative study of statutes in legislatures based on the British
parliamentary system, this committee has already reviewed the tools that
these legislatures have developed to deter and, if need be, to curb unethical
At a time when parliamentary action is often challenged, however, it seemed
necessary to go further and to reflect on the values and principles that
might lie at the core of what we call parliamentary ethics.
An examination of the work undertaken by certain parliaments in the British
tradition to define parliamentary ethics has yielded a number of findings.
The first is that many parliaments have undertaken such work. The second
is that although the ensuing results share a few common traits, they are
characterized above all by a considerable heterogeneity. Some legislatures
limit themselves to briefly recalling a few abstract principles while others
possess extremely detailed codes with very specific guidelines for Members
Following this analysis, the working committee on parliamentary ethics
has endeavoured, as a first step, to identify the ethical values specific
to the National Assembly. Some of the values formulated so far relate to
the representative function of Quebec parliamentarians. In addition to
accountability, integrity and honesty, these values include promoting,
and protecting the dignity of, the National Assembly and its elected Members
and honouring the mandate conferred by the electorate. Other values relate
to Members roles as legislators and as overseers of government activity.
These include placing the common good above personal interest, exercising
independent decision-making and being transparent. Safeguarding the confidentiality
of information obtained in the performance of parliamentary functions and
using the means placed at the Assemblys disposal for the sole purposes
of the office of MNA are other examples of such values.
At this stage the working committee is considering whether it would be
expedient to state these values explicitly and to organize them in some
kind of hierarchical order, what medium best lends itself to this purpose,
whether they should be accompanied by standards and how they would apply
to Members appointed to Cabinet positions.
Both proposals are far-reaching, and it would be no exaggeration to say
that if most of the proposed measures were adopted, our National Assembly
would be deeply changed.
With regard to the process by which these reform proposals will be considered
and revised Standing Orders eventually adopted, it is the Committee on
the National Assembly that is responsible for determining our rules of
procedure, which it submits to the National Assembly for final approval.
This committee has a standing subcommittee whose mission is to study parliamentary
reform issues. It is chaired by the President of the National Assembly
and comprises the vice-presidents of the Assembly, the Leaders and Whips
of the parliamentary groups and three parliamentary committee chairs, one
of whom must be an Opposition Member. The membership of the subcommittee
was expanded for the purposes of the current reform to allow the independent
Members to be represented. It has already familiarized itself with both
reform proposals and appointed a technical committee made up of the Secretary
General of the National Assembly and his assistants as well as representatives
from the offices of the House Leaders to assist it in its work. Once the
subcommittee has completed its work, it will report its conclusions to
the Committee on the National Assembly, which will in turn submit to the
National Assembly the changes it proposes to our Standing Orders.
I make no predictions about the outcome of this process. However, the similarities
in the themes identified in both reform proposals hold out the promise
of a consensus on certain points, several of which are major. And nothing
prevents us from proceeding in different stages and gradually testing various
reform components in a determined logical order.