Ryan was Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper Le Devoir from 1964 to 1978. He
was elected leader of the Quebec Liberal Party in 1978 and MNA for Argenteuil
in 1979. Re-elected in 1982, 1985 and 1989, he was successively Minister
of Education, Minister of Higher Education and Science, Minister responsible
for application of the Charter of the French Language, Minister of Public
Safety and Minister of Municipal Affairs. He was a guest speaker at the
Conference on Parliamentary Government in the 21st Century, held
in the National Assembly Buildings in Quebec City, October 9-12, 2002.
is an ancient institution based on both written and unwritten rules and
assumptions. This article argues that we must be careful in trying to
reform Parliament that we do not introduce internal contradictions into the
Of all the political institutions in Quebec, the National
Assembly is probably the one that lends itself least to rapid and radical
changes. Strengthened by more than two centuries of existence, it has weathered
many a storm and adapted to many unexpected situations while conserving its
essential features. It is to a great extent thanks to the historical continuity
of its Parliament that the Quebec people have been able to evolve for so many
generations in a climate where political freedoms, in the plural, and political
stability, in the singular, happily coexist.
The Quebec Government intends
to invite us over the coming months to say whether we would like to trade in
our parliamentary system for a presidential system. While recognizing
that a presidential system has significant merits, I want to make clear right
from the start my staunch preference for maintaining a parliamentary system.
This system has many objective advantages, which have been frequently pointed
out by authors on political science, including many Americans. It has served us
very well here in Quebec. Among other things, it helps to differentiate Canada
from United States. At a time when –because of the phenomenal progress of
communications – our powerful neighbour’s influence on the way we think and
live is more omnipresent than ever, we must take special pains to preserve the
institutions that distinguish us from our neighbours south of the border, and
to make only those changes in our institutions that are compatible with their
The parliamentary system
undoubtedly has its limitations and its weaknesses, but so does the
presidential system. According to a number of studies, the comparison is not
unfavourable to the parliamentary system. On the contrary; as long as the
parliamentary system is not uniquely identified with the British system. It is
a much broader concept than that. While the credit cannot be given exclusively
to their political system, it does appear, from a number of studies, that
stability is greater in countries with a parliamentary system.
Whatever choice is made, it
will have to be consistent. As the Quebec Minister for the Reform of Democratic
Institutions has aptly put it, there is no room for an à la carte menu when it
comes to our political system. Either we opt for a presidential system and its
main features, or we choose to preserve the parliamentary system and its
well-known characteristics. We cannot cobble together the aspects that please
us most from both systems. For example, the choice of the head of government by
universal suffrage is a fundamental characteristic of the presidential system.
But this method of choosing the head of government is contrary to the spirit of
the parliamentary system, under which the executive power issues from the
legislative power, is accountable to the legislative power for its actions, and
must retain the confidence of the legislative power to remain in office. Since
I favour the maintenance of the parliamentary system, I cannot logically favour
the choice of the head of government by universal suffrage.
If it were true, as Jean
Chrétien attempted to argue, that he held his mandate direct from the people,
he could have stayed serenely in office for as long as that mandate allowed.
But since we have a parliamentary system, he had to be able to rely on the
support of his caucus. The carpet was pulled out from under him when he thought
he was in firm control, and so he had no choice but to agree to retire. Many
other party leaders and heads of governments have had to go through the same
The parliamentary system gives
politicians a margin for manoeuvre (which is nowhere defined in black and white
but which seems to me greater than that allowed under a presidential system)
for the resolution of difficult problems such as the legitimacy of the head of
government or a particular party. We also avoid deadlock between Congress and
President as sometimes happens in the United States.
Even though such matters are
not always set down in writing, the parliamentary system establishes a clear
sharing of the main players’ responsibilities. The roles proper to the people,
their elected representatives and the government are defined by long tradition
more than by written texts. As the very name of the system indicates, the
cornerstone of the edifice is the legislature, but the electorate and the
executive also have important roles. The people elect their Members of
Parliament by universal suffrage. From those Members emerges a group of people
called upon to form the government, and the government is responsible not only
for administration but also for proposing the legislation that Parliament will
Members are not free
agents and only in exceptional cases should they be free to vote their
conscience. Without a willingness of members to accept party discipline our
system will not work.
It is up to Parliament to
scrutinize government actions, approve legislation and to hold the government
to account. This work must be done, without exception by individuals working as
a team and not by individual sniping. The members are not elected for their
person views but rather as representatives of parties. When a party has won a
majority of seats it is logical, indeed indispensable that it be able to count
on the support of its members. This is the basis for the rule and custom of
party discipline to which all members but especially those on the government
side must recognize.
Equally, for the system to
function well, it is necessary that the government have a decisive influence on
the legislative program and on the progress of parliamentary proceedings, and a
large enough freedom of manoeuvre to manage affairs of state. Bills must
certainly be submitted for Parliament’s approval before being enacted.
But while subject to control by Parliament after the fact, administrative
decisions must be made without its prior approval. I am convinced that
any attempt to reverse this order, on the pretext of giving more power to
backbenchers or to the people, must be approached with caution.
Because I believe in the
parliamentary system, I am of the opinion that any proposal to change it must
be treated circumspectly if that change runs counter to its essence. I
was in opposition for seven years, and then part of the government for nine
years, and I am aware of the many weaknesses that justify criticisms of the
present system. The main weaknesses seem to me to be the following:
1. The membership of the
National Assembly does not accurately reflect the real will of the voters. The
current voting method creates discrepancies that could be justified at a time
when communication was much more difficult and attitudes more straightforward.
But the distortions caused by this method of voting are no longer compatible
with today’s circumstances.
2.·The control exercised by
the government on the progress of parliamentary proceedings is too
heavy-handed. It leaves too little room for private Members’ business.
3.·Within the main parties,
too tight a control is exercised by the caucus and party power structures.
4.·The freedom of action
available to Members, especially government Members who are not in the Cabinet,
is too limited.
5. In those aspects of
parliamentary proceedings of which the public is most aware, the dominant
characteristics are publicity seeking on the one hand and dull routine on the
other. Question Period in particular often resembles a circus more than a
serious exercise. All sides are scrambling for partisan advantage rather than
seeking to determine the truth. The presence in the Blue Chamber of a very
small number of Members on the occasion of plenary sessions held to debate the
principles of bills before their passage also creates an unfavourable
impression among many people watching from the outside.
I am as staunchly open to any
change that seems compatible with the spirit of parliamentary government as I
am staunchly opposed to change that would be contrary to that spirit. The first
changes must involve the conduct of parliamentarians themselves. The right to
speak, for example, is a Member’s most important prerogative. For it to be
fully meaningful, it must be exercised seriously and in a disciplined manner, I
would even say with a certain respect for form and style. Anything that is
likely to hinder or devalue the use of the right to speak in Parliament should
be resolutely resisted. Among the things that should be done away with
are procedural abuses, speaking on command (often at the dictates of the caucus
or party power structure), the arrogance of Ministers, demagoguery, imputing
motives, personal attacks, and so on.
Hand-in-hand with the quest
for higher standards of conduct, which can never be dictated by regulations or
legislation, we must attempt to improve the institution itself. Here are some
proposals to that end.
- In the front rank of desirable improvements, I would
put a reform of the method of voting. My own preference is for the system
currently being used in Germany, because it is the one that best
reconciles the need for direct representation of the population by
directly-elected Members with the need for a balance of general
representation in light of the preferences expressed by the people. And I
think that this must be done within the existing National Assembly
structure rather than by the creation of a second House.
- Question Period must be cleaned up. As it now
operates, it is helping to discredit parliamentary institutions in the
eyes of a large proportion of the population. The arrangements made for
Question Period in the United Kingdom seem to me to offer interesting
possibilities. There is much more diversity. There is much more
opportunity for all Members – and equally all Ministers – to have a chance
to be heard. In our system, it is only the stars who count. The same
people always ask the questions, the same people do the talking, the same
handful of Ministers have questions directed to them, and the rest are for
all practical purposes ignored. This is contrary to the spirit of the
- In order to enhance the role of backbenchers, I would
favour the creation in Quebec of a regular time period reserved
exclusively for private Members’ bills and motions. The federal Parliament
allows five hours a week are allotted to private Members’ bills and
motions. I think that the brief period that precedes Question Period in
the Parliament of Canada, which allows each Member to make a lightning statement,
one minute long, in order to draw attention to problems in his or her
riding, is another good idea. During it, you hear about things that are
happening elsewhere in the country, which Question Period and the other
stages of parliamentary proceedings rarely touch on.
- I also favour the holding of free votes on bills or
motions with significant implications for fundamental rights on either the
moral or the religious plane, so that each Member can vote according to
his or her conscience. On the other hand, I am not tempted by the idea of
extending the practice of free votes to all government bills, because this
would inevitably have negative effects on the unity and stability of the
- I favour more relaxed party discipline when it comes
to committee proceedings, especially the detailed study of bills, so that
Members can contribute more freely to improving legislation.
- I believe that parliamentary committees should able
to undertake more action on their own initiative. This is a promising
avenue for the future that we have only begun to explore.
- Caucus power structures must make an effort to
encourage active participation by all Members in parliamentary
proceedings. Under the influence of the “star” culture that the media
favour to an exaggerated extent, there is a tendency to restrict the right
to speak in important debates to a handful of more gifted Members. In the
long term, this practice is dangerous for the spirit of our system.
- I approve of the public hearings held by
parliamentary committees. I think this is one of the most worthwhile
initiatives instituted by the National Assembly over the past two decades.
As a general rule, the hearings are held in an environment of mutual
respect and courtesy.
- To loosen the government’s grip on committee
proceedings, I think that the Minister who sponsors a bill should not be
part of the committee responsible for considering it; rather, he or she
should be called upon to give evidence before the committee at the
beginning and at the end of its proceedings, and, if necessary, whenever a
truly important issue emerges during those proceedings.
- The temporary changes that have been made to the
Standing Orders of the National Assembly regarding recourse to exceptional
procedures for bills are laudable. I think these are some of the most
valuable improvements that have been made. I understand they are still
temporary; I hope they will be adopted permanently, because they would put
an end to the stupid practice of obstructionism of which all parties have
been guilty at one stage or another in their careers.
- Finally, I have a bone to pick with the media
regarding the role they play in covering parliamentary proceedings.
Rightly or wrongly, I find that their coverage leaves a great deal to be
desired. They place too much stress on the unforeseen and the frivolous,
on spats, petty scandals, personality conflicts that last for a day. They
are much more interested in what goes on behind the scenes than in the
serious and often very constructive work that is happening in committee.
Very properly, journalists set high standards for parliamentarians. But it
would be a good thing if they would examine their own consciences
periodically to make sure they are providing the people with the best