At the time this article was written
Christian Comeau was a member of the Research and Documentation Section of the
Parliamentary Relations Office of the Quebec National Assembly
Last October a conference was held in Quebec
City on the theme of "The British Parliamentary System: An Anachronism or
a Modern Reality?"; the participants were about a hundred legislators from
Canada, the United States; Belgium, France, Senegal and Jamaica. Ten speakers,
mostly university professors, described the general or particular problems
encountered by the parliamentary system. Within a few weeks, the complete text
of the addresses and discussions at this conference will be published by the
National Assembly. In the meantime, we offer a summary of the principal points
of view put forward by the speakers in the plenary sessions.
Plenary Session (October 12, 1978)
Clément Richard, Speaker of the Quebec
In his opening speech, President Richard
said that though Canadian legislators had regular opportunities to discuss
parliamentary activities during seminars or special conferences, it was only
rarely that they were able to raise questions about the role of representative
Foreseeing a certain surprise, or even
shock, at the general theme: "The British Parliamentary System: An
Anachronism or a Modern Reality?", the President said that the startling
question had been selected in order to provoke a variety of responses from
ardent defenders critics and patient reformers of the system. President Richard
concluded by saying that even though the British type of parliament that we had
inherited was one of our richest possessions we must not hesitate to question
unceasingly its day-to-day workings in order to adapt it to the new and
different roles our legislators may wish to take on. "Let us then not fear
to question this type of parliamentary system, whatever kind of conclusions we
may come to, for I believe that we must allow ourselves that whiff of oxygen
within a parliamentary system whose flexibility has always been one of its
Robert Burns, Quebec Minister of State for
Parliamentary and Electoral Reform
Mr. Burns explained his task as minister for
parliamentary reform and defined the fundamental role of Parliament as that of
trying always to strengthen the sovereignty of the people, from which
Affirming his faith in the capacity of the
parliamentary system to meet change, Mr. Burns wished to show that the form
must not be confounded with the substance, nor the incidental with the
"To those who say that a system going
back to the reign of John Lackland cannot meet the needs of a modern North
American French-speaking state, I reply that they are confusing two very
different things: the elements which constitute any parliamentary system of the
British type and the way a specific Parliament selects to make these elements
palpable and suited to the society to which it belongs and to its historical
context. Principles which have always been considered immutable in the British
parliamentary system are, in reality, only particular expressions of it in a
The minister, in support of his thesis,
referred to numerous examples of structural differences between various
assemblies, all within the British tradition.
Mr. Burns then summarised his task, which
consists principally in enhancing the member's role. The initial achievements
have been: the televising of the debates and improvements in the internal
operation of the Assembly to modify the Parliamentary calendar. These reforms
were carried out, Mr. Burns said, by collaboration between the President, the
Opposition and the backbenchers.
The minister, who has plenty of projects up
his sleeve, announced that he was thinking seriously about creating special
Parliamentary committees with special operating rules, provided with support
staff, and not requiring the presence of a minister. He also announced that it
was necessary to have a law stipulating the right of free access for all, and particularly
for members, to the information available in departments and government
In concluding, Mr. Burns expressed the wish
that within the framework of the C.P.A. documentation service a specific sector
be organised for electoral and parliamentary reform.
André Chandernagor, Member of the French
Mr. Chandernagor's address was entitled:
"The French Parliamentary System in Theory and in Fact". According to
Mr. Chandernagor, the fact that the parliamentary democracy as we know it has
evolved so differently in Great Britain and in France shows to what degree the
form, role and functioning of Parliament are intimately linked with a people's
history and culture.
For, although both types originated in the
feudal system, the results were different: The Norman king, strong from
conquest, was the all powerful distributor of lands and fiefs, whereas the
Capetain king stood out only with difficulty among his peers who had made him
king. The former's initial power led to the gradual formation of an alliance
between the people and the barons, while the latter in order to resist the
claims of his vassals, built with popular consent, in the course of centuries,
an increasingly centralised and ever more powerful state as a bulwark against
This continued until, faced with the
excesses of royal absolutism, under pressure from the 18th century
philosophers, the example of England, and the American example, the Revolution
swept away the king's power and set up a new order."
Describing his compatriots as unrepentant
logicians, Mr. Chandernagor explained that they then tried to establish the new
revolutionary power on the separation of powers, a theory which acquired the
status of a dogma. The revolution overreached itself. The new power, that of
the Assembly, eliminated the royal power only to assume greater powers itself.
This attempt at a separation of powers ended in the concentration of power in
the hands of one man with the creation of the First Empire.
The Third Republic restored a new democracy
which was marked by distrust of individual power. The government was nothing
more than an executive committee of the Assembly, which kept it on a short
leash. Although some think that at that period France was closest to the
British parliamentary system, Mr. Chandernagor thinks otherwise. He holds that,
in practice and judging by the results, the French parliamentary system has
been closer to the British since 1958 than in the earlier period. Mr. Chandernagor
stated that, if one looked at the constitutional texts, the differences from
the British system appeared immense, but 1. texts give a misleading impression
of the real exercise of power, and constitutional theories do not usually help
Thus, Mr. Chandernagor wished to show that,
if in constitutional theory the British Parliament had all power, except that
of changing a man into a woman, whereas the French Parliament was limited in
its powers by the Constitution, the actual day-to-day practice of parliamentary
government in the two countries was not that different."
According to the speaker, the real power in
most western democracies is held by the Government and not Parliament.
Parliament and the Government are no longer opposed powers as in the royal
period, but rather juxtaposed, with the executive power being dominant in
inaugurating proceedings, even in the House.
In France, this system is embodied in a
two-headed executive authority which looks like a republican monarchy. The 1958
Constitution also tried to set up a true parliamentary system with a government
supported by a majority in the Assembly. The Assembly has stabilised; in spite
of appearances, the same groups have been in power for 20 years. Between the
First Republic and the Fifth Republic, France passed from nine parties to six,
then to five, then to four, grouped in pairs in coalitions.
This bi-polarity bears some resemblance to
the British two-party system.
Another characteristic of the French system
is the double majority; a presidential majority and a parliamentary majority.
So long as they correspond, all goes well. But what happens if they don't?. Mr.
Chandernagor thinks that such a possibility would accentuate the parliamentary
nature of the system. According to Mr. Chandernagor, there are two possible
interpretations of the Constitution. One makes the Government the President's
concern; the other gives the Prime Minister individual authority thanks to
Parliament's support. The speaker favours the latter interpretation, under
which the President may in the last resort appeal to the supreme authority, the
people, either by a referendum or by dissolution. However, a presidential
defeat could bring about his resignation. Mr. Chandernagor thinks that
"only a more parliamentary application of the Constitution would permit
more effective operation of the system."
The speaker vigorously denounced what he
called "legal abuses" inflicted on Parliament at the beginning of the
Fifth Republic, designed to check its actions and its control over the
Government. However, since 1973, considerable progress has been made in
strengthening parliamentary privilege following an informal consensus between
the Government and Parliament. He mentioned that certain abuses had ceased,
while new practices were being followed and new parliamentary services had been
M. Chandernagor concluded by saying that the
evolution of the French Parliament had been characterised in recent years by
three factors, namely:
-the unanimous will of Parliament to provide
itself with better tools for its work;
- the desire of this President of the
Republic to make relations between the majority and the opposition more
-the emergence of a more composite majority,
having aroused competition for influence between the two majority parties,
which has enlivened Parliament.
"Analysis of the political situation
shows that, if the left lost the last battle, it was not because of the method
of voting, but owing to its divisions. As for the centre, if one day it must exist
on its own, it will have to stand on its own feet and not count solely on new
Mr. Chandernagor concluded by saying that
although the parliamentary system based on a coherent majority was not without
its faults, it remained "the least undesirable compromise possible between
state efficiency and the liberty of the citizens, in a world where so many
systems tend to sacrifice blithely, and often to no purpose, the latter to the
former, liberty to efficiency. (it is then no small achievement.)"
Even if the French Parliament satisfactorily
fulfils the normal functions of a Parliament under a parliamentary majority
system, it is apparently threatened by two tendencies: the emphasis on the
presidential nature of the system in the name of the separation of powers
which, according to the speaker, is impossible in France and results in
resistance to progress or in an impasse, and secondly, the change in electoral
methods demanded by the left and centre parties, a demand which the speaker
brushed aside by saying:
Floyd Riddick Retired Parliamentarian,
Adviser to the United States Senate
Mr. Riddick presented, rather than a
critical analysis, a detailed and sometimes very technical study of procedures
in the United States Congress and particularly in the Senate.
Mr. Riddick first emphasised certain
American practices which differ from the British system, sometimes the same
word reflecting different realities. He gave as an example
"Parliamentarian", which, in Congress, is an official who advises the
Speaker of the Senate or of the House of Representatives on procedural matters
and is not a member of Parliament.
Constitutionally, the two assemblies share
the lawmaking procedure equally. The Constitution provides for two exceptions
to this rule: the House of Representatives has the initiative in the matter of
money bills, and the Senate has exclusive jurisdiction over appointments and
international treaties. In practice, that jurisdiction does not prevent the
House from following international affairs closely. Thus, referring to the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, an American representative who was chairman
of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs was accustomed to say that "the
difference between the Senate and the House in foreign policy is that the
representatives have affairs while the senators have relations". But since
the committee has been renamed the International Relations Committee, both
houses now have relations.
The Constitution explicitly provides that
each House is responsible for determining its own procedures; according to the
description given by the speaker, Congressional procedure is complex and
Each House regularly passes motions enacting
new rules or amending existing ones. During recent years, the Congress has even
frequently enacted administrative legislation such as the Congressional Budget
Act, establishing specific rules of procedure for different types of
legislation. The House of Representatives has to re-enact its Rules at the
opening of each new legislature, whereas the Senate's Rules date from 1884,
although they have frequently been amended. The houses are bound by precedent
as well as by sacrosanct traditions.
Thus the Senate uses the same procedure for
dividing the senators into three groups as was used in 1789, when there were
only 13 states in the Union and the 26 senators were elected by the state
Mr. Riddick said that, in spite of a common
basis, procedures in the Senate and in the House of Representatives were as
different from each other as either was from procedure in the House of Commons
One of the principal differences is that in
the House of Representatives any amendment to or discussion of a bill must be
directly related to the bill and to the part of the bill in question. This rule
of pertinent debate, which our parliamentarians are equally familiar with,
applies to the Senate only in a few unusual cases. Also, there is a time limit
of one hour on representatives' speeches, while senators enjoy the privilege of
being able to exhaust themselves or their hearers, whichever happens first.
Furthermore, most of the controversial
subjects submitted to the House of Representatives are subject to special rules
set by the Committee on Rules and passed by a simple majority of the House.
These special rules may vary from case to case.
Unlike our usual practice, the division of
debating time is not proportional between the parties, but is divided equally
between "pro" and "con", this being due to the absence of
party solidarity. In fact, it is rare that the result of a vote reflect party
During his 25 years as an official of the
Senate, the speaker experienced the establishment of the "seniority
system". This system based on seniority practically ensures that a
representative or a senator who is appointed to a committee may retain that
position as long as he wishes. Changes in the majority in the House only
displace the most recent arrivals, those at the bottom of the list. This system
has created an extreme job specialisation among members and given certain of
them a great deal of political power. Considering the fact that a committee has
life and death powers over legislation, the procedure for submitting bills to
the different committees favours a stranglehold on parliamentary work by those
who take advantage of the seniority system. The Speaker of the House is
responsible for assigning bills to committees. The houses have the right of
final decision in this matter, but the question must be specifically raised.
Thus, in practice, representative or a senator present at a session may well
not know what bills have been submitted that day and to what committee they
have been sent. This information is only published the day following the
submission or sending. The administration has learned to get along with this
On this subject, Mr. Riddick told this
story: One day, the Treasury Department prepared a bill designed to provide
financial assistance to Lockheed Aircraft. Mr. Riddick was asked to which
Senate committee the bill would be referred. After examining the bill, he
informed the inquirer that according to established procedure, it would be
studied by the Committee on Commerce. Since the administration found that that
committee was not sufficiently "sympathetic", they decided to redraft
Several months later, Mr. Riddick received a
new bill which had been so reworked that only after careful scrutiny of the two
texts did he recognise it as the same bill. Considering that the new approach
was more sweeping, it was necessary to send the bill to another committee. In
this way a bill whose real purpose was to give financial assistance to an
aeronautics company was studied by the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban
Mr. Riddick concluded by affirming that
Congress was a unique legislative body. "I have seen the two Houses fight
a pitched battle for two years to change the name of a street in the District
of Columbia, while a law of national significance which would affect the daily
life of almost all the citizens, entered the legislative procedure at noon and
by 4 p.m. the same day had been passed by the two Houses, printed in various
forms; it was submitted to the President that evening for his signature."
Michael Rush, Professor of Political
Science, University of Exeter
After thanking his hosts, the Quebec section
of the C.P.A. and the National Assembly, Mr. Rush went right to the point by
stating his definition of parliamentary government: a form of government in
which the executive is constitutionally responsible to the assembly from which
it is drawn.
The sole purpose of this constitutional
arrangement is to try to limit the exercise of power; it represents, according
to Mr. Rush; a type of representative government where the interests of the
people are normally represented by Parliament rather than directly by
referenda, citizens' legislative initiatives or "recall". From this
point of view, this type of government is not unique; other forms could also be
described as representative, but they can be distinguished from parliamentary
government by the absence of any constitutional responsibility of the executive
to the assembly.
Professor Rush thinks that through the long
period of history during which the British system grew, there were three
interrelated factors which played and still play a preponderant role, namely:
the party system, ideology and the electoral system.
He described the British party system as
being competitive bipartisanism. The bipartisanism is not derived from the
existence of two parties only, but from the absence of any political force
composed of third parties. On the average, according to the speaker's figures,
in the post-war period, the Conservative and Labour parties accounted for 73%
of the candidates, 97% of the members and 88% of the votes. The 1974 election
showed a deviation from this tendency, but it is too early to say whether this
indicates a permanent trend. It is a competitive system, since it is generally
recognised that elections are free from manipulation, that they offer a
distinct political choice, and above all, that both political parties have a
reasonable hope of assuming power.
According to Professor Rush, the last
statement is very important. Since both parties are confident of an alternation
in power in a near future, neither has an interest in or a desire for
profoundly modifying the system. The regularity of the alternation principle
influences and restrains political ambition. The opposition watches its future
and the majority protects its record, since one day, not too far off, their
roles will be reversed.
The second factor, ideology, is more
difficult to identify. Polls indicate that the British see little difference
between the two major parties. It is noticeable that, once in power, a party is
subject to pressures which it cannot entirely control. No matter which party
forms the Government, there is some continuity in economic policy. The
superficial analyses are thus often contradicted by the facts. For example, the
Conservatives, the defenders of private enterprise, have nationalised numerous
industries, whereas Labour have often taken a hard line towards the unions.
In spite of that, Mr. Rush thinks that there
are real differences. These differences exist mainly owing to the fact that the
politicians themselves have strong convictions about the existence of two
distinct ideologies and they act in consequence. Thus, whatever compromises
circumstances may impose on a government, there is no compromise between the
two parties, and each proclaims that its own program and its own policies offer
the only real solutions to the country's problems. The parties always hesitate
to express agreement with each other.
The third factor, the electoral system of
single-member one-ballot voting or to put it familiarly "winner takes
all" tends to impose bipartisanism and to increase the effect of the party
system and of ideology on Parliament.
Those are the three factors which, more than
any other, control the exercise of parliamentary government, that is,
representative and responsible government. Is it possible under these
conditions to speak of a responsible government?
Mr. Rush said that the last time a British
government had had to resign following a no confidence motion was in 1927 (1),
and that Parliament had been dominated by Disraeli's advice to his supporters:
"Damn your principles, stick to your
When the referendum on Great Britain's entry
into the Common Market was held, cabinet ignored party lines, thus making it
impossible to apply the principle of responsible government.
In fact, responsible government is not in
question; everyone wishes to retain it, but everyone recognises that its
application is too often subordinated to the demands of party solidarity.
During the 1960's, the winds of reform swept
over the British Parliament and significant changes were made, particularly the
creation of specialised parliamentary committees and increased services to
members. However if, in Professor Rush's opinion, the committees have not been
a failure, it must be acknowledged that they have not lived up to expectations.
The government's indifference towards the committees' recommendations creates
much frustration particularly since members are not agreed about the relevance
of the committees. Several see only an attempt to submerge ideological
divisions and force a consensus. This was the opinion of an opposition member,
the spokesman on defence matters, who, upon being told that a Defence Committee
would provide him with more factual information, replied I find that facts
confuse my arguments."
The improvement in members' working
conditions, which in Mr. Rush's opinion remain inferior in several respects to
those of their Canadian colleagues, is more widely accepted. This type of
reform cannot by itself bring about major changes.
The introduction of the referendum procedure
into the British system represents a much more substantial change. On the other
hand, the speaker reminded us that it was a two-edged sword: if you agree to
let the people decide, you cannot complain that they have made the wrong
decision, and then say as Brecht did of East Germany: "The people have
failed: the government has therefore decided to elect a new people."
Taking as an example the referendum in Scotland and Wales on devolution, Mr.
Rush feared lest a negative vote have serious consequences on English political
life, especially in the case of Scotland (2).
In conclusion Mr. Rush said that, although,
20 years ago little change was predicted, and 10 years ago moderate
constructive improvements were foreseen, today the future seemed uncertain.
Changes in institutions do not accomplish much unless they are followed by a
change of attitude. The enhancement of the backbencher's role will not succeed
unless the members are prepared for a new role and unless the government wishes
Mr. Rush also thinks that too often reforms
in institutions are aimed only at problems whose origin may not be in the
institution. Finally, the speaker reproached British politicians for two
faults, namely: profound mistrust of foreign models and a tendency, aggravated
by profound inertia, to minimise or even deny difficulties existing in the
Saturday October 14
Professor Leon Dion, Department of Political
Science Laval University
Mr. Dion was given the difficult task of
summarising and criticising the various views expressed during the conference.
In a typically professorial manner, the speaker touched on three points: the
values proposed by the democracies, democratic institutions, and paths for
For Professor Dion considers that Parliament
is the "noble side of power", because it symbolises and embodies the
great values which can be cultivated, defended and promoted by political
societies democracy". Consequently, the subject should be approached by
asking how modern parliaments make it possible to pursue such values.
"The sole purpose of any parliamentary reform
must be the promotion of democratic values. When we speak of the crisis of
democracy, or of the eclipse of parliaments, we are speaking primarily of a
crisis of values."
Parliament is a necessary, but inadequate,
condition of democracy, said Professor Dion. We could paraphrase these words by
saying that there can be no democracy without Parliament but that Parliament is
not in itself a guarantee of democracy.
Although the parliamentary system rests on
majority rule, "it can only grow so long as particular groups do not
permanently dominate society as a whole". In spite of its defects,
majority rule offers the closest approximation to equality and liberty:
"It's better to count heads than to
chop them off."
Modern democracies are representative and
parliamentary. In other words, the people delegate their sovereignty to their
representatives who meet as a college to deliberate and discuss. No doubt to
the great satisfaction of the parliamentarians present, Professor Dion
described Parliament as the "locus of real sovereignty in a democratic
This truth is qualified by observation of
the reality which limits that "more formal than actual" sovereignty.
Sovereignty is the goal of a struggle between the powers, which are not,
despite Montesquieu, balanced. As Mr. Chandernagor said earlier, "one
power drives out another". As soon as one power is uppermost, it tends,
impelled by its own momentum, to preserve and extend its powers.
The essential feature of democracy is
representativeness. It is an election, an imperfect procedure in itself, which
ensures that the representativeness is legitimate. "As a general rule,
candidates, and still more those elected, are not characteristic of the
population. They are better educated, their income is higher, they are in
occupations which are superior to those of the mass of voters."
Professor Dion also reminded us that the
dilemma of the member's mandate has never been resolved, and that the question
is still being asked whether a member is an agent on behalf of particular
interests or the people's delegate in general. Another imperfection of the
system is that electoral representation is based primarily on geographical, and
not on sociological, boundaries. if solutions to this problem have been
contemplated, such as the economic and social chamber proposed by De Gaulle,
they have never been applied "because people are generally afraid that the
cure will be worse than the disease".
There must be representativeness at the
political party level which "constitutes a requirement of the democratic
parliamentary system on condition that there is pluralism". Party
discipline, which is often denounced, is not, in Professor Dion's opinion, a
major obstacle to representativeness. According to him, most parliamentarians
willingly submit to it because, without party discipline, the individual member
"would have to rely on his own means for arriving at a personal conviction
in each of the many debates which are held in a session.
Also, party discipline supports the
strengthening of the executive power vis a vis the legislative power. The
speaker attributed this transfer of powers to various causes such as the world
wars, the economic crisis and increasing governmental recourse to science and
to specialists. The result of this phenomenon has been a sort of chain reaction
leading to the growth of administrative power. ... Modern governments, though
democratic, have become, along with their administrations, executives as
powerful as, or even more powerful than. the absolute monarchs of the
"anciens régimes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who were
ousted by revolutions.
However, the executive power is itself
threatened by the rise of a new power alleged to be non-political, the
technocrats of the public and private administrations.
This situation generates tension between the
Government and Parliament, bearing on the idea of efficiency appealed to by
ministers and civil servants and on that of liberty claimed by Parliament:
"This contradiction is generally resolved in favour of efficiency, that
is, against democracy.
If we regularly and justifiably boast of
having flexible political institutions, this quality itself contains a danger:
"because, if modern political institutions are so malleable, how can they
be at the same time guarantors of democracy?"
This capacity for change, which is
characteristic of Parliaments, works in favour of the reforms in progress
throughout the world, so numerous and diverse that they appear haphazard. In
the British type of parliamentary system, there are three restrictions on these
reforms: party discipline, ministerial responsibility and the government's
Professor Dion is the advocate of increased
power and activity for parliamentary committees, particularly for effective
control of delegated legislation and of the administration. Another important
path of reform mentioned by the speaker was the elimination of barriers between
members and sources of government information. This would encourage specialist
assistance for parliamentary committees, a reduction in party discipline, and
the establishment of a policy of consultation for parliamentary committees,
which would enable members to .. counter by their own information the civil
servants' assertion that only they were in a position to really know the actual
needs of individuals and groups". Finally, the parliamentary committees
could, on their own initiative, undertake research and inquiries which could
possibly lead to white papers on matters calling for legislation.
In conclusion, Mr. Dion stated that any
really useful reform of Parliaments must come through public opinion".
"The quality of Parliaments corresponds and will correspond to that of the
civic culture of the citizens". Any improvement in that would make the
population more demanding and more critical towards the attitudes and behaviour
of politicians and the functioning of institutions
"That is perhaps the real meaning of
the current reform: to act at the same time on institutions and men so as to
create between them a dialectic of change which would act at the same time on
1. On March 28, 1979, Mr. Callaghan's
Government fell after a no-confidence motion was carried by one vote. However,
it was only a relative defeat since the minority government had been in power
for more than 4 years. The parliamentary majority, created by the absence in
hospital of a Labour member, only advanced the end of the Government's term of
office by a few months.
2. This address was delivered four months
before the referendum was held