Binkley - Will MPs matter more?

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Binkley's Beat

Will MPs matter more?

Can power-hungry Harper stand to deliver promised changes?

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

10 September 2010 Members of Parliament are our representatives in Ottawa. But they often appear as hyperactive eunuchs—constantly on the go but without any real influence on federal government decisions.

This shadowy existence has been an issue since the days of Pierre Trudeau but has steadily worsened since Jean Chretien became prime minister. Despite promises of reform, Paul Martin did little to correct the situation.

Until now, Stephen Harper has tried to keep his MPs on a tight leash. That led to grumbling from Tories about the control freaks in the prime minister’s office running every aspect of the government and interfering with MPs trying to represent their constituents. Which is what the old Reform/Canadian Alliance party was supposed to be about.

Harper has proposed creating a Parliamentary advisory committee of six MPs and three senators for each cabinet minister. He says they will be involved in every decision the government makes.

Anyone who has watched the Harper government closely finds it hard to believe the prime minister is really prepared to share power with anyone. But if he follows through on his promise, it could create an interesting opportunity for the public and interest groups to get their voice heard in Ottawa.

Regardless of the issue, it will be important for them to make their case with the MPs and senators on the relevant advisory committee as the politicians would have the ear of the minister. The groups would know that their concerns are reaching the ministers without being filtered through ministerial aides and bureaucratic committees.

At the same time, there would be an incentive for the politicians to get fully briefed on the issues of the department they’re advising on so they can provide actually useful ideas. Ministers have to decide on their policies from all the advice they receive and then convince their cabinet colleagues that it’s the best course of action.

That raises a lot of questions about what would happen when the MPs and senators want a different result than the proposals from the bureaucrats, who are supposed to be the experts. Or if recommendations from MPs and senators go against the wishes of the prime minister and his minions.

In the past, smart ministers always had MPs they could count on to tell them if ideas or plans made political sense. Harper wants to make the system more formal. Ministers already have long days and this will only add to their work load.

However, given some of the dundercisions that have come from the Harper government in recent months, it could well be a major step towards giving Parliamentarians the prominence they deserve.

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