“On the House” by Rob Walsh (Review)

On the House is meant to be a guide for new parliamentarians, written by the Law Clerk of the house from 1999-2012. Rob Walsh provides some incredibly interesting and useful insights into the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure, as well as some of the politicking that happens in the various mechanisms of the Canadian democratic system.

Walsh, for the most part, is a relatively neutral instructor; explaining the procedures that govern our parliament without a great deal of opinion colouring the explanations. Yet, he thankfully allows himself a few select criticisms and suggestions for changes on the hill. I say thankfully, because his suggestions are right on the mark and would provide a much-needed change that many observers would be relieved to see. Parliament in this great nation of ours has lost a great deal of its allure and respectability due to a number077355145x of unfortunate recent developments.

One of the primary problems that exists within parliament in the modern era is that one of it’s most fundamental functions has been severely limited as a result of the centralization of power in the cabinet and, more particularly; the Prime Minister. That function is, of course, the responsibility to keep the government accountable. Question Period provides the opportunity for the opposition to criticize the government and call it to account even during a majority, yet this particular part of parliament has become increasingly focused on scoring cheap political points. Beyond this, the House has very limited power in keeping the government accountable during a majority government. For example, a majority government can insure that any information they wish to keep private is  kept from the public eye by holding a majority of members on any committee, and using that majority to keep information out of the limelight.

The book properly articulates the problem with reforming parliament; whenever a majority is reached by a party, it is in their best interests to maintain the centralization of power that exists. Thus, any promises to open things up quickly fall by the wayside when a government is formed. The Honourable Michael Chong did make a valiant attempt to decrease the power held by central party authorities by introducing amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act and Canada Elections Act “to restore the balance between members and their leaders”, but the bill was gutted by the majority government to render the amendments toothless (page 188).

Despite the above problems, Walsh does an excellent job in explaining the important functions that the different arms of parliament perform. He does a fantastic job describing the history of parliament, a well as the important role that tradition plays on the hill. There are certain features in Canadian politics that seem pointless or even detrimental without a more thorough understanding of their purposes. Walsh goes a long way to clear up some of these uncertainties.

Admittedly, Walsh is not the most stimulating authors I have read. His background as a lawyer who needed to maintain a strict policy of neutrality is evident in his writing style. Yet, the medium should not dissuade anyone from paying attention to the message in this particular case; a valuable addition to the literature on Canadian parliament.

 

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