The Parliament Buildings and the Paradox of Parliament

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“Does Parliament work? Sort of. Could it work better? Absolutely.” Check out the following blog post that UTP author Jonathan Malloy wrote about his book, The Paradox of Parliament, below.

Many Canadians have been to Ottawa and seen the Parliament buildings. It might have been on a school trip, or a family vacation. Perhaps they came specifically to testify to a parliamentary committee, or maybe to protest on the front lawn.

If you live in Ottawa, as I do, Parliament Hill can feel awfully familiar. But it is still always special to go by it and see excited visitors taking selfies and family photos for their memories. And you can always find protestors, sometimes a lone person with a sign, exercising their democratic rights.

But the more time you spend on Parliament Hill, inside the actual buildings, the more complex it all gets. The buildings are tightly secured and crammed with serious, hard-working people: parliamentarians, political staff, and the elite clerks and administrators that serve all sides. Everyone is well-dressed, crisp, and terribly smart and efficient; after all, they work in Parliament. And if you hang around the Ottawa airport on Friday, you can see dozens and dozens of MPs headed to catch flights home to their constituencies for the weekend; if you come back on Sunday night or Monday morning, you’ll see them returning. Schedules are packed, and the lifestyle is intense. And while also personally ambitious, all of these people are driven by a genuine and sincere desire to make a difference for Canadians.

Parliament is a very complicated place. But when Canadians think about it, beyond the tourist photos, they often aren’t very happy about it. The problems are perennial: parties have too much control over individual MPs; members behave like raucous children in the chamber; the unelected Senate has no democratic legitimacy; and women, racialized Canadians, and Indigenous peoples are all underrepresented, and often report feeling they don’t belong in this colonially-derived institution designed by and for white men.

There are a lot of expectations and complaints loaded onto the complex institution of Parliament. How do you capture it all in one book?

There are many books on different aspects of Parliament. You can find books on Senate reform, the underrepresentation of women, voting patterns and party discipline, MPs in their constituencies, and many other very fine studies. But as far as I know, until my book The Paradox of Parliament, no one has tried to capture all of Parliament in a single book in many years. The only similar predecessor is The Parliament of Canada, by the late C.E.S. (“Ned”) Franks, published by University of Toronto Press in 1987.

Ned was my MA supervisor at Queen’s University thirty years ago. I remember many conversations with him where I argued for some sort of reform or change that I felt Parliament urgently needed. He would neither agree nor disagree with me, but always cautioned me to consider the context and bigger picture, peeling back one more layer of the onion that is Parliament. My favourite line in The Parliament of Canada has long been that “the fundamental argument of this book is that the reform of Parliament is not simply a technical matter…though it is often presented in those terms.” In other words: Parliament is complicated, and needs to be approached on those terms.

I’ve thought about Parliament and legislative representation for a long time, ever since I was an intern at the Ontario Legislative Assembly in 1992. I’ve been at Carleton University for twenty-three years, teaching and writing on different aspects of Parliament, and for several years I was president of the Canadian Study of Parliament Group. But, as sometimes happens when you study a subject in great depth, you end up feeling more ignorant because the more you learn, the more you realize there is so much that you still don’t know.

But the more I wrote and thought about Parliament, and just spent time inside its buildings, the more I realized that the most important thing about Parliament is that it is a paradox. We ask it to do contradictory things – to represent the views of all Canadians, but also to decide and set the direction of the country. One requires freedom and voice; the other direction and discipline. Parliament’s job is to fit the two together – to reconcile the paradox. And it does, but imperfectly.

Does Parliament work? Sort of. Could it work better? Absolutely. Is it welcoming to equity-deserving groups? Not particularly. What’s the solution and the way forward? I can think of many ideas, but I don’t really know for sure. Most attempts at reform are either ineffective or have unintended consequences. The biggest adjustment in our time is the 2016 change in Senate appointments, so that most Senators no longer have a party affiliation. This has been a refreshing change but has also made it more difficult for the chamber to operate, with an uncertain long-term future. So in The Paradox of Parliament, I neither condemn nor defend Parliament: Instead, I try to explain the paradox, and why Parliament is so complicated.

The most important difference between my book and The Parliament of Canada from 1987 is that I incorporate the essential element of diversity in Parliament – the underrepresentation and marginalization of Indigenous peoples, women, racialized Canadians, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ2S+ Canadians. This was far less a focus decades ago, but is now probably the most vital and interesting area of parliamentary research. Debates are shifting from simply how to diminish party discipline to questions about the entire institution, which was built on adversarialism and concepts of a generic MP who is able to leave family behind each week to join the gladiator battles and work their way up the career hierarchy. This is the area where I feel I am most learning myself, and I was grateful to draw from the relevant scholarship and the personal memoirs of diverse parliamentarians in writing the book.

When I was asked about the cover of The Paradox of Parliament, I strongly felt there should be an image of the parliament buildings – but one that was a bit different and unorthodox, reflecting the complexity inside. The designers delivered, with an image of the back of the buildings overlooking the Ottawa River. Parliament is reflected in the water, but the image is distorted and rippled, embodying the paradox of Parliament as a whole.


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