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Five ideas to make the legislature work better

Just because B.C. has rejected Proportional Representation – again – that doesn’t mean we can’t improve the system we’ve got.
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Another PR referendum has bitten the dust in B.C. I was in favour of a change, despite a frankly terrible process put in place by the NDP government.

The voters have spoken and it’s now extremely clear: there is no appetite for electoral change. That must mean our democracy is perfect...right?

Far from it.

Now that electoral reform is off the board, we should focus on different changes that would make our institutions function much better.

Here are a few of my ideas:

  1. Modernize the standing orders

Imagine this situation: Every non-government member in the BC legislature, even the governing party’s private members want to defeat a government, and it’s May (so, after the mandatory Throne and Budget confidence votes).

Would you believe that government would survive until the next year?

Under the province’s antiquated and non-democratic standing orders, nothing can be voted on without the Government House Leader’s OK.

They could just never call a vote on a confidence motion and remain in government.

There must be a mechanism to allow opposition parties to put forward voteable motions. In the U.K., the opposition leader can decide to test the House and get a vote on a motion of non-confidence right away.

In Ottawa, there are opposition supply motion days when the opposition gets to forward a motion, which is then debated and voted on. B.C. should adopt this practice, and give non-government members a larger say.

A related issue is Private Member’s Bills. Currently “Private Member’s Time” on Monday mornings in B.C. is absurd, where members essentially just read competing statements to no real purpose.

That time should be repurposed to debate – and vote on – actual Private Member’s Bills.

Full of contradictions and undemocratic rules, I could complain about the Standing Orders for a week. These changes would be the easiest and best ways to start making improvements.

  1. Stop skeleton bills

Go look at some recent government bills and tell me exactly what they do. The ride-sharing bill is a good example. Okay, done?

No idea, right?

That’s because successive governments in B.C. have passed bill after bill that don’t contain anything but direction for Cabinet to pass regulations later.

This simply must be changed.

The B.C. Constitution Act should be amended to require much more detail and information. The purpose of the House is to debate ideas, but in the absence of details, that simply cannot happen. Currently, governments just implement their full agenda after the fact, behind closed doors.

Regulatory power is important. However, the public should get to know what’s happening when the House is debating an issue.

Why do governments do this? Partly because bureaucrats love regulatory power. Which brings me to my next point.

  1. Stop bureaucratic capture

No one voted for anyone in the bureaucracy. They are extremely capable but have no democratic legitimacy. We must clearly assert that decisions (with some exceptions like legal actions) can only be made by the people we elect.

Part of the problem is pay inequity. Imagine a Minister meeting with their Deputy Minister and all their assorted Assistant Deputy Ministers. The Minister – the only person in the room who has to face the electorate – is almost always the lowest paid.

This is ridiculous, and leads into my next point.

  1. Pay politicians more

I know what you’re thinking: “pay the fat cats more? They already make too much!

For the most part, politicians are skilled and educated people spending their prime earning years in that job. MLA and Minister positions pay much less than equivalent private sector jobs. Thus, many people who would be amazing politicians – whose skills and experience could help make better policy for us all – stay away.

I think we should remunerate MLAs accordingly with the work requirements and experience required.

While we’re at it, political staff should also be paid more. Many great political assistants leave for lobbying jobs simply because they can double or triple their pay.

This is the opposite of what we want: the best people advising the best people. It only happens with more pay.

  1. Shift power from the executive to the legislature

Across Canada, power has been shifting for decades from the legislature to the executive. My first few points will start to address this, but to really work, we need a cultural change.

Decisions are supposed to be made by the people’s representatives, not (just) the Cabinet. I would create a Royal Commission to examine every aspect of the government and find any way to ensure the people have a say, not just Cabinet.

There’s so much we could do to make our system better. These ideas could be completely wrong – but someone has to start saying something.

Hannah Hodson is a political staffer and former Communications Coordinator in the office of Premier Christy Clark