Thursday, July 07, 2005

Backbenchers lose power in second Liberal term

VICTORIA - Back in 2001 Gordon Campbell said it was important to give real power to backbench MLAs.
So he boldly set up five government caucus committees. A backbencher - or private member as they prefer to be called - chaired each one. Cabinet ministers sat on the committees, but they were always a minority.
The committees would "open up decision-making, create new opportunities for public input, and involve all government MLAs in developing solutions to the challenges we face," Campbell promised.
There were committees on health, the economy, communities and safety, government operations and natural resources. They were to hear presentations, and develop policy.
And they were to grill cabinet ministers about their plans, and budgets.
The idea - like much from the Liberals' first year- was lifted from Alberta, where Ralph Klein introduced them in 1992. He saw the committees as a needed check on cabinet ministers.
Ministers, Klein observed, want to spend. No one wants to be known as the minister who cut services. One they get the posts, they want to introduce new programs and clever plans - and a good deputy minister will likely have a stack of projects at the ready.
Enter the government caucus committees, and an alert group of backbenchers ready to pounce on sloppy ministry budgets, or plans that failed to meet the needs of their communities. (Backbenchers have a special freedom. Cabinet ministers know that if they ask tough questions about a colleague's plans, they may take a retaliatory beating when their turn comes to take centre stage.)
Backbenchers liked the chance to contribute; ministers - and their staffs - grumbled about the process.
Now the committees are effectively dead, an early casualty of the Liberals' second term. The original five government caucus committees are gone. (Alberta still has six, and counts them an important part of the checks and balances of government.)
Two comittees are left, one on social development, and one on natural resources and the economy. The old emphasis on backbencher power is nowhere to be seen. Cabinet ministers outnumber regular MLAs by two to one. The experiment is over.
Liberal caucus chair Gordon Hogg thinks this analysis too harsh. There are three other cabinet committees, he notes, and they all have backbenchers on them.
But back in 2001, there were five other cabinet committees, all with backbenchers on them.
And even among the three surviving committees, regular MLAs have a much smaller role.
Hogg notes, for example, that backbenchers have half the seats on the committee that reviews all legislation before it reaches the House - "one of our most important committees."
But in 2001, backbenchers had two-thirds of the places on that committee.
Backbench MLAs, speaking for their communities, got almost one-third of the places on the committee that developed the government's priorities. Now one backbencher has a place among seven cabinet ministers.Their role on Treasury Board, the spending watchdog, has also shrunk.
In short, backbenchers are playing a reduced role on important government committees.
There are a lot fewer Liberal MLAs than there were four years ago. But there are still enough to handle the committee work with ease - if the premier had given them the chance.
Campbell raised expectations with his bold commitment to empowering backbench MLAs in 2001.
Now he has pulled power back to the centre.
That's a shame. Not everyone is a good choice for cabinet, and even some excellent candidates get left our because of issues like the need for regional balance.
But individual MLAs have a good sense of what's important to their communities, and bring the kind of diversity to decision-making that leads to better results. The idea of expanding their role recognized those advantages, and the need to make sue that all MLAs have a significant chance to shape government policy.
The government caucus committees did that, according to the premier.
Too bad the idea has fallen out of favour so quickly.
Footnote: One knock heard against the committees was that backbench MLAs lacked political judgment, and that as a result the committees were responsible for some of the government's unpopular decisions. Based on my conversations with MLAs, it's more likely that paying attention to them is a way of avoiding political missteps.


Anonymous said...

"Campbell raised expectations with his bold commitment to empowering backbench MLAs in 2001.

Now he has pulled power back to the centre.

Not the kind of behaviour one would expect from a person with the reputation of an ethically bankrupt, micro managing megalomaniac.

Gazetteer said...

So if 'it's more likely that paying attention to them is a way of avoiding political missteps' why, Paul and/or others, do you think this step backwards was taken?

Paul Willcocks said...

Gazetteer, you raise an interesting question, but I've decided the 'why' - as in "why do you think this step backwards was taken?" - is generally unknowable and not all that important.
Maybe cabinet ministers convinced the premier they didn't have time for more meetings; maybe the premier's deputies grumbled that the GCCs undermined their plans; maybe the premier went to some meetings and found them boring; maybe they thought that MLAs weren't getting public credit for defending their communities because the meetings were secret; maybe, as the Liberals' comments quoted in the column suggest, the committees were blamed for pushing unpopular policies.
But no one will know, unless the premier decides to share his thoughts.
I try never to comment on motives. They're not knowable, and they don't matter.
What matters, is what the decision means to people and communities.
(Sorry to be slow in responding, off at the Vancouver Island Music Fest, where Bo Diddley managed to play the Ballad of Bo Diddley three times in a one-hour set.)

Gazetteer said...

Fair enough.

Thanks Paul.