A Family Friendly House of Commons: Why and what does it mean?
The House Leader of the new Liberal Government, Dominic Leblanc, has said that the House of Commons standing committee on Procedure and House affairs will be tasked with, amongst other reforms, coming up with ways to make the House more “family friendly”. This is something I welcome. I addressed this publicly during the last parliament, and I hope that Canadians will support the changes that the House adopts.
A month ago, 200 new Members of Parliament gathered on the Hill in the newly renovated Sir John A. Macdonald building for a morning of orientation. These Canadians are at a time in their lives when they have a peak combination of experience, fitness of mind and body and are ready to offer that in the service of their country.
Many of these men and women are also fathers and mothers in modern families.
In 2015, men and women are coming to parenting at a later age. Five decades ago, the average age of first-time mothers was about 24 years. Now it is about 29. Professionals may wait even longer to have children in an effort to stay on a career track. At the same time, the average number of children has dropped from 3.0 five decades ago to 1.6 today, meaning, for many, modern family life with young children is being condensed into a very short window of career life. Thus modern day mothers and fathers who choose to be MPs may give up a lot of time with their young families.
Political life is a sacrifice for the family. There’s no getting around that. But I believe work/life balance for an MP is not simply about being able to make time for family life. We must ensure that the work of our MPs be as meaningful and as productive as possible so that families know their sacrifice is worthwhile. That must also be a part of what it means to be family friendly.
I had the opportunity to speak at this orientation for new MPs about how the duties of an MP compete with personal health and family responsibilities, how to set priorities and approach time management, and also what special resources are available to MPs. Meeting this impressive group has motivated me to ask the Canadian people to express their support for changes at the House of Commons which will help MPs do the best job they can.
Many things could be done at the institutional level and here are some of them:
Make committees independent of the government of the day
Committee work should be a crucial opportunity for ordinary MPs to work for the people by holding the government to account. Unfortunately, the trend for over a decade has been to minimize the independence and relevance of committees lest they impede the government of the day’s agenda. Reforming the committee system and restoring its independence from the government of the day should be a priority for MPs.
Move Friday sitting hours
Take the four and a half hours of Friday sittings and move them to the earlier days in the week. This will allow more MPs to go home and work from their ridings on Fridays. Fridays are half-day sittings. No votes or committee meetings are held, and typically only one-third of MPs are present. Few ministers attend Friday Question Period. No other legislature in Canada sits on Fridays.
Reschedule deferred votes
Many non-procedural votes are currently deferred to the end (6-7 pm) of a following sitting day. The House could make it a regular practice to hold those votes immediately following Question Period, when MPs are already assembled in the House, avoiding the need to ring the voting bells for 30 minutes to recall MPs. The House has used this option temporarily in the past. MPs who bring their families to Ottawa would be more able to spend that crucial dinner hour with their families (before getting back to work, of course).
Other measures such as electronic voting
Members of Parliament should also consider, in the longer term, further measures. For example, what about some sort of electronic voting to help save time? Beyond the regular business of the House, vote calls have also been commonly used as a partisan procedural tactic, with committees and other parliamentary and government business disrupted by 10-20 minutes of travel to and from the House Chamber and about 8 minutes roll-call for each vote.
It’s 2015, and I believe there are many changes that would improve the efficiency and productivity of the House of Commons. I hope that MPs will explore all possibilities. I have great hopes for the 42nd parliament, and I hope that, if and when changes are proposed, all Canadians will support measures which encourage talented and dedicated Canadians with young families to serve as Members of Parliament.