As heated as things may get during the Queen’s Park question period, the opposition’s daily “grilling” of the government is never dull. Invariably, the hour long Q&A has its highs (applause and guffaws) and lows (vigorous desk banging, jibes and cries of outrage.) While the behaviour in the house may be theatrically uncivilized it can also be quite riveting from a spectator’s point of view.
Coming from such and environment, I was quite surprised to observe the relative harmony and civility that marks Parliamentary debate at the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories. Unlike Ontario, the exchange of questions and answers between regular MLAs and the Premier/Cabinet is not defined by party rhetoric and one-upmanship. Instead, questions and answers are more genuine in nature and the whole affair is devoid of the high drama that we are used to in Ontario. All in all, the executive branch and regular MLAs appear to be on equal footing and have a healthy working relationship. To be sure, one shouldn’t take an overly romantic view of this relatively congenial atmosphere. After all, rivalry was built into our legislative system for a very good reason- to ensure strong oversight of government and thereby curb complacency and arrogance from taking hold of governments of the day. On the flip side, the collegiality (due to the lack of political parties) evident in the NWT also seems to be conducive to objective and sound decision making. For example, during the question period that we observed a MLA- having received a sound answer to his question- congratulated a minister on his good work and a minister made a genuine commitment to implement a strong proposal put forth by a MLA.
Seeing proceedings of this sort unfold in the NWT heightened my awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the Ontario assembly and I can’t help but think that our legislature could be strengthened if certain aspects of our system resembled that of the NWT. For example, increasing the number of free votes that MPPs cast could go a long way in empowering the average Ontario MPP to act in accordance with his/her conscience and constituents. Moreover, in the NWT, the absence of political parties seems to enhance the ability of legislative committees to take an objective approach to the legislative review it is charged with. Making standing committees politically neutral ground could go a long way in enhancing the objectivity of these committees and their ability to undertake a meaningful review of legislation. Such neutrality could easily be achieved by introducing secret votes and anonymous questions to presenters before the committee. While my exposure to the NWT caused me to reflect on these and other possibilities, the most important lesson that I took away from the trip was the value of keeping an open mind toward both institutions and the views of others. All in all it was a wonderful experience that I feel very fortunate to have had.