Contributing to a panel at the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) 68th Westminster Seminar, on effective parliaments, I identified what I see as the five essential elements for parliamentarians to be effective in carrying out their jobs.
1) Powers. The principal, and core defining, power of a legislature is to give assent to measures of public policy and demands for money. Legislatures are not so much law-making as law-assenting institutions. The capacity to say no to the executive is what gives them leverage in fulfilling other functions.
2) Resources. Members need resources, both individually and collectively. They require administrative and research support, independent of their parties and the executive. That usually entails support for their own offices and research support, not least in terms of a parliamentary library and research service.
3) Skills. There is no point in having powers and resources if members lack the skills to utilise them. This encompasses a grasp of how to utilise procedures as well as to debate, to question and to know how to research sources and understand the importance of information provided.
4) Political will. Members may enjoy powers, resources and skills, but they are of little value if there is not the political will to deploy them. Members have to be prepared to question and, if necessary, challenge their own party and government to achieve desired outcomes.
5) An understanding of what is expected of them, collectively and individually. To do their job effectively, parliamentarians need to have a clear understanding of what the job is. Some appear to be extremely busy doing things, but without actually achieving anything. Without a clear job description, there is the danger of doing a range of activities, but without focusing on what is core to being a parliamentarian.
What, then, is the job of the parliamentarian?
Legislatures are defined by their assent-giving capacity, not by an ability to create coherent measures of public policy
Rather, their tasks comprise principally:
1) Sustaining the government. This is especially important in parliamentary system, where the executive is derived from elections to the legislature and the government rests on the confidence of the parliament, or elected chamber.
2) Scrutinising. Most measures of public policy originate with the executive. A core task of the legislature is to subject legislative proposals, demands for money, and the administration of government to sustained – and public – examination.
3) Influencing outcomes. Legislatures can say no to government. That coercive capacity may be rarely employed, but it underpins a persuasive capacity. Members may deploy their various powers, skills and resources to affect outcomes, to ensure ‘good’ law is enacted, that money is spent prudently and appropriately, and government conducted effectively, efficiently and honestly.
4) Ensuring the views of citizens are heard. Enoch Powell once observed that that the task of Parliament is to ensure that the people, through their representatives, speak to the government and the government speaks to the people. Parliamentarians can ensure that the voices of the people are heard. Parliaments have a valuable safety valve function.
The challenge to parliamentarians, not least those in the majority party, is to recognise that being an effective parliamentarian does not necessarily conflict with being a loyal party member. MPs tend to privilege the interests of party over the role of the institution of which they are members. The two are not mutually exclusive.