Every day I am reminded of the pace of change. Nothing is more trite to say, but it’s still true: change is pervasive and relentless and unavoidable. To take just one example, hardly a day goes by that I am not asked to update one of my small handful of smartphone apps. Either the programmer made an error that has only now been discovered (a fortnight after he discovered the last mistake), or the designer has thought of some way she could improve it. Every machine and tool and device I can think of is constantly being updated - just think of how often someone re-invents the screwdriver (and advertises the revolutionary and transformational and convenient completely new version of a screwdriver on late night shopping channels) and you’ll know what I mean.
So would you permit me a leap from this utterly banal observation to a comment about law-making and legislatures?
Our provincial legislature did not sit this fall, and more often than not over the past several years has been sitting only once a year, usually for a spring session that begins in February and ends in about May. People ask me why, and if I feel like avoiding the question I usually offer a smart-alec answer like, “Hey, the two main purposes of the legislature are to pass bills and give government permission to spend money. Do you want more laws and more government spending?”
But a legislature does not just make new laws, it updates old ones. Corrects errors that may not become apparent until the new law was implemented. And refines, expands, adjusts the law to changing circumstances. Sometimes courts interpret legislature-made law in a way that defeats the policy intentions of the government that enacted it; often the only way to restore the policy intention is by revising the legislation.
None of this work can be done unless the legislature is in session.
The question of how often a legislature should sit is usually discussed as an issue of democratic principle. One way of expressing that principle is to say that the legislature is the only place where government can formally be held accountable for its decisions; it is the people’s chamber and needs to sit to do the people’s business. A government which infrequently convenes the legislature is, the argument goes, avoiding accountability.
But in a rapidly-changing world, perhaps there is another reason why government should call the legislature into session on a regular basis, and that is simply for quality control purposes, to ensure that there is an opportunity to improve and correct legislation. We need to update our laws just like we need to update our smartphone apps. Maybe not every couple of weeks, but surely more often than once a year.
When outdated or badly designed laws are allowed to hang around the statute books, or when law is not kept up-to-date, there are lots of real world impacts: tax calculations, the rules for running a strata council, residential tenancy dispute resolution, the enforceability of contracts made on the Internet, legislation that governs almost every not-for-profit association in the province - all these areas of life are governed by complex legislation that often needs to be revised and updated. If the needed changes aren’t made, the result is uncertainty and unfairness.
Asking legislatures to sit more often is not therefore just about democracy, it’s also about making the business of government more business-like, responsive to the practical and sometimes urgent needs of citizens, as able to implement and respond to change just as often as we are all required to do in the rest of our lives.
And if you will permit me one more leap, these sorts of considerations also help explain why the federal Conservative party’s current fixation on massive omnibus bills is not just un-democratic, it’s also a high-risk way to making law that significantly increases the likelihood that errors will be made. When government tables a bill that is hundreds of pages long, covers a diverse range of entirely unrelated subjects, and then truncates debate, it denies members of parliament the opportunity to do one of their most important tasks: to scrutinize legislation; to examine and test both its principles and its details; to fix errors; and to fine tune that which needs adjustment. Competent as they are, legislative drafters do not always get it right. Cabinet ministers are often required to amend their own bills while they are being passed because some sharp eye found a mistake after the bill was tabled. The proposition that nothing anyone in parliament says could possibly improve their legislation is a special form of arrogance on the part of the federal Conservatives. But it’s not just undemocratic. It’s also, put simply, not very businesslike.