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Despite Theatrics, Understanding Parliament is Essential for Business 

Matthew Dubé

A close-up view of the Candian Parliament building. It has a historic stone facade with a prominent clock tower and intricate carvings, bathed in sunlight.

Politics often becomes a conversation about what matters to people. Does an issue resonate with your constituents? Is there a tangible impact on people or businesses? A former colleague once joked about dusty cabinets filled with excellent reports from Parliamentary Committees. These reports contain recommendations drawn from witness and expert testimony, yet they are often ignored despite their potential to shape intelligent public policy debate.  

The same is true for Parliamentary procedure. As a former deputy House Leader for the New Democratic Party, I’m well versed in Parliamentary procedure. However, having served in office as a Member of Parliament for nearly 10 years, I can also speak to the disconnect between the institution and the public, including those in business. Proof Strategies’ 2024 CanTrust Index reveals just 37 per cent of Canadians trust the Canadian Parliament, much lower than trust in other government and government-related institutions. Much of this sad state can be pinned on public perceptions of political theatre or politicians trying to score points. Case in point: when the Leader of the Official Opposition was ejected from the House following a Question Period exchange recently, it made everyone involved, and the institution, look bad. No doubt many businesspeople believe Parliament doesn’t matter, and media coverage can also influence these perceptions.  

However, the notion that Canada’s Parliament doesn’t matter could not be further from the truth. As a business that wants to influence government, you stand to make better strategic decisions and enhance your advocacy by understanding Parliamentary procedure and how it has an impact on the substance or timelines of policy issues that matter to you. Here are three examples to illustrate. 

First, recent news reports implied a delay or even backpedaling by the government on changes announced in budget 2024 to the capital gains tax. However, by confusing the procedures of the House of Commons, many commentators neglected to identify that the “Ways and Means” motion which sets the stage for the tax change was already being debated. The truth of the matter was that the capital gains tax change simply wasn’t included at this stage of the process in the Budget Implementation Act. Parliament watchers and those with an in-depth understanding of it would tell you that the government is likely planning to present a separate bill on the changes to force the opposition to take a position on this specific issue (opposition parties tend to vote against budgets wholesale on principle, regardless of support for specific measures). Understanding these differences distinguishes advisors who merely relay news coverage from those who can decode implications for your business.  

Secondly, Parliamentary Committees also have their own procedure, and understanding what makes them tick is essential. For example, a member-based organization we counseled recently opposed a piece of legislation and originally wanted to oppose the bill outright. With some coaching on the committee procedure, they went ahead and opposed the bill and clearly articulated why, but they navigated the Committee process to push for amendments which would mitigate the negative impact on their members and provide incremental wins. With this understanding of Committee procedure, the organization successfully obtained critical amendments which made the bill far more palatable and was seen as a major win by their members.  

Finally, what happens between the House of Commons and the Senate matters. I recall a client once had to make key strategic and tactical decisions based on both the timing of a bill and its content. With the benefit of some procedural expertise and advice, the client’s decision was informed by the likely timeline of the bill’s adoption. This advice, combined with real-time intelligence from government contacts helped the organization make the right decisions for their business. What’s more, knowing the bill could not be further amended helped predict what the final piece of legislation would look like once the House and Senate reconciled their views.  

Trust in Canada’s Parliament may be low, its procedures may seem arcane and inconsequential to some, and political theatre can be off-putting. But smart and timely decisions fueled by knowledge of how our democracy functions can enhance any organization’s advocacy and help mitigate potential impacts. Political intelligence is only as valuable as the context in which it is placed, and Parliamentary procedure is a big factor. Our political institutions matter and so does your understanding of them.