Book Review: On the House by Rob Walsh
In a year of living politically, it challenges me to read more so I know and understand more. The first challenge was to learn about what my political reality really is. As a ‘staffer’ on Parliament Hill I had knowledge of the happening of the activities of how Parliament Hill “works. What I needed was an understanding of why it works the way it does and the historical and constitutional contexts that Canada is governed by.
It could be a book for dreamers, those that dream of becoming an elected Member of Parliament. At least by reading the book before making the decision to run, it could weed out a few who might be considering a ‘run’ when the weight of the position is understood.
On the House is written by Rob Walsh, who had a 20-year career as a Law Clerk working with Members of Parliament and their staff on Parliamentary procedure and regulations. On the House introduces the players that support MP’s and staff and also reveals a few secrets that take the mystery out of the daily procedures that rule all that are allowed to be in the House of Commons.
The book arrived at a time when there were ethical questions raised by members on the activities of the government. On the House covers the everyday activities of from the moment a newly elected MP arrives in Ottawa to set up an office, attending Member “school” and to be sworn in, all this to be done before setting one foot into the House of Commons.
Beyond the first steps following an election, On the House, takes the reader (and the new MP) through an exercise of understanding how our constitution was developed going back to before the Magna Carta and the development of the separation of the Crown and Parliament in the United Kingdom. What follows through in the pages is an evolution of ‘privilege’, ‘ethics’, tradition where much of the work of governing take place. Walsh takes us into committee rooms, into the law clerks office and of course into the House of Commons as he explains how the procedures, with even the smallest alteration would have an large impact.
In light of what has been making recent headlines, the sections on ethics and parliamentary privilege are of particular interest. I should note here that skipping ahead to read these chapters should not be encouraged; having the constitutional context of privilege is needed to know that Canada is governed by history as much as it is by a changing political and social landscape.
The idea of Parliamentary privilege might seem unlawful to Canadians, protecting our elected officials from what is said in ‘the House’ and on Committee? Walsh does a good job to explain why the privilege exists and where it comes from. While privilege exists in the House and in Committee, it does not outside of these, hence the reason you’ll hear requests to have something said in privilege repeated outside the doors of the house (which are used as the cover of On the House).
Through case histories, parliamentary debates and parliamentary procedures outside of the House of Commons Walsh give the reader the experience that even though there are flaws, our form of government that was first set out in the British North America Act of 1867 works. Walsh also uses cases of law that defend the privilege that MP’s enjoy. While Walsh worked to defend many of Parliaments privileges - he does disagree with a few and puts his case forward – but history more than often not wins out and unwritten laws or traditions of privilege remain in place.
It might seem that On the House is a book for the Ottawa bubble, but the reality is that Walsh has provided Canadians with a “how to book” for comprehending how our government and the opposition how each play their roles. There is legalese to navigate, but would you expect anything else considering the topic? Walsh’s view as Parliamentary Council on our Parliament is unique and one that should be read and shared.
On the House is available through McGill Queens University Press.
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