Parliaments create standing committees as official sub-groups of the parliament to consider in detail various important subjects as they are presented to the parliament. These committees often have the authority to also study matters that they think are important. However, in many parliaments the committees are not able to address adequately the pressing problems that many citizens consider important. This may be so because the mandates of the committees have not been revised for some time and are now antiquated. It may also be the case, based on certain electoral systems, that the committees are controlled by the government majority and have been intentionally limited in their ability to scrutinize the government and the laws it introduces.
Parliaments can also be extremely partisan. Where parliaments have parliamentary groups that are very disciplined such as to prevent any MP from diverging from the party position, it can cause the system to become quite adversarial, limiting opportunities for consensus and compromise.
No matter the cause of problem, many MPs have tried to challenge the status quo, promoting multi-party caucuses that focus on a common goal of the MPs from various parties. These caucuses are unofficial with limited or no sanction from the parliament. They often focus on issues that are not being addressed via formal standing committees and they may also promote consensus where parliamentary groups are unable to do so.
The most common of the multi-party caucuses is a women’s caucus. Often the default idea of the development community, a women’s caucus, in the right circumstances, can be very effective. There are examples of such groups reaching consensus on the promotion of key legislation related to the rights of women. In limited cases the caucuses have proposed draft legislation that has been introduced by an MP or the government.
Other common multi-party groups include groups focused on minority groups (i.e. – indigenous peoples; language groups), anti-corruption and climate change.
No matter the issue, there are some lessons to be learned about such groups. First, these groups are an opportunity for like-minded MPs to meet and start a dialogue with regard to an issue. This dialogue can “go viral” and allow for the advocacy on an issue within each of the parliamentary groups.
Second, multi-party causes work best where MPs have some independence from their parliamentary groups and are able to propose draft laws and vote as they wish. In parliaments with strong discipline amongst parliamentary groups such caucuses have a tendency to not last long, as the discipline of the parliamentary group will prevent much room for consensus in the multi-party group.
Third, multi-party caucuses are more successful when they are aligned with regional and international networks of MPs that are able to provide knowledge, support and an opportunity for greater interaction on a given issue. Such groups include organizations like GLOBE (climate change), Climate Parliament (renewable energy) and GOPAC (anti-corruption). No matter the group, such support provides a motivation for the national chapters to continue their work, even when they face resistance.