Michael Chong is one the most respected people in the country when it comes to democratic reform. He quit his cabinet position on principle, and proposed a series of thoughtful Question Period reforms in 2010, which seem all the more overdue after the Paul Calandra show we saw last week.
So when Michael Chong tables a private members bill to decentralize power away from the Prime Minister’s Office, it’s impossible to doubt his sincerety. It’s a worthy cause led by a noble champion. Another champion of democratic reform, Andrew Coyne, has praised the Reform Act saying “Parliament will never be the same again”. Here’s a summary of Coyne’s summary of the bill (the full text of which can be read here):
1. A leadership review vote could be triggered at any time on the receipt of written notice bearing the signatures of at least 15% of the members of caucus. A majority of caucus, voting by secret ballot, would be sufficient to remove the leader.
2. It would similarly empower caucus to decide whether an MP should be permitted to sit amongst their number. A vote to expel (or to readmit) would be held under the same rules as a leadership review.
3. It would remove the current provision in the Elections Act requiring any candidate for election to have his nomination papers signed by the party leader. Instead, the required endorsement would come from a “nomination officer,” elected by the members of the riding association. There would be no leader’s veto.
Coyne points to Australia as the working example of MP-initiated leadership reviews, but it’s hard to think the ongoing feud between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd was good for the Labour Party, or Australia.
The move would undoubtedly transfer more power to MPs, as would giving them the ability to kick one of their own out of caucus. But all that is being transfered are punitive powers – the opportunity to boot a leader, or a caucus member. This act would do nothing to give them a greater say in passing laws or having their opinions heard – it would merely create a group of restless MPs with no real power except the ability to turn on their leader and each other. Welcome to Survivor: Ottawa.
Removing the threat of expulsion by the leader might encourage MPs to speak their mind, but it’s important not to overstate the impact. The only two MPs booted from any caucus within the past 5 years – Peter Goldring and Helena Guergis – were forced out not because of policy differences, but because of scandal. Going back further, Bill Casey and Joe Comuzzi were removed after voting on principle, but it’s unclear if having MPs vote against their party on budgets would or should be tolerated. Garth Turner’s outster was actually brought about by a vote by members of the Conservative Party’s Ontario caucus who felt he wasn’t being enough of a team player, so I don’t buy that transfering the whip from the PMO to MPs will actually lead to more “mavericky” behaviour.
It’s possible MPs will be be able to leverage these punitive powers into real legislative power, but if the goal is to empower MPs in the House, committees, and the decision-making process, why not bring the change about directly?
However, the part of this bill that has received the least attention, but is the most problematic is giving riding associations the ultimate say in candidate veting, by having them elect a “Nomination Officer”. It’s unclear how exactly this would work, since all parties (almost always) hold nomination contests in unheld ridings and Green Light Committees vet candidates to make sure there aren’t crack videos of them floating around the Internet.
One assumes the Nomination Officer could deny an MP, or a candidate, the right to run for nomination, or could veto a candidate once nominated. This opens the possibility of an impass if the Nomination Officer nixes a candidate who has been elected by the riding, or is at odds with a potential candidate because they support someone else. Paranoia already runs deep in local politics, and you can be sure MPs concerned about a challenge would do everything in their power to ensure a friendly face is elected as the riding’s Nomination Officer. That means local ridings will spend more time fighting each other, than doing the types of things local ridings should be doing.
The thing is, there’s an exceedingly simple solution to this – open nominations, where all MPs must be re-nominated by members of the riding. This gives members a say without turning riding association board elections into Game of Thrones. Indeed, this is something Justin Trudeau has promised, so this change would either be irrelevant to Liberal nominations, or would needlessly complicate them.
Which begs the question of why Parliament needs to police political parties at all? For good reason, Parliament doesn’t set the cut-off dates, eligibility, or rules for nominations. They don’t tell parties how often to conduct leadership reviews. The parties themselves decide if they want delegated conventions, one-member-one-vote races, or a primary-style supporter system.
So although Chong’s bill may look like a step forward for democracy, its impact would be largely negligible and, in some instances, it may do more harm than good.