The Best Intentions

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.

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20 responses to “The Best Intentions”

  1. Imagine this reform had been in place during the Chretien-as-leader years of the Liberal party.
    All the pro-Meech Liberals would be gunning for Chretien. Quebec MPs wold be under great pressure to get rid of the Trudeauites.
    The Turner/Martin Liberals would be out for blood.
    With this reform, Liberal MPs would not only have to worry about getting re-elected, but they would have to police their fellow MPs. “I can’t vote for you again if you don’t help get rid of Rosanne Skoke/Tom Wappel/whoever.”
    On divisive issues like abortion or the gun registry the infighting would never stop. Not to mention the Martin/Chretien rivalry.
    Dormant Liberal ridings could be taken over by single issue candidates under the new rules. That was why Chretien was given the power to appoint candidates.
    Although some in the media are gloating over the chance Harper could be challenged under these reforms the Liberals should give the ideas a lot of thought.

      • Lol, even May is not immune. If she had a caucus, she would be in big trouble, as she is no less controlling than Stephen Harper is reputed to be, and she brooks no rivals. And yes, I say this from personal experience.
        I am not sure that I agree about caucus rebellions breaking out left and right. An astute leader would be canvassing and consulting caucus far more frequently. Contentious and divisive legislation would be far more likely to be free votes, or at a minimum not a confidence vote. Should this bill become law, then the foundations would shift, and things WOULD be done differently. Mind you, that is not the same things as saying they would be done better, just differently.

  2. There is nothing stopping the Conservatives, or Liberals or any Party from incorporating nomination process in their Constitutions and By-Laws. In fact, most Partys already have many provisions around nominations procedures. If a Party wants reform, they can institute it internally simply circumscribing their Leaders ability to withold nomination endorsements with real consequences. Like mandating a leadership review when a nomination is witheld, or whatever sanctions seem appropriate. The Green Party has provisions in their by-laws that constrain their leaders ability to withold an endorsement. Seems to work for them. Not sure why all this stuff needs to be bundled into a law. Not sure if I approve.

    • Agreed. I’d like to see the parties tackle this internally.

      Each party has its own policy on leadership reviews, and each party has its own policy on nominations. I’d argue a “Nomination Officer” is completely irrelevant for a party like the Liberals who have open nominations in all ridings.

  3. “Seems to work for them.”
    Which is why we are in our 8th year of PM May’s Green Party government. Long may she reign!

    • Don’t be silly. The Greens electoral standing has little or nothing to do with how they select candidates. In practice they mostly end up with one reluctant candidate being acclaimed. The provisions in their constitution are poorly written, I suspect because there are so few lawyers in the Party, but they would work just fine in any Party, with a few judicious edits. My critique of Chongs bill is that Parliament would be dictating something that is tied up with how a political party views itself, whether as Leader centric, or ‘grass roots’ oriented.

  4. I dunno, there are things I like about this. For one, it formalizes things that have been conventions for ages – I dislike the concept of conventions because they aren’t freaking written formally, they are just ‘this is how it was done before’ and sort of ridiculous in the context of the written word having existed for millennia. For another, why should leaders have ultimate veto over nominees at the riding level? Not sure if having someone in the riding association do it instead is the right answer, but at least one person doesn’t control everything in every riding, potentially against the wishes of its members.

    Had these reforms been enacted ahead of the good old prorogation/coalition crisis, I wonder how differently the discourse surrounding that would have played out. Although now that I think of it, isn’t Chong’s bill all about how parties and caucuses should operate in parliament, rather than parliament itself. He should probably have a part of this bill dealing with the importance of the prime minister requiring the confidence of a majority in the house, if he doesn’t.

  5. Interesting take. Certainly not perfect but at least should go as for as second reading so it can be examined at committee. I think the real issue is most agree the PMO is too centralized not just under the current government, but past ones too and that if something isn’t done it will just get worse. Still any change should be thought out well to make sure there is no unintended consequences.

  6. While the intentions behind the bill are, I believe, noble (hard to argue with measures that empower individual MP as they are the representatives of you and I) I think that any party focused democratic reform bill ought to have as it’s primary focus the empowerment of the grassroots.

    It strikes me as wrong to give a (relatively) small number of members (caucus) the power to remove a leader that was selected by the grassroots at large.

  7. If you want to limit the exercise of the PM’s power, limit his/her powers of appointment. That’s the carrot dangled before the MPs that keeps them all acting like trained seals.

  8. Merry Christmas, Daniel-San.

    I’ve enjoyed your weblog.

    After seeing the Russell Brand interview, I’ve decided to stop paying any attention to politics.  I was pressed into viewing it, as I was never a Brand fan before, yet he has successfully changed my life.

    I used to say/parrot that old line: “don’t complain if you don’t vote”; now, I’m out of making “informed” decisions about voting, and actually, I’m not complaining at all!  I’m happier than when I was trying to pay attention.  I read science news daily, and I feel more plugged in to the world than I ever did before.  I’m starting to recognize some names and loosely, at a great distance, in hobby time, follow a career or two, and they’re more interesting to me than any MP.

    I care about issues, not “politics”.  The internecine, mutually destructive quarreling and quibbling takes up most of the time and energy in government, on all sides of the aisle.  Parties care about winning power and vanquishing their perceived enemies, and not the issues that compel me.  I’m disenchanted with politics in all governance systems around the world, and I check a lot of newspapers.  For all its many flaws, I believe in America, where one at least gets a say in voting for local representation as well as for senator AND for executive leadership.  No party in Canada is willing to fight to give us that kind of voice (while in America, the parties really only care about nuking the other — just like here, only with more gusto).  Canadian parties prefer us without much voice.

    I’ve long been a passionate believer in George Washington’s disbelief in parties.  Far, far more than anything else, it is the existence of political parties that turn me off.  THE CORPORATION suggests that corporations are inherently psychopathic; I’ve long believed the same about political parties.  They frustrate me, and worse, they depress me.  I believe in humanity and our potential; I don’t see much of our better angels in politics.  Whether worse people are more attracted to politics, or whether we’ve inadvertently created a system which worsens otherwise decent people, or whether we’ve inadvertently created a system which rewards and advances the worst people, I’m looking away from Medusa before it’s too late.

    Tho I can happily commend PM SH on some real achievements, I too am unhappy with his tenure overall, yet – why vote next time? My vote has never once made any meaningful contribution to effecting any change or hope, or to affecting ideas.  In Canada, it is a rigged game, for the parties, and not the people.  We have reasonably okay basic (physical) healthcare and reasonable okay basic education because we are bought off to not demand full, meaningful participation. 

    There is no politician in the world I’m really rooting for right now; certainly not Justin Trudeau, certainly not Thomas Mulcair, certainly not Stephen Harper, certainly not Elizabeth May.  Well, maybe Naheed Nenshi, tho I haven’t exactly followed his in-office career with serious attention.  Maybe one day in the future.

    I do have a longing to improve and build on our specie’s fine achievements.  I want us to achieve higher and better and smarter.  Our physical healthcare system is a joke which rewards those who invest in their health the least with the most time and energy and money, totally, abjectly failing in prevention.  (Our mental health system barely services any needs at all.)  Our public education system is pathetic.  Where is the team who wants to address these things by truly harnessing the power of capitalism, without killing that golden goose?  I don’t feign any expertise about global warming, yet I do know scientific consensus on the matter has grown to hover around a 95% certainty; where is the team willing to seriously tackle this issue?  It’s a bromide cliché to say, “Politicians are liars”, and I think the problem is more complex than that. 

    My grandfather fought in WWII as hard as anyone else.  He didn’t do so for the right of parties and leadership to fake their way thru accomplishing so little.  There is no possible way today to make any kind of difference or meaningful contribution without going thru political parties, and no political party, entity, leader, or candidate has any real higher ground to stand on today than any other.

    I’m willing to vote again; show me someone worth voting for, and believe me, I’ll be jumping in line to mark an X.  Until then, I sincerely regret the time I’ve wasted. 

    I have long felt that you are a sincere and good soul hoping to be a part of the right thing; I wish you the clearest skies and the smoothest seas. I’ll critique one thing first, tho: giving Jason “it’s better to pay lip service and do nothing than to not pay lip service and do nothing” Cherniak any airtime. Again, politics is all phony – you know very well that “Justin Trudeau” has nothing to do with Jason’s decision to give ‘er a go; anyone and everyone knows he’s been chomping at the bit forever. Why legitimize or repeat such an obvious lie?? It puzzles me. This acceptance of false framing and insincerity so common (and so required) in the current system we’ve built and inherited is the main, and the biggest reason that Russell Brand’s thoughts spoke so loudly to me.

    I had the best intentions getting involved and trying to inform myself; they were foolishly wasted. I’ve seen for just about ever that politics isn’t accomplishing anything; I regret I didn’t see clearer earlier, and pull back long before.

    Onwards and upwards, and no looking back; excelsior!

    You have earned recognition and respect and I hope that this will continue and grow. All the best in your future.

    Thank you for your information and patience and your very kind hospitality. You are a great host.


    • I’ve seen this Russell Brand interview. It’s thought provoking, for sure. I get his point that not voting is an expression of dissatisfaction with the options. What I don’t entirely get is how excluding oneself from political participation, for example within a party, helps. Isn’t that how one would try to improve the options, by working from within? (Written with the true naivety of someone who has not made that participatory leap.)

      • You don’t come off as scolding. But there is just as much false framing and insincerity in holding the viewpoint expressed above as there is in the politis those who hold it want to dissassociate from.

        I’ll grant you this though:

        “you know very well that “Justin Trudeau” has nothing to do with Jason’s decision to give ‘er a go; anyone and everyone knows he’s been chomping at the bit forever. Why legitimize or repeat such an obvious lie?? It puzzles me. This acceptance of false framing and insincerity so common (and so required) in the current system we’ve built and inherited…”

        This was bang on.

        I know this is a partisan blog, and a free-time endeavour, by a writer who is really good at his job, and his blog, and is a a top notch guy, but that was baloney. I expected better.

        Either it’s a puff piece on some Liberal partisans looking for a kick at the can or it is a serious article about whether and how to improve participation of under 50s in the party. Choose.

  9. You know, I regret writing, “you know very well” in there; trying to express confusion, I probably come off scolding – and that wasn’t my intention.
    I learned a great, great deal about weblogging from you, champ! I’m in your debt. Ciao!

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