Chong’s Reform Act is a step but not a panacea

Parliament Hill 2

We’re about a week away from Michael Chong’s Reform Act getting its first hour of Second Reading debate in the Commons, and we can pretty much expect the next few days to be full of near-ecstatic exhortations for how this is going to be the thing that will save politics in Canada.  It’s been a building chorus since Chong first broached the topic at the end of last year, and again when he presented a revised version of the same bill based on feedback he’d received, but one can’t help to wonder at just how great everyone’s disappointment is going to be when things don’t really change once the bill has passed.

With the glut of nomination races happening federally right now, in advance of the expected 2015 general election, we have seen much attention paid to the leaders’ promises of an open nomination process, and this is something that Chong seeks to protect in his bill.  With the updated provisions, he took the advice that there needs to be safeguards against special interest groups hijacking nominations and riding associations, and has come up with the novel idea of a provincial nominating officer, elected by some party mechanism such as the riding presidents, and that this would instead act as the quality control mechanism for party nominations rather than leaving the tool in the party leader’s hands.

As recent events have shown, however, when one door closes, another one opens for the party leaders.  In particular, while nominations ostensibly remain open, there has suddenly been a great deal of attention paid to the “greenlight” process that parties engage in, and particular the Liberals, given the troubles in Trinity–Spadina, and Trudeau’s bid to enforce the party resolution on being a pro-choice party.  While the commentariat likes to confuse the issue of open nominations with the greenlight process, it’s important to make that distinction.

Every party has a greenlight process in order to determine if someone should be able to contest the nomination.  It’s something that has become more necessary in more recent years, and it has come about in large part to the kinds of media attention that nominations and elections brings, especially when We The Media start plumbing the histories of those candidates.  After all, what party isn’t petrified of headlines about their candidates having histories with drunk driving offences, or sexual harassment complaints, or racist views – you name it.  The greenlight process is designed to ensure that problematic candidates don’t make it into the race, which we would all agree is a necessary step in the age of Google.  Some parties have additional rules for their greenlight process, such as the rule in the Conservative party that if someone has failed in an election twice, they can’t run again.  Greenlighting is also distinct from open nominations in that it tries to catch problems early with would-be candidates, while the main point of open nominations is that it doesn’t protect incumbents from being challenged.

Where Chong’s bill comes into this picture is that it focuses attention solely on nominations, which is designed to protect incumbent MPs from being blackmailed by party leaders, so that if they don’t fall into line, they can still have their nomination papers signed, albeit by someone other than the leader.  It does beg the question, however, whether the grassroots and the provincial nomination officer that they elect will be as forgiving of MPs who break ranks, and they very well might be.  But it shouldn’t be taken as a guarantee.  It also doesn’t completely remove the leader’s hand, as with the greenlight process, which there needs to be an awareness of.

The more important part of why the bill will not be the panacea for our democratic woes is that it doesn’t address the root causes of how leaders are chosen, and why they don’t feel beholden to their caucus.  While Chong has gone to great lengths to design a relatively open and transparent process that allows caucus to remove the leader by majority vote, it nevertheless leaves itself open to the charge that it is anti-democratic and represents a direct attack on the grassroots membership by leaving the current selection processes intact.  Those processes, generally some variation of one-member-one-vote (albeit with some regional weighting, or in the case of the Liberals, includes a “supporter” category where non-party members can vote as well), confer a kind of “democratic legitimacy” onto the leaders by giving them a broader support base than just the caucus.  And this isn’t always a good thing as far as accountability is concerned.

Witness the leadership of former Alberta premier Alison Redford, who achieved her leadership with a base of “rent-a-Tories” – supporters who were not traditional party members but who exploited the rules that allowed them to purchase memberships at the time of the vote – and once Redford was in power, she did not take the effort to curry enough favour with her caucus to keep resentments from building.  And after all, what incentive is there when they didn’t select her, they couldn’t remove her, and Redford had that “democratic legitimacy” to use as her cudgel?  It didn’t end up working out for her in the end because of the caucus revolt that leaked out to the media, but it nevertheless points to the way in which our current system creates a bizarre system of incentives and reduces the kinds of accountability that a leader should face on a daily basis from a caucus that did the selection and is fully empowered to remove the leader because of it.

This isn’t to say that Chong’s bill isn’t a step in the right direction, but we can’t simply assume that this will be the fix that our system really needs.  At best, it’s a half-measure that can’t fully replace a better engaged grassroots membership, or a reformed leadership selection process that properly balances the powers of MPs in a representative democracy, and their ability to hold their leaders to account.


Other articles by Dale Smith

NDP satellite offices and expanding the definition of “parliamentary” work
Showing up for QP
Mandates and the names on the ballot
Make parliament more “efficient” for MPs
We don’t need MPs in short pants

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale


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