After months of consultations from MPs from all sides, as well as Canadians from across the country, Conservative MP Michael Chong released a second, updated version of his Reform Act on Monday. While some of the problems with the original bill were addressed, the overall gaping hole in the very logic underpinning the proposed reforms remains.
To begin with, I will give Chong props for being responsive to the criticisms of the bill, in particular those around needing a higher-level authority than the riding level when it comes to the nomination officer whose signature would replace the leader’s for a candidate to appear on the ballot. We’ve certainly seen in recent weeks examples of riding associations who are clearly in the camps of certain would-be candidates, be it with the Liberals in Trinity–Spadina, or the Conservatives in Oakville–North Burlington. Add to this, the possibility that riding associations could be hijacked by special interest groups – one of the main reasons why the leader’s sign-off was necessary when the changes were first made to the Elections Act in 1970 – and it becomes clear why a higher authority was necessary. That Chong came up with a creative solution that kept the power out of the leader’s office was heartening to see.
Another change that Chong made after consultation was to keep the power to de-register a riding association with the leader and two other party executives, was also in keeping with some of these same concerns. While it does give the leader a certain amount of power, it also allows the party to either jumpstart moribund riding associations, or to keep some level of control in order to ensure a uniformity of rules across the riding associations across the country. Chong described it as a “tension” between the two levels, which is appropriate and a reasonable dynamic that allows both sides to help keep the other in check.
One of the changes that Chong made that, in my estimation, was less useful was in the fact that those 20 per cent of MPs who requested a leadership vote be made public by the caucus chair. While it could be argued that this makes those MPs more accountable or that it offers some sense of transparency into the process, there are two other dynamics that trouble me. One of which is the fact that it opens them up to become targets by loyalists to the leader, which can dissuade an MP from stepping up behind the closed doors of the caucus room and not risk triggering the media narratives and feeding frenzy that would result. The other problem is with the tradition of caucus secrecy, where what happens in that room stays in that room, which is important for the sake of party unity and to have the kinds of frank and open discussions that take place there. Starting to name names would immediately take away from that space for those open and frank discussions, of which there are already too few within our current parliamentary framework.
All of these changes are what they are, for better or worse, but ultimately they simply paper over the elephant in the room of this discussion – that it really should be caucus that both selects and removes the leader, and not this further bastardised system that Chong is proposing. By keeping the power to select the leader with the grassroots leadership, and giving the caucus only the power to dismiss the leader creates a fraught dynamic whereby leaders claim a “democratic legitimacy” without necessarily having the support of their caucus, and who can use the threat that the caucus did not select them and cannot remove them. While Chong’s bill tries to put clear rules into place to give caucus some measure of that power, it doesn’t address the inputs or the discussion around who gets to claim legitimacy.
Throughout the conversation over the bill in its previous incarnation was the complaint that it seeks to remove the power of the grassroots to have the say in the leader – a conversation that neglects the problems of the way in which we have progressively unbalanced our system in Canada, where leaders can become unaccountable because the membership votes that elected them are nebulous and increasingly skewed by instamembers with no actual ties to the party but who treat the leadership selection as something akin to an American primary without its inherent checks and balances (such as term limits and defined election schedules). And most alarming is the characterisation of the caucus as “elites” who would force their views onto the party as a whole when it comes to holding the leader to account.
The problem with the characterisation of caucus as “elites” is that it completely undermines our entire conception of representative democracy. We elect our MPs to act on our behalf, and under the way our system is supposed to work, that includes choosing whom from among them will lead them in Parliament. Because we have muddied this notion with the “more democratic” means of party members outside of Parliament voting for them, we instead created a system where power could be centralized in that leader’s office, and which progressively took that power away from those representative MPs, until we have reached the point where today, most MPs are treated as mere ciphers for the leader, drones to vote as he or she votes, and puppets to recite the scripts that his or her office gives them.
This is not how a representative democracy is supposed to function. While Chong may believe that by giving the caucus the power to dismiss the leader, it does nothing to solve the actual problem of the accumulation of power in the leader’s office because that power is legitimized by increasingly large “mandates” from membership votes. That root cause remains unaddressed by Chong’s efforts, which is why I fear they will largely be for naught.
Note: This version has been corrected, as the use of “leadership review” in the bill’s language is different from the current use of leadership review in party contexts.
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