The “Reform Act’s” missing link

Missing Link

Conservative MP Michael Chong is due to table a bill today that is already facing some pretty high expectations — called nothing less than the saviour of parliament by some columnists, with no small amount of hyperbole.  While we wait for the details to emerge, three key sections have been reported — that it removes the power of the party leader to sign off on a candidate’s nomination form, that it empowers the caucus to determine whether or not someone should be included or kicked out, and that caucus should be given the power to trigger a leadership review.

All of these things sound good on the surface, and necessary even, but a closer look shows that they remain problematic because they fail to make some crucial links that are at the heart of our system of government.

But first, a history lesson.  When the changes to the Elections Act were debated in 1970, the decision was taken to include the party name on the ballot next to the candidate’s name.  Prior to this, the ballot showed not only the candidate’s name, but also his or her address and occupation.  The issue of people with shared last names became an issue, as did the listing of occupation — especially for incumbents.  While there were concerns about this amounting to “free advertising” for the party, there were more concerns around spoofing party listings — that unless there was a control mechanism that anyone could simply declare on the ballot that they were the Liberal candidate, or that they might instead put down “Progressive Conservative Party for Canada” instead of “of Canada.”  That fail safe mechanism was determined to be the party leader’s signature.  Not once in the debates recorded in Hansard was there the concern that the party leader might use this power to blackmail any rebellious MPs — and yet that is what ended up happening.

The other concern, while not recorded in Hansard but has been repeated anecdotally by those familiar with the situation, was that a safeguard was needed against hijacked nomination races.  This being the days of Pierre Trudeau’s famous omnibus bill that decriminalized contraception, homosexuality and took the first steps in removing some of the more draconian restrictions against abortions, there was intense pressure by anti-abortion groups who were trying to stack the nomination races in their favour.  Once again, the leader’s signature was the stopgap.

What we know of Chong’s proposals to date is that they don’t contain some kind mechanism to prevent hijacked nominations, which do remain a concern.  But what is the more concerning element is that the proposals as far as we can tell, put more power in the hands of the caucus and not into the grassroots party membership, while also not establishing a clear chain of accountability for the leaders.

Under our system of government, as it was designed as opposed to how it is currently operating, it is up to the party membership to determine who will be their candidate on the ballot, and for the operation of the party machinery itself.  And not only can the membership decide on nominees, more importantly they can also ensure that a different nominee is chosen if they don’t feel that the sitting MP is adequately representing them.  But without strengthening that role of the grassroots membership under these current proposals, there remains little incentive to better engage those members for the important decisions about who represents them and their party banner.

What may be a more viable solution is that rather than giving the leader the veto on nomination papers, or about who may or may not sit in caucus, is to better engage the party’s headquarters and executive.  After all, these are the representatives of the grassroots membership and are all duly elected by that membership to carry out the operations of the party.  Why are they not better placed to judge the fitness of candidates and of sitting MPs in the caucus?

The provision around leadership review is also something that cannot be taken as anything other than a half-measure, and one that misses the target.  MPs already have the power to challenge a leader, and most especially a Prime Minister.  We’ve seen several provincial examples of opposition caucuses pressuring their leaders to resign, and the removal of a Prime Minister is one of the most important built-in functions of our system of Responsible Government, and that is that if they are unhappy with the status quo, they can simply withdraw confidence.  After all, Responsible Government depends entirely on the Prime Minister having the confidence of the Chamber.  If enough government MPs decide that it’s time for the leader to go, they can join in a vote of non-confidence — no need for a call for a leadership review that gives the PM time to organize one and to consolidate support for the vote.

The larger problem there is that we need to re-examine the way that we elect leaders in this country, because the status quo allows them to be shielded under a rubric of “democratic legitimacy” — that the membership chose them, and because of that, the caucus cannot remove them.  We need to return to the system whereby it is the caucus that chooses the leader, and it is the caucus that removes the leader.  Best of all, it eliminates the months-long leadership races, no-hope candidates outside of caucus who are simply trying to make a name for themselves, and the rudderless limbo that parties find themselves in.

“Oh, but isn’t that less democratic?” comes the cry from the peanut gallery.  The problem has been that what we take for “democracy” has meant that accountability is so weakened that it eliminated the checks and balances in the system.  And caucus selection is democratic – this is a representative democracy, and we want our representatives to be empowered, rather than just ciphers for the party leadership with whipped votes and prepared speeches.

Chong has the right idea for the bill – but it’s one that will need a little more refinement before it will truly have the desired impact.

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Michael Chong’s Private Member’s Bill

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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