Andrew Coyne | 29/11/13
The Canadian Press/FilesThe Reform Act would shift the balance of power in favour of MPs and their riding associations, and away from the leaders and their apparatchiks.
The title of the bill that Conservative MP Michael Chong will introduce next Thursday in the House of Commons, “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms),” makes it sound like a modest bit of housekeeping. Yet it contains the seeds of a revolution.
Here’s a scenario to warm the cockles of an opposition leader’s heart: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, his back to the wall after months of scandal, shorn of allies because of his harsh treatment of former chief of staff Nigel Wright, isolated within his own party, finally realizes victory in 2015 is beyond his grasp. Perhaps with a not-so subtle push from senior figures within the Conservative hierarchy, he takes a walk in the snow.
There’s just one wrinkle: It’s not even remotely plausible.
Unless there’s a significant new break in the Duffy story — one that shows the Prime Minister misled his caucus, parliament and the country in saying he knew nothing of Wright’s $90,000 cheque to Sen. Mike Duffy, or the extensive machinations that preceded it, until May 15 — the government is in ride-it-out mode. The chances of a resignation, or a leadership challenge, are nil.
Should it pass, Parliament would never be the same again. The bill would fundamentally recast the relationship between party leaders and caucuses, and with it the whole structure of our politics. The balance of power would shift, irrevocably, in favour of MPs and their riding associations, and away from the leaders and their apparatchiks. In sum, this is a vastly consequential bill, and fully deserving of the historical echoes in its short title: The Reform Act.
In brief, the bill would do three things:
1. It would formalize the convention that the party leader serves only with the confidence of caucus (here defined as the party’s delegation in the Commons; the Senate, being unelected, is properly left to one side). 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, and begin the process of selecting a new one.
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: 15% of caucus to trigger, 50% plus one to decide. A member would also be readmitted automatically on being re-elected to the House under the party banner. In other words, membership in caucus would no longer simply be up to the leader to decide.
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. In other words, the riding association, and not the leader, would decide who its nominee was. There would be no leader’s veto.
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These may not sound like large changes. In fact, they would change everything. The practice in Canada of electing party leaders by the membership at large — or, as in the recent Liberal leadership race, by people with no connection to the party at all — has effectively freed the leader from any obligation to be accountable to caucus. Conversely, the power to expel a member from caucus, or to prevent him from standing at the next election, has given leaders enormous, indeed existential leverage over members of caucus.
The Reform Act would turn each of these on its head. Henceforth, party leaders would serve at the pleasure of caucus, and not the other way around. Leaders would still be powerful — in the case of the prime minister, immensely powerful. They just would not be all-powerful.
I said this was a revolution, but in truth it would do no more than to restore the basic principles of the Westminster model on which we were founded, and under which we were governed for many years. The convention that party leaders must maintain the confidence of caucus at all times may have fallen into disuse in Canada, but it remains very much in force in other parliamentary democracies — witness the removal of Julia Gillard as leader of the Australian Labour party (and prime minister) last June. Likewise, the power given to Canadian party leaders to decide the fate of every candidate or member is one that, to my knowledge, exists in no other parliamentary system.
The bill will go too far for some tastes, not far enough for others. For example, some might object to entrenching the powers of caucus in law, rather than leaving these to each party to decide — though, given the centrality of caucus as a parliamentary, and not just a party institution, this might equally be defended. Others might prefer that caucus were given the power, not just to remove leaders, but to elect them — though I suspect the preferences of caucus members, given their new powers, would be of huge, if not overwhelming importance in any alternate process.
Two more points are worth making. One, a point Chong himself stresses: this is not about the current prime minister, or any party leader. The bill is intended to alter how power is exercised in future Parliaments, not to settle scores within the existing one. To resolve any doubt, the bill would not take effect until after the next election.
Long shot though it is, this is the best chance for meaningful reform of Parliament we are likely to have for many years
Two, this does not by any means exhaust the list of reforms, large and small, our damaged parliamentary democracy requires, from electing committee chairs to changing the electoral system. But it is the key to all the others: until we crack the leaders’ lock on power, nothing else will flow. (Recall the all-party beat-up on MP Mark Warawa this spring, merely for asking to speak without clearance.) Indeed, the mere act of MPs passing such a bill, over the certain opposition of their leaders, would be something of a revolution in itself.
That’s leaders, plural. This is a challenge for members of all parties, not just the Conservatives. If the Reform Act is to have any hope of passing, MPs will have to learn to cooperate across party lines. They’re not used to doing that, and in any case will live in fear of the whips.
Some may even prefer the security of jumping to the leader’s tune to the responsibility of thinking and acting for themselves — or rather, for the people they are supposed to represent.
So they will need encouragement from members of the voting public. Long shot though it is, this is the best chance for meaningful reform of Parliament we are likely to have for many years. The question every MP should be obliged to answer between now and next spring, when the bill comes to a vote, is: will you support the Reform Act? And if not, why should we support you?