These are not the reforms you are looking for

Recently, Michael Chong’s revised private member’s bill was tabled in Parliament and it calls for significant changes to how parliamentarians do their work within their caucuses. I was watching the animated cartoon Clone Wars with my kids and kept thinking of Alec Guinness’ famous line Episode IV in the Star Wars saga; “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”.

I feel the same way about Chong’s Bill C-586, an Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act, referred to as the Reform Act. These are not the reforms I am looking for.

Quite a bit has been written on Michael Chong’s bill, its intent, the perceived shortfalls it aims to address here, here and here.

I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Chong speak at the Manning Centre in Calgary and he made some fine points about parliamentary democracy. He mentioned some of the work he has done trying to change the way Question Period is conducted and he explained quite well some of the emerging gaps in parliamentary democracy in general. At the time, I agreed with him on the needed reforms for Question Period, as a former staff member for a federal cabinet minister and a backbench member of parliament, I know where the shortcomings exist. I disagreed with him on the wisdom of the other reforms as he proposed them with the first version of the bill and continue to disagree with him today on the 2nd edition embodied in C-586.

I want to address the different parts of the Act, as it stands, and offer up some areas where further reforms would be beneficial. There are really two parts to the Bill, caucus reforms and the candidate selection process.

 

Caucus Reforms

Bill C-586 would change the way MPs conduct business within their political team in Parliament, also called their caucus. All conservative MPs sit in their own caucus, as do the New Democrats, the Liberals, the Bloc Quebecois and the Greens. Typically you must run as a candidate for a political party, then win, to be permitted into that caucus. Occasionally, members may cross the floor from one party to another, or from sitting as independents to a party caucus. Crossing the floor essentially means changing caucus.

The proposed new rules would make it possible for an MP in their caucus to expel another MP with the signed written notice of 20% of their caucus. It would then proceed to a vote by secret ballot. It would also set new rules for re-admission of previously expelled MPs. Caucus Chairs would be elected by secret ballot. Most importantly, the bill would introduce a leadership review process that would require 20% of a caucus to provide written notice to vote by secret ballot whether the leader of the caucus should be removed. The notion is that MPs do not have the power to remove their leaders currently and this would improve the responsiveness of the leadership to the backbenches.

I disagree.

MPs have always had the ability to remove their leaders. And it has been done repeatedly, both in Parliament and in provincial legislatures. In Alberta alone, Premier Stelmach stepped down in early 2011 and Premier Redford stepped down earlier this year when emerging caucus revolts threatened to become full blown mutinies. Dissatisfaction with their political leadership led elected members to question leadership decisions publicly, refuse to comply with leadership requests and eventually to call for a leadership review. Caucus revolts are never pretty and they usually stew over weeks and months. Poor leadership or poorly executed governance tasks can fray the confidence a caucus holds in its leadership and eventually the pressure exerted by constituents, falling polling numbers and fear of losing in a pending election results in leaders losing their positions. But apart from Alberta, it happened to Stockwell Day as leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2001. In mid-2007, Parti Québécois leader, André Boisclair had to step down after a poor election showing as well as pressure from outside and inside his caucus. The list goes on across Canada; Premier Dunderdale in Newfoundland & Labrador as well as Premier Campbell in British Columbia, both stepped down when polling numbers were dipping and their caucuses increasingly disgruntled.

There are countless examples in Canadian history of political leaders stepping down when a caucus is unhappy with their performance. Typically, leaders resign after an election where the outcome did not match the expectation. Rarely is there an internal party rule that requires that resignation. Often there is an internal party mechanism that calls for a leadership review at a party member convention.

MPs have always had the power and ability to remove a leader, but it comes at a cost. Most political leaders nowadays are also chosen by popular vote in political conventions instead of delegate conventions. Today, MPs have the ability to remove a leader that is underperforming and you do not need C-586 to remind them of that fact. Making into law instead of a party rule or party convention would beg the question; what would happen when this new rule were not followed? Could you sue in Court to overturn the results? What if the process for voting was deemed unfair by some, could they go to court as well? Could a deposed leader seek an injunction until the leadership vote could be confirmed?

Leaders of political parties in Canada lead only with the consent of their caucus members. Caucus leadership is a highly consensual form of leadership. You can maintain the confidence of your own members in any number of ways, some less savoury than others, but in the end, MPs consent to the leadership they have. Individual MPs may chafe at their political leadership for any number of reasons, but as you can see from the above mentioned examples; there is no shortage of former leaders who were removed by a caucus withdrawing its consent to lead them. It is usually not a unanimous decision, nothing in politics is, but it has happened repeatedly in our recent political history.

On the expulsion of MPs from their caucus, I believe these types of rules should be part of a party’s constitution and not in legislation. Each party has a different political culture and different way of dealing with its elected representatives. Party members set those rules and that is at it should be. We should only introduce legislation where no other method exists to remedy a problem. The Conservative Party of Canada has policy conventions along with constitutional workshops where these rules can be introduced and amended. We do not need legislation to tell us or any other political party how to run caucus business.

 

Candidate Selection Process

The second major reform introduced by C-586 would be to remove the ability of the party leader to approve the nomination papers of prospective candidates. In 1970, the Canada Elections Act was amended by the Liberals giving party leaders a veto over party candidates and their nominations. The proposal by Michael Chong is to create provincial nomination officers elected by secret ballot in each province by each registered party. Only the CEOs of the electoral district associations would be allowed to vote for this provincial nomination officer.

I see this as a compromise between the current veto power and the pre-1970 state of affairs. Some mechanism should exist as a last resort to prevent potentially problematic candidates to damage the reputation or electoral viability of a political party because one stray electoral district association. I believe this to be a fair compromise and removes the perception there could be unfair actions taken in the future. I cannot recall a time when  Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to sign the nomination papers of a duly elected nomination contestant. It speaks volume to his confidence in the grassroots of our party as well as the strength of the conservative movement in Canada.

 

So What’s Missing?

This bill focuses on two areas for democratic reform but in my opinion it misses the broader opportunities for reforming how the business of Parliament is conducted. None of the changes I am proposing herein need to be legislated; they need to be agreed to by the leaders of each caucus in Parliament.

One positive step would be to have committee chairs elected by the full-time members of their committees. I am unsure of how other political party’s select whom to place on various committees, but I remember that every conservative backbencher was asked for their top preferences in terms of committee assignment. Speaking as a former parliament staff member, there was an effort made to ensure at least 1 of the 2 committee assignments given were on that preference list. Obviously not every MP can get every committee they wish, but they are free to attend the meetings of other committees at their discretion.

Another positive step would be to adopt the United Kingdom’s model for Question Period whereby the sessions are longer, specific time is reserved for the Prime Minister only to answer questions, and government departments have assigned days for questioning.

Many of the rules I would like to see changed are best accomplished by amending the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. These are a set of rules that determine how parliamentarians do their business. It does not require legislative action.

In my view, Bill C-586 does not address the right issues.

I would vote against this bill.