Michael Chong’s Reform Act
state of Parliamentary Democracy; what Mr. Chong’s bill does;
chances of passing; and Plans B and C
State of Parliament and Democracy
first job in politics was in the seventies working for an MP. No
one at the time thought we were living in a Golden Age of
Parliamentary Democracy. Commentators routinely referred to
Government backbenchers as Trained Seals. High levels of animosity
and partisanship existed. Television coverage of politics was
making Parliament less relevant. There were concerns about the
scrutiny of public expenditures. And power had slipped away from
Parliament and the Cabinet toward s the office of Prime Minister
Trudeau and his advisers.
just goes to show that as soon as you think things cannot get any
worse; they do! Three decades later, Parliament has slid further
down that slippery slope. Question Period is embarrassing.
Committees are less expert and more partisan. Scrutiny of both
legislation and expenditures is weaker. Political debate has been
reduced to a clash of robotic talking points.
Parliament has lost power, the trend recognized earlier has
progressed and much of that power has gravitated to the Prime
leaders equate control with survival. Politics is now twenty-four
seven; the campaign never stops; and the requirement to control the
‘message’ is paramount. That means MPs must fall in line,
starting from the Centre.
media universe encourages this conformity by providing a negative
jolt when party messages clash. Those Parliamentary leaders who
seek control, even those who covet it for their own purposes, have
evidentiary support for their brief.
the dirty little secret of Parliament is that it functions well -
not because Members of Parliament are independent-minded - but,
because most of the time, they are not! The novelist Anthony
Trollope captured the essential role of the backbencher over 150
strong-minded, thick-skinned, useful, ordinary member, either of the
Government or the Opposition, had been very easy to describe and had
required no imagination to conceive. The character reproduces
itself from generation to generation; and as it does so, become shorn
in a wonderful way of those little touches of humanity which would be
destructive of its purpose. Now and again there
comes burst of human nature…but as a rule, the men submit
themselves to be shaped and fashioned, and to be formed into tools,
which are used either for building up or tearing down, and can
generally bear to be changed from this box into the other, without
the appearance of much personal suffering. These are the men
who are publicly useful, and whom the necessities of the age
supply. I have never ceased to wonder that stones of such
strong caliber should be so quickly worn down to the shape and
smoothness of rounded pebbles."
as we mostly think of it, was an invention of the 18th
century British upper class whose democratic sensibilities were quite
limited. Over time, Parliamentary Government has turned out to be a
highly exportable, adaptive instrument that can accommodate
in retrospect, Parliament’s ability to stay at the centre of
political power was tied to a more limited role for government and
the dominance of print media. As government grew and television
began to rule, Parliament was pushed from the Center Ring and became
a side-show attraction. That power breach was filled by the
executive, party functionaries, and most noticeably, the Prime
are a couple of issues with this:
Canada is under one party rule, power is highly concentrated and
arguably democracy is stunted. That, at least, is the case Stephen
Harper and Tom Flanagan presented in an article co-written in the
late nineties: “Although we like to think of ourselves as
living in a mature democracy, we live, instead, in something little
better than a benign dictatorship.” This argument was aimed at
the Chretien Government but the circumstances are not materially
House of Commons is the central institution of our democracy. If it
is not working, we do not have a fall-back plan or another
institution to move into the breach. We lack US-style checks and
balances. If Parliament is a less democratic institution; then
Canada is a less democratic country.
question Canadian MPs have to determine is how far are they willing
to let things slip before Parliament becomes too much of a shell?
that bring us to Conservative Backbencher Michael Chong’s Reform
Chong is not trying to fix all Parliaments’ problems but he is
trying to shift some power from the Prime Minster and other
Parliamentary leaders back to Members of Parliaments. He essentially
does this by:
a mechanism for a Parliamentary caucus to review and then remove
their leader by a secret vote;
the power of Parliamentary leaders to expel or re-instate Members of
caucus and place those powers in the caucus itself via majority
the power of Parliamentary leaders to override the nomination of a
candidate that has been properly nominated by their local
Chong has introduced it as a private members bill which is supposed
to be subject to a free vote of MPs some months from now. Presumably
the bill could also be amended based on consultations.
what would it do?
done to make choosing our party leaders more democratic has moved
them away from close accountability. At our country’s inception,
accountability was direct. The caucus hired and fired the leaders.
Caucus members were often well-off independent people who funded and
ran their own campaigns. They had some natural independence from
their leaders. In the twenties, parties moved to a
delegate-selection process which allowed all party members to vote
for delegates who would select the leaders. The MPs still retained
some power since they often picked the delegates. But, politics was
also moving into the era of true national campaigns. The leader
mattered more to the outcome. More recently, we have moved to an
all-party member vote and presumably soon the twitter-verse will be
included. MPs are just another vote. The leader is elected and the
voters go home. The leader and his staff run the national campaigns.
Local candidates matter less and their “messages” are mostly
dictated by the national campaign.
we have mechanisms for choosing leaders but not one that holds them
to any effective accountability.
most forms of organization – business, military, non-profits, and
unions – accountability is not effective unless it is up close. It
has to be one on one. A vote every four years has very little to do
Chong’s bill would make accountability retro and close. Party
members would continue to select the leaders and leaders would be
subject to periodic review of the party. But, in the interim, caucus
members could force a leadership vote with 15% of the members and
depose a leader with 50 + 1% of the caucus. An interim leader would
be selected and the party would be into a leadership contest.
caucus members already have the power to depose their leaders but
because there is no clear road-map, it is a nuclear option with a
high risk of tearing the caucus and party apart. Mr. Chong is trying
to provide a clear road-map with the ground rules understood by all.
MPs are given such a tool, we should assume they would use it from
time to time.
outcome will not always be optimal. It could polarize party politics.
A small minority could shift the agenda. Leaders may find
themselves under siege in their own party. The system could stall.
the incentives against actually initiating such a challenge would be
Ministers would retain most of the levers of power. They can appoint
Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries. They can choose when
to introduce a policy or a bill. They have the expertise of the
Public Service at their beck and call. They can choose when to call
an election in a minority Parliament.
usually takes more heads then just that of the king. Parties that
depose their leaders are, by definition, more divided and less likely
to win elections. Australian Labour provides a recent illustration.
When the UK Conservatives deposed Margaret Thatcher they won another
term but then the party deflated like a souffle due to the internal
divisions set in motion.
people, who dislike each other, will hang together if it is in their
mutual interest. MPs will still want to get elected and have their
parties be successful.
Chong’s bill would shift some accountability back to the people who
see the leader and work with him or her most days. That gives MPs
more power but also more responsibility. The redistribution of power
is not just a function of removing the leader but of having both
sides know you can. When a party leader entered the caucus room, he
or she would know that these people can fire me and caucus members
would be thinking the same thing. It would be hoped that leaders
would be less arbitrary and more conciliatory and that the caucus
members more independent.
choice of expelling or resisting caucus members would move from the
leader to the MP’s peers in caucus. If a jury systems works for
our legal system, there is little reason to think it cannot work for
Parliamentary parties. Leaders would still get their way in most
local constituency associations’ independence in selecting their
candidates is internally consistent with the philosophy of the rest
of the bill but there will be push-back. Parties like control over
who runs under their banner. There will be concern about single-issue
candidates or more extremist candidates securing nominations and
hurting the parties’ electoral prospects.
one hand, it can be argued that single- issue or more extremist
candidates should be in Parliament if they win enough votes? One
group’s ‘wacko’ candidate can be another group’s democratic
champion. And since there are plenty of wacko voters, shouldn’t
they be represented in Parliament?
the other hand, it is hard to see parties taking such a ‘carte
blanche’ approach to the selection of candidates. Electoral
success is always a higher goal for any party running for office.
But, with a little imagination, parties could find ways to manage
their selection process without requiring a signature from their
Chong’s bill could potentially create more instability in Canadian
party politics. But, Parliament was not created to just serve party
politics and their leaders. A little mess from time to time may be
preferable to reducing our choice to who is awarded autocratic power
every four years.
Chong’s bill has received much favorable press. It is a simple but
substantive bill that cuts to the heart of the matter with respect to
the power relationship between the Prime Minister’s office and
Parliamentarians. The Senate Expenses scandal has pointed out the
flaws of concentrated power in the PMO when matters go awry.
Chong needs most of the Opposition members to support his bill and
enough Conservative backbenchers. Some MPs will want to support Mr.
Chong’s bill but amend the details. Some will want more control
over nominations; others may want a higher cut-off than 15% to
precipitate a divisive leadership challenge. So Mr. Chong will need
to come up with a version of the bill that allows those who want to
support it to do so. He has a few months to line up that support.
Leaders do not give up power easily. Even Opposition leaders will
view this bill with some unease. We can expect a concerted effort
by party loyalists to stop or gut the bill in Committee.
trick for Mr. Chong is to get the bill though Committee and
Parliament with enough of the bill’s substance remaining. He will
have to run a prolonged obstacle course.
Mr. Chong is not successful this time, there is a logical Plan B
but it requires taking the longer view. It involves putting Mr.
Chong’s approach on a loop.
Members of Parliament want more power over their leaders; they will
not get it by begging for it. They have to take it! And that means
using the existing rules of Parliament. That requires time and
concerted effort. It took William Wilberforce multiple attempts over
decades before the British House of Commons abolished slavery.
Chong has the right strategy which is the use of Private Members
Bills. Rule changes made in the in the dying days of the Martin
regime provide a logical path. With each new Parliament, there is a
lottery and MPs’ standing in the lottery ranked. Those low enough
on the lottery list are guaranteed that their private member’s bill
will be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Mr. Chong’s
bill will be debated in the New Year because of his standing in the
Mr. Chong’s bill is not successful, then a bi-partisan group of
like-minded MPs could choose one amongst them with good placement in
the lottery to re-introduce the bill. By using this tag-team
strategy, reform-minded MPs can keep the legislation continuously in
front of the House while they build support inside and outside the
Commons for passage.
the executive will overreach in a spectacular and embarrassing
fashion. The y, by their actions, will provide the compelling
arguments for curbs on their powers. At that time, a bill or bills
already sitting on the Order Paper can win enough support to pass.
It may happen with this Government or the next one or the one after
back bench MPs truly want more power, then they have to build
support, be persistent, be prepared and wait for the stars to align
in their favor. But, maintaining a reform movement from Parliament
to Parliament is no easy task. As MPs retire or are retired by the
voters, they are replaced by new MPs who are initially less inclined
to rock the boat. And many newer MPs are recruited from the political
class itself. As political lifers, they have a stronger vested
interest in party loyalty and less natural independence.
I circulated this article to some feedback, a friend, who knows more
about party and constitutional matters, suggested that there was a
Plan C available. Technology now exists to make party
leadership reviews more frequent and any party could amend their
constitution to make them annual or semi-annual events. Such an
approach would bring more direct accountability but also more
instability. Alternatively, party members could amend their
constitutions to specifically empower their MPs to represent them in
caucus and exercise the powers that Mr. Chong is trying to achieve
via Private Member’s legislation. Since there are already clear
procedures to amend party constitutions, this path can be taken to
achieve much the same result. Progress could only be made on a
party-by-party basis but the assumption would be that Parliament can
be made more democratic by making the parties themselves more
is also possible that those interested in reform could follow both
routes since they are mutually self-supporting and re-enforcing.
Parliament has lost ground over the decades, there are identifiable
strategies to wrest some power back from the Centre. But, it will
not happen without sustained effort and commitment. That is the real
the public seems largely indifferent to the issue. They are too busy
tuning out Parliament to think of reforming it!