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Michael Chong’s Reform Act

The state of Parliamentary Democracy; what Mr. Chong’s bill does; chances of passing; and Plans B and C

The State of Parliament and Democracy

  • My 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.

  • It 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.

  • If Parliament has lost power, the trend recognized earlier has progressed and much of that power has gravitated to the Prime Minister’s Office.

  • Political 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.

  • The 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.

  • And 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 years ago.

"The 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." 

  • Power has not been taken away from Members of Parliament. They have ceded power to their leaders because they link their personal ambitions to their party’s success.

Parliament, 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 democratic aspirations.

But, 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 Minister’s Office.

There are a couple of issues with this:

  • When 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 different today.

  • The 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.

The question Canadian MPs have to determine is how far are they willing to let things slip before Parliament becomes too much of a shell?

Reform Act 2013

And that bring us to Conservative Backbencher Michael Chong’s Reform Act.

Mr. 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:

  • Providing a mechanism for a Parliamentary caucus to review and then remove their leader by a secret vote;

  • Remove the power of Parliamentary leaders to expel or re-instate Members of caucus and place those powers in the caucus itself via majority vote; and

  • Remove the power of Parliamentary leaders to override the nomination of a candidate that has been properly nominated by their local constituency association.

Mr. 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.

So what would it do?

Everything 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.

So we have mechanisms for choosing leaders but not one that holds them to any effective accountability.

In 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 with that.

Mr. 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.

Arguably, 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.

If MPs are given such a tool, we should assume they would use it from time to time.

The 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.

But, the incentives against actually initiating such a challenge would be strong.

Prime 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.

Regicide 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.

Even 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.

Mr. 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.

The 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 instances.

Giving 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.

On 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?

On 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 leader.

Mr. 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.

Prospects of Passage

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

However, 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.

The 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.

Alternative Strategies

If 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.

If 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.

Mr. 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 lottery.

If 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.

Eventually, 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 that.

If 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.

The Party Route

When 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 democratic.

It is also possible that those interested in reform could follow both routes since they are mutually self-supporting and re-enforcing.

While 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 test!

Meanwhile, the public seems largely indifferent to the issue. They are too busy tuning out Parliament to think of reforming it!

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