Michael Chong, an unlikely revolutionary

How a private member’s bill may change the face of Parliament

by Aaron Wherry

Chris Wattie/Reuters

The revolution was tabled in the House of Commons at 10:07 a.m. on Tuesday morning. “Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I have the honour to present my bill, a bill that would strengthen the principle on which our democratic institutions in Canada were founded: the principle of responsible government,” Michael Chong, the Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Wellington—Halton Hills, explained, speaking simply and evenly. “Mr. Speaker, this bill is based on some very old ideas, ideas that people like Robert Baldwin and Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine . . . put forward that established the principles on which modern Canadian political institutions are based. These ideas have laid the foundations for this country, and I hope that this bill, if adopted, will strengthen those ideas and allow our Parliament to flourish in the 21st century.”

Formally known as “an Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms),” but succinctly dubbed the Reform Act, Chong’s private member’s bill could be the start of profound change—a serious first step in wresting power from the offices of party leaders, returning it to the MPs whom voters elect and reviving the House of Commons as a relevant forum for our politics. And, after a year of tumult, angst and concern for parliamentary institutions, it seems to arrive precisely when it—or at least a real debate about the state of the House of Commons—is needed.

The Reform Act pursues change on several fronts. First, it would amend the Elections Act to remove the provision that requires the signature of the party leader for any individual seeking to run under a party’s banner. Second, it would specify that House of Commons caucus chairs must be elected, and would establish rules for how MPs can be expelled from, and readmitted to, caucus. Third, it would require that political parties allow for a caucus review of the party leader. The bill would come into force after the next election.

Each of those changes would seem to do the same thing: devolve power from the party leader and his or her office to the individual MP. And if you believe that what is choking the life out of Parliament is the hold on power that party leaders have attained, Chong’s bill would seem to be at least a step toward relief. “Since Confederation, numerous and gradual changes have eroded the power of the member of Parliament and centralized it in the party leadership structures,” Chong told reporters this week. “As a result, the ability of members of Parliament to carry out their function has been curtailed.”

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Chong’s emergence as a reformer has been coming for some time, even if it owes something to happenstance. He was first elected in 2004 and, when the Conservatives formed government in 2006, Chong was named the minister of intergovernmental affairs. His cabinet career lasted just 10 months. On Nov. 27, 2006, Chong announced he was resigning as minister because he could not support the Prime Minister’s motion that the Québécois formed a nation within a united Canada.

What Harper lost in cabinet material and Chong lost in ministerial salary, the House of Commons gained in an advocate for change.

A year after his resignation from cabinet, Chong, who co-founded the civic-minded Dominion Institute before entering politics, penned an essay for Canadian Parliamentary Review, a quarterly journal on the Westminster system, in which he lamented the state of question period and the amount of control that party leaders and ministers exercise over MPs and debate. “Parliament is a living institution whose permanence is not assured; it is not indestructible,” he warned. “We must be careful not to ignore it and its problems, for one day, the dam of irrelevance and frustration that Canadians feel about this institution may burst. At that juncture, one can only guess what the outcome will be.”

Eighteen months later, Chong stepped forward with a motion calling for a House committee to study several reforms of question period. Within that motion was a small measure of new freedom for backbenchers. Under the current system, it is the parties who inform the Speaker which MPs will be rising to ask a question. Under Chong’s plan, half the questions each day would have been allocated for “members, whose names and order of recognition would be randomly selected.” (Chong’s motion passed at second reading—with support from Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats—but a study of his proposals was not completed before the 2011 election and nothing more has come of his suggestions.)

Events in the House over the last two years have perfectly set the stage for something like Chong’s new bill. The Conservative government has continued to introduce and pass omnibus budget bills. In March, Conservative MP Mark Warawa had his right to make a statement in the House blocked, prompting a number of Conservative backbenchers to speak out in support of him. In June, Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber quit the Conservative caucus after his private member’s bill on public service salary disclosure was overhauled by other Conservative MPs—Rathgeber believing that the Conservative leadership had engineered the changes. Last month, as part of its investigation of the deal between Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright, the RCMP released emails that suggested the Prime Minister’s Office had directed edits of a Senate committee report on Duffy.

Now comes Chong’s bill. The timing is mostly coincidental. In the lottery at the start of each new Parliament that determines in what order MPs will be able to table private members’ bills, Chong drew No. 123. His turn was approaching and he needed to put something on the table. The Conservative MP says he maintains confidence in the Prime Minister and that this is not about Stephen Harper.

Chong describes his proposals as “foundational,” and there will likely be a lively debate about the bill’s implications for parties, Parliament and the political system. In theory, the “rebalancing” that Chong seeks could free MPs to think and act more independently, and that could reinvigorate the proceedings of the House—leading to the sorts of free votes, unpredictable debates and unhindered committee investigations that seem to have been replaced by the mostly rote proceedings of the current Commons. It could bring new significance to the individual MP—a creature that is too easily ignored in the current situation. “These are important changes that I truly believe will restore Canadians’ faith in their Parliament,” Chong says, “and also will reconnect that Parliament much more closely to local constituencies.”

At the very least, it might force both Canadians and their parliamentarians to confront serious questions about the state of the House of Commons and what, if anything, must be done to return it to first principles.




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Michael Chong, an unlikely revolutionary

  1. Great piece AW, one of your best!

  2. http://o.canada.com/news/if-the-reform-act-can-be-faulted-it-is-for-leaving-the-means-of-picking-a-leader-to-the-parties-to-decide/

    Coyne raises another problem with the bill; which is decent of him since he is one of those leading the charge.
    I think an absolute ban on the party leader signing nomination papers isn’t likely practical either. But, hey, if the caucus is going to muscle up, maybe the leader doesn’t need any kind of veto?
    Comes down to, is it more democratic to have the nut-bars, er dissenters toward collective rationality, inside the tent where a grumpy caucus could theoretically sit on them, or toss them out. Or head them off at the pass before they get a chance to get in.But when you look at the likes of Anders and Toews, they already are/were in.

    • good points both ways

    • Then there is the wannabees. My spouse tried running a riding for a lower tier party. We kept getting people showing up wanting to run for the party without buying in to the party principles. They really didn’t care. Becoming a politician was all that mattered. One of these rejects ended up as an East York Councillor.

      • Yeah well that is probably increasingly the way politics is likely to go, the lines increasingly blurred between celebrity and serious politician.
        Although i imagine being in it for a good addition to your personal cv has always been a part of municipal politics.

  3. The interesting point is that Canada is alone within countries with the British parliamentary system to have so much power concentrated in the Prime Minister and the PMO. Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand all have systems such as proposed by Chong. No other country on earth has a Prime Minister that has a PMO with more than 100 people controlling every government decision and action. So, we are unique in this regard.
    And I doubt that anything will change. The fact is that in Canada most people vote for the party leader whom they want to be PM rather than for the local party representative. Most people don’t even know who the party member is when voting for the party because they vote for the leader. This is how so many NDP members were elected in Quebec during the last election. So, whether Chong’s proposal is good or bad in our particular Canadian system is hard to say.

    • Huh? Since when? Cameron’s back benchers are up in arms because he is pulling the party left with his coalition with Nick Clegg. All Parliamentary systems endow the PM with such powers. In fact, that’s the way supra national institutions like it. It is much easier to get one person to sign off on a policy than several. The EU’s biggest complaint with the trade agreement with Canada was our provincial parliaments. They want one person to go to. The UN’s special rapporteur on Food Security was annoyed that there wasn’t a similar office in Canada. He didn’t want to deal with a number of provincial governments.

      • Who cares about what EU wants. The fact is that the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who for a while was much more powerful than Cameron is, was unceremoniously removed from her office by her caucus. This could never happen for Harper in Canada. Cameron has no PMO with a staff of over 100 accountable to him personally. With regard to our provinces, it is lucky for us that they have so much power, otherwise we would have no democracy in Canada.

  4. This is a year that has tested a lot of faith in political systems. Torontonians just learned about necessary mayoral reforms and the reality of facing a year with a broken system and a delusional mayor. Chong is asking the House to discuss reform. Don’t stop.
    Can we also bring the question about Senate reform or dissolution to the table? How about [1] get rid of it or [2] reduce the terms of office to 5 years? Don’t know of any jobs for life ~ except monarchs, and at least they seem to do some work, like showing up.

  5. Good points, but maybe people would follow their local candidates a little more closely if they knew that when they get to Ottawa they would still know who they voted for, instead of their candidate turning into just another yes man who doesn’t in any way resemble the person you voted for. People might put a little more emphasis on their local candidate and maybe a little less for the leader. That would be a good thing.

  6. We are about to find out just how big a hypocrite Harper really is.

  7. he’s on the right track…..

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