Is the Reform Act enough? Or is it too much?

More considerations of Michael Chong’s proposals

by Aaron Wherry

Sean Holman, producer and director of a documentary on party discipline in British Columbia, wonders whether Michael Chong’s Reform Act would do enough to open up the debate.

As such, while I strongly support the intent of Chong’s bill, I worry that legislation may, at best, just entrench and empower the private debating clubs that are party caucuses — doing little to show Canadians that representation is being done.

And if representation isn’t seen to be done, how do we know it’s even taking place?

Jeff Jedras disagrees with the Reform Act’s moves to empower caucuses to dispatch leaders and he quibbles with removing the leader’s veto over party nominations, but he offers a few counter proposals.

Within the party system, it could be mandated that nominations for all ridings open on a pre-determined and publicly known date, with set deadlines flowing backward from that date for membership cutoff, approval as a nomination candidate, submission of nomination papers, and so on. In combination with the removal of the leader veto with the creation of the nomination officer as envisioned by Chong, and a transparent process for approval as a candidate, this would remove the ability of the party leadership (as today) or the MP or possible candidate that controls the riding association (as under Chong’s proposal) to manipulate the process for a favoured candidate. Everyone would have a level playing-field under which to contest the nomination.

If we want to think bigger, we could move to an Elections Canada-run primary system for nomination races, where every resident of the riding has the option to register as a supporter of a party and vote in only one nomination race, which could all happen at the same time on a pre-determined and known timeline similar to that outlined above, but ran by Elections Canada to ensure transparency and fairness. My concern with this scenario is the dilution of the privileges of party membership, similar to the concerns I expressed when the Liberals debated the issue in the leadership selection context in 2012…

… As far as I’d be willing to consider going towards what Chong proposes is to allow a majority vote of caucus to trigger a leadership endorsement vote by the membership of the party. If the leader is endorsed, the leader stays on. If the leader is not endorsed, a leadership race is triggered. 

I’m not entirely convinced that there is anything fundamentally wrong with giving caucus the power to dispatch its leader. I suspect, in practice, it would be rare to see a leader who had overwhelming support within the party membership booted by the party caucus and the caucus is not typically going to be interested in frivolously plunging their own party into conflict—ultimately it will always be in the best interests of the caucus to see the larger party performing well. At the same time, I think there’s something to be said for giving the caucus some power it can hold over the leader. But admittedly I come at these questions from a perspective very focused on Parliament and working through that institution. I’ve never been a member of a political party and never participated in any kind of campaign. Jeff’s proposal in this regard does seem to offer the potential for a decent compromise.

Sean gets at something that is probably harder to manufacture: moving the debate from behind closed doors to the open forum of the legislature. Possibly you can only hope to free up MPs as much as possible and then hope that that freedom leads to a less tightly guarded discussion.

Meanwhile, Chris Selley says for the Reform Act to be coherent parties would need to move away from electing their leaders through votes of the membership, but that ultimately this is about the individuals that the Reform Act is supposed to help.

But I think this situation simply reinforces my original conclusion: This isn’t about rules, or the lack of them. It’s about people. Leaders selected by caucus or by members; formal procedures for defenestrating leaders or none; leader signoff on candidates required or not. Demonstrably, a parliamentary democracy can function perfectly well, or it can flounder, under any combination of the foregoing.

But it cannot survive the collective refusal of its elected members to perform their proper functions. I doubt any law can convince them to do so, or meaningfully remedy Parliament’s problems if they persist in their ovine timidity; and I see no reason at all why any party should be forced to adopt these procedures at the will of Parliament as a whole. If Mr. Chong thinks these are such great ideas, he should be trying to sell them to his party.

I think I tend to take the view that, while waiting around for the culture to change, we might fiddle with the rules that govern that culture to see if that helps.

See previously: Let the Reform Act debate beginWhat if the Reform Act is a bad idea?Thirty questions to ask before proceeding with the Reform ActThe Reform Act and our parliamentary democracy on trialWhat would Michael Chong’s Reform Act mean for riding nominations?Explaining and debating the Reform Act, The Reform Act: Who is saying what and Are we better off without the Reform Act?




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Is the Reform Act enough? Or is it too much?

  1. In my opinion, as a mostly-observer who does hold a membership card to a political party, giving the caucus power to have a leadership review rather than boot the leader is precisely the sort of thing we shouldn’t have. That gives the power to determine confidence to people not in Parliament, which is exactly the problem we have now.

    • I think you might be wrong. From Chong’s backgrounder to accompany the bill:

      “When a majority of caucus members vote in favour of a leadership review, a second vote by secret ballot occurs immediately to select a person to serve
      as the interim party leader until a new leader has been elected.”

      That reads to me that the leader is well and fully booted. Of course, the party membership can return the same individual, but that seems like a bridge to cross when reached.

  2. Holman’s conclusion – that Chong’s bill will entrench the secrecy of caucus deliberations – doesn’t seem all that well supported by his preceding discussion, to me. If anything, I’d argue it would create an environment where MPs would have greater freedom to express their particular viewpoints on issues. Case in point: Kenney and McKay have enough “capital” in the Conservative caucus that they were able to go on record with support for Nigel Wright at the recent convention. Chong’s bill, it seems to me, would extend a bit more of that capital to all MPs.

    He also seems to suggest that the power of MPs to kick peers out of caucus would engender self-censorship. I’m willing to hear that argument expanded upon, but I just don’t see the inherent logic of that assertion.

    • Wrt self-censorship, I’m sure that Chong’s reforms will lead to some level of self-censorship. But the current situation also imparts some level of self-censorship on MPs, so the real question is “Will Chong’s reforms lead to more self-censorship than the current situation?”

      Since the current level of self-censorship is near complete, it is hard for me to see how Chong’s reforms could exceed that.

      • Very good question Sean – and thanks for the opportunity to provide some clarification. Let me ask these two questions in response: if caucuses are able to have more fulsome internal debates thanks to Chong’s legislation, might that not increase party discipline? If MPs feel their voices have been heard internally, will they feel less desire to express their individual opinions externally?

        • Thanks for replying!

          First, there will always be some degree of pressure to present a unified party front outside of caucus for reasons of self-preservation and acknowledgement that the voters include party ideologies in their ballot decisions. But currently, an MP risks the wrath of the leader (removal from caucus, blocked nomination) for speaking outside (and presumably too radically inside) caucus meetings. Chong’s bill would lessen the role of the leader in this respect (but not eliminate it – the power to promote and demote from cabinet, committee placements, etc., remains).

          If this creates something of a control vacuum, your first question suggests that freer debate within caucus might serve to fill that vacuum, and then some. I don’t get how that would follow. For starters, corridor talk abounds around parliament and members with “extreme” ideas already get an idea as to how their caucus peers react (i.e., the mechanism already exists). Second, the very notion of multiple viewpoints having greater license of expression would tend to downplay the impression of absolute ideological solidarity that a leader-led session might. There’s every chance the party’s approach could be modified by the expression of independent ideas too.

          The only real power gained by caucus mates over their peers is that of ejection. But that requires a majority vote, and is arguably a “nuclear” option that would rarely be employed. I suppose that might serve to hobble MPs who are radically out of line with party ideology. But given the requirement for a plurality to make it happen, it’s arguably less a force of censorship than the whim of the leader alone.

          Your second question suggests that if MPs are able to express themselves within caucus more freely, then they will lose the impetus to speak out in public. You specify “individual opinions”, which in some cases I agree is the cause of disagreement with party dogma. But you’re overlooking the relationship between an MP and her or his constituents, and that riding concerns and issues can also drive disagreement. If Chong’s bill passes, voters will be less inclined to give their representatives a pass on remaining silent or voting against local interests, since the tacit understanding that the party leader must be heeded wlll be absent. MPs will be liberated in many ways, as they could then report back home that “while the party has decided X in this case, I respectfully disagree and maintain that Y is the best course of action.” All without having to worry about the leader clipping his or her wings. (Politically savvy MPs would likely use the new freedom to have their cake and eat it too in that respect, but voters can decide for themselves).

          But if an MP finds herself in profound disagreement with an important matter of principle – either for personal or representative reasons – I don’t think you’ve explained why being heard in caucus would somehow placate that member. Neither being a member of Parliament nor caucus are platforms for therapy or feeling like one is heard. They are to represent ctiizens. So assuming an MP is fulfilling that role with diligence and honour, I don’t see how being heard in caucus would have any bearing upon more public platforms. From a pure standpoint of self-interest, it will benefit the re-election chances of incumbants to let their constituents know their representatives are not party sheep. Chong’s bill would enable that.

  3. Selley needs to think things through a bit more. He argues that if Chong’s proposals are so good, then he ought to sell them to his own party first. That position ignores the need for a level playing field in certain situations. In the same way that we would not expect a party to decline per vote subsidiies alone, certain changes need to be made across the board.

    Also, he – along with many others – forgets that parties are a) already regulated in a myriad of ways, and b) are not organic expressions of collective voice: rather, they are democratic mechanisms that exist and are formed by the requirements and needs of our democracy. We can do whatever the hell we want with them.

  4. “But it cannot survive the collective refusal of its elected members to perform their proper functions. I doubt any law can convince them to do so, or meaningfully remedy Parliament’s problems if they persist in their ovine timidity; and I see no reason at all why any party should be forced to adopt these procedures at the will of Parliament as a whole.”

    Perhaps, rather than tinkering with legislation while retaining the present membership of the Commons, and its “ovine” mentality, we should be looking at ways to inject more spine into our representatives.

    Here is a thought – the present number of MPs is manageable by the parties. So, lets have more MPs, and increase the possibilities of dissension, like the British parliament. But, why not go further? Rather than increase the number of constituencies, reduce the number somewhat, but give each constituency 2 MPs!

    2MPS??? Yes. One male, and one female. So, with 250 constituencies, there would be 500 MPs, and a lot more women, and then see if the parties could wield the same absolute control they hold now. And hold on to your seats!

    • Terrific idea!

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