At the Manning conference Friday afternoon, Conservative MP Michael Chong and former government whip Jay Hill were set against each other to debate Mr. Chong’s Reform Act. Mr. Chong hinted at a possible amendment after the primary speeches (more on that below), but here for the sake of discussion is most of Mr. Hill’s remarks.
Let’s begin with the reform that has drawn the most media attention and is undoubtedly the most controversial, even though, as Michael said, it’s in use in our sister parliaments—giving the caucus the power to fire their leader and replace him or her with an interim leader. Let me state here and now that if there is anyone, with the possible exception of my best friend Chuck Strahl, if there’s anyone who has reason to support a reform like this it would be me. And the reason I have a fair amount of sympathy for this particular suggested change is my personal involvement in what proved to be a very messy and a very public insurrection against my then leader in 2001. Now under our current system, before MPs, who quickly become branded by their former colleagues and the media as dissidents, ever go public expressing their opinion that for the good of their party their leader needs to step down, they need to understand the potential consequenes of their action. In all likelihood, the rebellion will result in the end of their political careers, irreversible damage to the many close friendships and possibly the end of their party’s very existence. In other words, it’s not a decision that is taken lightly.
Now, having said that, I still have concerns with the caucus being given the legal means to overthrow the leader quietly behind closed doors. The leader’s elected by the membership of the party, either by a countrywide vote of members or at a delegated convention, either way it is not a few elected MPs who decide the leader’s fate. And I note that this bill should appeal to Mr. Trudeau because the definition of caucus does not include senators.
I ask, is it an improvement for democracy to give a few dozen people to override the democratic franchise of potentially tens of thousands. And what of the thousands of grassroots members and constituents that didn’t elect an MP from that particular party? Won’t they be completely disenfranchised for they would have no voice or vote inside the caucus?
Perhaps a better, made-in-Canada solution would be a compromise, whereby a majority of caucus could trigger a leadership endorsement vote by the party membership at large. As it happens, I designed and obtained the support of our current prime minister for such a system to overcome the problem of open nominations in incumbent-held ridings during our minority government…
Next, removing the power of the leader to refuse or presumably to dismiss a candidate. Again, while this reform seems to make some sense in delivering greater independence to incumbent MPs and even candidates who may never be successful, I have serious reservations about taking this legislated step. And I note that Michael framed it in the sense that we’re giving power back to the people, but here’s my concerns.
First, we have all witnessed situations where incumbent MP chooses not to seek re-election. I would suggest that far too often, a former EDA president or some other party stalwart has the inside track sewn up to win the nomination. Instead of the riding conducting an exhaustive search for the best possible candidate, often out of misplaced loyalty, a majority of the membership in that riding simply give their support to the most familiar face. A leader can, and often does, insist on a more robust nomination process.
Secondly, what happens when some wingnut wins the nomination. And it’s happened, with all parties, and often comes to light at the most inappropriate moment like the midpoint of a campaign. Even when the riding membership wants to forgive their candidate, give him or her the benefit of the doubt and continue to stand by them, is it fair to the thousands of members, supporters and volunteers across the country that one candidate in one riding is possibly destroying their opportunity for electoral success and the leader can’t do anything about it. Under our current system, there is always the chance that a constituency with a weak membership can be effectively taken over by a motivated, special-interest or single-issue group. However, there remains the safeguard of the leader’s rejection if the selected candidate strays too far from the party’s policies. Under C-559, this ultimate protection would cease to exist. And I would argue that the leader is given the mandate from the membership, nationwide, to ensure the best possible chance to win. And therefore, he or she should ultimately have the final say about who is on his or her team. It has been my experience, over many, many years, that leaders exercise this authority very rarely, and usually only following considerable consultation and reflection. But sometimes they must act quickly to try to salvage the campaign.
Under Bill C-559, this task would presumably fall to the described nomination officer in that particular riding. But can we, I ask, can we foresee the situation where that elected nomination officer is a close personal friend of the candidate, or perhaps his brother Doug. Just saying. What would be the likelihood that that person would fire the candidate? Which unfortunately has proven to be necessary sometimes.
Next, the expulsion and the readmission of MPs from or to caucus. Under Michael’s proposed legislation, like the removal of the leader and election of an interim leader, the expulsion of an MP from caucus and their possible reinstatement could only be triggered by a written notice of 15% or more of the caucus members, supported by a majority secret ballot vote of all MPs that were present. As the longest suffering, or serving, whip, I have some concerns about this as well. I have considerable experience as both whip and House leader, under four parliamentary parties or entities … both as official opposition and government. And I can attest, ladies and gentlemen, to the countless hours spent working with, beseeching, cajoling, admonishing, threatening and punishing colleagues to try to ensure that they remain part of our team. I’m proud of the fact that under my tenure, the ultimate sanction didn’t have to be used very often. In fact, I would argue expulsion from caucus happens rarely under extreme circumstances, and normally only after all other possible options have been exhausted …
I’ve had the pleasure to work very closely with my parties and leader. I would say the honour. And I can tell you I have the utmost respect and admiration and sympathy for anyone in any party who takes on that mantle. I’ve often remarked that as whip, 95% of my time was spent with the 5% of caucus colleagues that were the problem MPs, the renegades, the malcontents, those that all too often are predictably offside with the vast majority of caucus. Those who constantly seem to actually enjoy opposing their own leadership and the media attention and notoriety that comes with the role of a rebel. One of my regrets that I got to know these individuals very well as they wore out the carpet in and out of my whip’s office, but I seldom had the chance to get to know the 95% of caucus that worked hard, day after day, and were such great team players. And I know, without exception, the leaders that I worked for felt the same way.
Like the situation for removal of a candidate, I would argue that there simply isn’t time for the caucus to debate, meditate, regurgitate, petition, move motions and ultimately vote on whether a colleague should be expelled or readmitted to caucus. In however long that process would take, the media and the opposition would have a field day painting that particular leader as indecisive and weak. And in the end, if the caucus overruled the leader or the leadership, the public perception could be irreparable. Speaking from considerable experience, I can tell you how difficult it would be to stand before the caucus and single out a colleague to explain in detail the hours and hours of negotiations that went on before the reluctant decision to withdraw his or her membership in the caucus and in far too many cases that are extenuating circumstances that no one wants to see made public, and believe me, the process that Michael is advocating in his bill would not remain quietly behind the caucus doors.
Finally, the election of the caucus chairman. I don’t have strong concerns about this particular reform in C-559…
Mr. Hill concluded with thoughts on statements by members (he think they’ve become too partisan, though his proposed reform of having statements cleared by a committee of MPs seems, to me, to be a problematic idea), the opposition parties (he thinks our democracy would benefit from more proposition, in addition to opposition) and the media (he thinks we’re too quick to be critical of politicians and get stories wrong). In sum, he worries that politics has become too nasty and partisan.
We went over some of the concerns around nominations here and I spoke with Michael Chong about it here—the British system for riding nominations might be a useful reference point. Michael Chong argues that there’d be no more problem candidates under a new system than there are now. He also floated a possible amendment to the Reform Act: giving the final sign-off on a candidate’s nomination not to a nomination officer from each riding, but to a provincial nomination officer who would be elected by a vote of each province’s riding association presidents.