Michael Chong and the Revolution

The sketch: ‘Mr. Speaker, this bill is based on some very old ideas’

by Aaron Wherry

It was, it must be said, not much of a cri de coeur.

Shortly after 10am, during the time reserved for the introduction of private members’ business, the Speaker stood and informed the House of Commons that before it would now be tabled something to be considered. “Mr. Chong, seconded by Mr. Rajotte, moves for leave to introduce a bill entitled An Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms),” the Speaker explained. “This motion is deemed adopted.”

He then called on the honourable member for Wellington-Halton Hills.

“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,” explained Michael Chong, 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, a monument to whom is standing behind this Centre Block on Parliament Hill, ideas that they 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. Thank you very much.”

Mr. Chong did not then overturn his desk or set fire to the Prime Minister’s chair or throw a brick through one of the grand stained glass windows of the House of Commons. But here was revolution. Or something like it. Possibly. Eventually.

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The House of Commons proceeded with the rest of the day’s business. There was some debate and then a vote on limiting the amount of time for debate at report stage of the government’s latest omnibus budget bill. There was some perfunctory debate of said budget bill. Then there was Question Period.

Conceivably no one who stood and posed a query during those 45 minutes did so without the consent of their party leadership. Two Conservative MPs stood and asked ministers to expound on the obvious greatness of the government. The Conservative MP for the Yukon stood and raised the matter of the trial of the mayor of London, Ontario, an individual who happens to be a former Liberal cabinet minister. Most of the MPs in attendance sat around without any chance of contributing in any particular way beyond filling out a camera frame or clapping for a member of their own side.

Partway through these 45 minutes, the NDP’s Craig Scott stood and wondered if the Conservatives would allow a free vote on Mr. Chong’s bill. Pierre Poilievre, minister for democratic reform, would not respond to the question, but he would scold the official opposition.

“Mr. Speaker, they will actually have to come a day early to rehearse how to practise a free vote,” he chided. “The NDP never has free votes. In fact, The Globe and Mail did an extensive study behind the 62,000 votes cast in this place. It found that not a single member of the NDP cast a vote against its leader in almost a two-year period. One hundred per cent of the time, the New Democrats do group think over there. They are not capable of independent thought.”

Conversely, Mr. Poilievre would gush of his own side. “On this side,” he said, “we have the most free votes and we have had the most private member’s bills passed of any Parliament in 40 years.”

If we are to have an independent-thought measuring contest, the Conservatives might indeed win, but without much to brag about. The study to which Mr. Poilievre refers did indeed find that some Conservatives were most likely to break with the majority of their partisan allies. Several Conservatives, in fact, had voted the party line a mere 99% of the time. James Bezan, the king of all mavericks, had broken with his side on a robust 1.42% of the votes—a total of seven votes out of 565.

It is not quite true, for the record, that the NDP is not capable of independent thought. Over the survey period, John Rafferty managed to differentiate himself from his party on three occasions.

There is a reasonable and worthy and necessary discussion to be had about what those votes mean and amount to and how much independence exists within the bounds of those numbers and to what degree those numbers should be, in some more perfect world, somewhat different. Such is the sort of discussion we might already be having. And unto this discussion is Mr. Chong’s Reform Act tabled.

Some five years ago, one year removed from his resignation from cabinet, Mr. Chong penned a short essay for Canadian Parliamentary Review in which he lamented variously for the state of things.

“Parliament is a living institution who permanence is not assured. It is not indestructible,” he concluded. “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.”

Five years later, it would be difficult to argue that anything is much better. Probably most would agree that it is much worse. The metaphorical dam is metaphorically overflowing. And it is perhaps easier, at this point, to imagine Parliament slowly fading into complete irrelevance than ever being enlivened into the sort of grand forum befitting a modern nation of 35 million that, at least in theory, it is supposed to be.

Mark Warawa’s motion was blocked (unduly so, whichever party or parties is to blame) and he was told he wasn’t allowed to speak and Brent Rathgeber quit the Conservative caucus after his bill was amended. The Prime Minister’s Office now stands accused of editing a Senate committee’s report. Omnibus budget bills continue to be tabled and passed. Time allocation has become something like standard operating procedure—its use at least worthy of a discussion about how the business of the House is managed and negotiated. The fall economic update is now presented to luncheon audiences far away from here. The idea that the Prime Minister and his ministers might see the House as their primary means for addressing the nation seems laughable. The government and the defence department dispute the parliamentary budget officer’s right to information. Three senators were, rather debatably, suspended from the upper chamber. The partisanship is rote and unrelenting. Discipline and control remain prized above almost all else.

The Reform Act would not fix everything. At least not immediately. It would not automatically make our politics nicer or prettier or smarter. Implementing its measures today would likely not result in profound, or even noticeable, change tomorrow. It might, if passed, eventually result in some new amount of chaos.

But there is something to be said for chaos.

We should not, no matter how dispiriting the present, too easily become enamoured of change. And total chaos is to be avoided. But something must change to enliven our politics. And in the Reform Act are the sort of changes that might begin to loosen the grip of that which has our House of Commons in a sleeperhold. In empowering the caucus, we might embolden the MP. In moving the nomination process beyond the easy reach of the party leader, we might compel party members and candidates to stand on their own.

Yes, on the latter most particularly, we might invite new controversies and complications. But maybe we—the party leaders, the political operatives, the proverbial boys in their proverbially short pants, the press gallery and the public—need to let go of the idea of control.

We might allow ourselves to dream, one way or another, of a democracy in which MPs might dare to break with the party line on as much as 3% of the possible votes. We might dare to imagine that some small smattering of MPs might have blogs and might use those blogs to convey thoughts that do not necessarily correspond with their assigned talking points. We might come to accept some amount of disagreement and differentiation as the natural result of democracy in a diverse and populace nation. We might hope that such things would make it harder to get omnibus budget bills through the House, would make it more likely to have a full accounting of the government’s spending of public funds and could bring other changes to the way things work—empowering parliamentary committees and independent MPs or placing limits on the government’s ability to prorogue or dissolve Parliament.

Our politics might become less rote—the debate more meaningful, the votes less predictable, the individual MP more relevant. The House of Commons might be blessed with something more like life. And the public might see in it something more worth engaging.

The Reform Act might be, if it is properly designed and can be properly implemented, the sort of thing that could eventually bring about all sorts of wonderful things. Or it could be a bad idea. Or it could be one of a number of measures that get us there.

But we might all agree on one thing right now: we are a long way from where we could be and where, whatever we each imagine, we want to be. That surely we could have a House and a politics that are both more than what we have.

The Reform Act, regardless of whether it is passed, maybe even regardless of whether it amounts to anything, might make us face that much. And it might start, without overturning any furniture, the real work and debate of getting to that better place. Then somehow we might have revolution through legislation.




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Michael Chong and the Revolution

  1. Aaron – does this stand a snowball’s chance in hell of passing?

    • Yes.

      • That’s what I feared. Maybe the relatively negligible level of commenting fury on these and other site’s boards is a poor proxy, but it’s not the worse measure of how little folks care.

      • One year ago I would have disagreed with you.

        But now we have the conditions for the perfect storm. Hurricane Chong will be one to watch.

    • You don’t need this kind of reform to change it at the top, that’s all you need are MPs with gonads and stand up to rogue PMs. I find it hypocritical for Mr Wong not to even refer to his own leader as an example as a rogue PM. Rogue PMs need a lesson in humility at times too.

      • And my definition of a a rogue PM, is a PM who walks all over our democratic institutions and has no respect for it.

      • You mean Mr. Chong? He’s working the long game here. Harper is a fact that cannot be erased (as was Chretien). No point in tilting at windmills.

        There has been something like 25 Conservative MPs meeting to discuss such changes. That’s “gonads”, by any estimation. And I’d note that unlike the Martinites, their fixation is not so much on gaining power.

        Mr. Chong walked away from a cabinet post on a point of principle, and even without naming Harper is clearly engaging in an act of speaking truth to power. There’s not been a whiff of suggestion that he stands to gain personally in terms of power or influence (beyond, one hopes, the esteem of his riding electorate. To call him hypocritical – particularly from the platform of anonymous internet sniping – says more about you than he, in my opinion.

        • Where are you getting this news of 25 cons that are willing to discuss these changes ? you know something that the MSM don’t know ? The problem is, these so called 25 your talking about right now don’t have faces or names attached to them either, so lets call them anonymous snipers too. So it renders one your previous comment useless. As far as me being an anonymous sniper, Sean don’t pass the smell test for not being an anonymous name either, so cool your jets my friend. The fact that Mr Chong has become a lighthouse keeper in the back row of Harpers mantel piece, since he REFUSED his appointment, knows he has to raise his profile more right now if he wants to be re elected, he needs to put his face out there, because an election is on the way in 2015, and he also seems to be getting lots of love from the media(inside the bubble) for this too. And finally, he has become totally irrelevant over the years in the back row, in the corner. This guy normally gets zero, and I mean 0 attention like the other 25 anonymous con MPs your talking about. Actually, all of Harpers ornaments on the mantel piece(MPs) are going to need to pump their image and numbers up soon with the state of the PMO scandal lately, because credibility and integrity in the PMO has developed into a cancer.

          • Presumably Sean is speaking about the meetings that have been reported among large numbers of members of the Tory caucus to discuss MP power and democratic reform since all the way back during the whole Warawa controversy. So, I think he’s discussing a long-standing group who apparently continue to meet today, not something new that just sprang up in relation to Chong’s bill specifically.

            I don’t remember “25″ actually, as I seem to remember reports of those meetings getting up around 40 attendees when they were discussing Warawa being prevented from making a members statement, but I’ll try to find a link to a report to confirm that.

            Also, FYI, here is a link to a site tracking public support for the bill among MPs. As of right now, they have 16 MPs marked as Yes votes (the majority being Tories, but with Thomas Mulcair, a couple of Liberals, and Elizabeth May also on the Yes list), 9 MPs listed as “Maybe” votes (including Justin Trudeau), and 0 MPs listed as “No” or “Leaning NO” votes.

            We’ll see how this goes, as it’ll undoubtedly be a free vote, but with the majority of the Bill’s current supporters being Tories, and both opposition leaders giving tepid to explicit support for the bill, it’s not like it would be crazy for this sort of thing to pass. Heck, there are conservative commenters around here who think that the PM will come out in favour of the bill.

      • I don’t expect Michael Chong to denigrate his boss; I don’t imagine they like him much and visa versa, but he’s being respectful and Parliamentarian — which is a good and rare thing, these days. To me, root canal, it’s a signal that harper’s goose is nearly done, and that in the long run, it was his own lack of loyalty, mean spiritedness, and disloyalty that is loosening his grip. And that’s all good to me. If someone like Chong ends up as leader of CPC, Canadians will be all the better for it. Harper — well, he’s good to go.

        • Well, who is Chong trying to denigrate, because we wouldn’t be talking about this if some leader didn’t step over the line. You just don’t come out of the blue and make adjustments to our democracy, unless someone has walked over it or screwed with it. Any independent running in the 2015 election, that wants to be re-elected needs lots of air time to get their name out, and what better way to do it, by making some kind of big splash that ends up being a media sensation. And the media loves it. people outside the bubble see things different than the people viewing from the inside. im just joe voter, most that put comments here are more political junkies than your average joe voter. It will be quit a few years before mr chong will be able to have a crack at the leadership of the Con party, but your point has been taken.

          • You and I are both Liberal supporters, but I do recognize that despite the fact he’s my all-time favourite pirate, there were issues with Mr Chretien’s leadership from his caucus too, not least of all an ambitious fella named Paul Martin. Bruce Hyer (not sure about that last name) was elected NDP but sits independently because of some issues with his leader. In the long run, if it strengthens democracy, we all win, whatever party we support. I’m not persuaded this will do anything except raise Chong’s profile — but I still think even if ends up being largely symbolic, it’s a positive gesture for Canadians. It must be bloody awful to be an intelligent, ambitious person who wins an election, only to be stuck in the corner and told not to talk or rock the boat. I personally think they choose to check their balls at the gate (women too: figurative) but perhaps they will find their balls and truly try a little harder to represent their constituents if they don’t face being flung far from the leader.

  2. You said it, Wherry!

  3. If 69 % of the caucus vote to oust the sitting PM and subsequently the party membership then re-elects that very same ousted PM to be party leader, what then?

    • Then the membership ought to expect that leader to be kicked out in short order again, unless that leader has somehow mended relations between the ousting and reinstatement. But what kind of moronic membership would reinstate a leader who couldn’t even hold the confidence and support of his or her own caucusmates? (Er, that’s probably a bit awkward for you to answer – nevermind…)

      EDIT: p.s.: nice choice of hypothetical percentage, by the way. But you should know that it’s really more of a “9″ (or a “6″) if it’s a matter of your own head and bottom…

    • Francien, democratically elected MPs have more democratic legitimacy than bought-and-paid-for party members.

    • Then the leader in question becomes PM again, no? If the members of a political party decide to re-elect a party leader who can’t even get 50% of his or her own caucus to support their position as leader, then that’s their business, I guess.

      Why party members would ever choose to re-elect a leader who can’t even keep the confidence of 50% of the party’s own caucus is beyond me, but if they did so, then I guess the leader in question would go back to struggling to function as PM until his or her caucus revolts again.

    • It’s only convention that the leader of a party becomes PM. If elected MPs in the House disagree with unelected party members outside, the elected MPs get to decide who is PM. That’s one reason they were elected.

      Basically, parties aren’t constituencies – they’re more like private think tanks. From a social science point of view an authentic (sub)constituency needs to be a functioning economic and social community that includes most facets of people’s lives, not an ad hoc association that discusses in the abstract.

  4. Excellent article Aaron. Your words really show us how out of whack it all is and what we need to aspire to. Thank you.

  5. Who is the say that when an MP votes (secretly) to support the ousting of a sitting PM, how can we be sure that the MP’s constituency supports his decision????

    If the voting to oust an MP is done in secret, how will constituencies ever know how their MP voted? How then will such secret vote be seen as being accountable to constituents???

    Things just don’t add up.

    • We can be sure because THEY VOTED HIM / HER INTO OFFICE.

      • For starters, I’m pretty sure Franny stole this idea from a post I had on another thread, where I tried to list some plausible reasons that MPs might thoughtfully object to this bill and noted this concern. But as the the discussion ensued, we considered the idea that secret ballots might be a means of protedting members from undue influence or retribution in such a vote.

        However, the initial 15% need to be named on the petition to get the whole review rolling in the first place, so perhaps the secret ballot is a needless “protection”.

        What Franny is missing, however, is the idea that the bill is designed to demphasize the role of the leader (she/he/it apparently thinks we all obsess on nothing but that sole individual), and that if a leader manages to lose the backing of over half the caucus, the particular members who voted against or for will likely be tangental to voters’ concerns.

        But all of that said – and perhaps because it was a point I raised in the first place :) – it’s not a completely invalid point to raise.

        • If you want to directly elect the PM, propose that. MP’s are not elected with a particular mandate to support a particular leader. Sure, sure, most voters are far too dumb to even know who they’re voting for — tough. We can’t have one actual constitution and one nudge-nudge-wink-wink-everybody-knows constitution. Maybe voters would pay more attention to who it is they’re actually voting for if the MP’s they got were more than puppets.

    • You vote for your MP. You don’t vote for your PM. We don’t have a president.

  6. Another question:

    Suppose Justin Trudeau, as party leader, campaigns on the resolution to bring in a carbon tax and his party membership has agreed to such position. But when Justin Trudeau is PM he then suddenly finds more than 60% of his caucus does not support a carbon tax and so Justin Trudeau will be ousted as PM. The party nominees only supported the carbon tax to get elected under the party banner and once elected they decided (60% of them) to simply not support the carbon tax.

    Is that what we want??

    And don’t think this could not happen. During the 2008 election, Dion proposed the Green Shift and even Liberal candidates such as Ignatieff supposedly supported the Green Shift proposal, except of course after the elections and then Ignatieff resolutely came out AGAINST the Green Shift.

    Open your eyes, Canadians. This Chong refromact is more trouble than any thing.

    • Good gracious you’re obtuse.
      Good leaders are savvy damned people and they will adapt and use reason and logical persuasion to guide their actions and arguments.
      Did it ever occur to you that leaders with good policies might not need to hammer fists on tables and bury their agenda business in omnibus bills?
      Can we invoke closure on you?

    • What happens when Trudeau gets in and decides he doesn’t want to do his promises anymore, but caucus does?

      Because that’s the system we have right now, and yet you seem just fine with it.

  7. IF the majority of CPC members do not support this bill, will the CPC then once again be branded as the bad guys, even though their reasoning for voting against the bill is very well reasoned and valid.

    Will Wherry accept that some members of parliament will vote against this bill because it is a bad bill (yes, it can be reasoned that this is a bad bill!)? And will Wherry then accept that Chong’s bill was not the best proposal ever for democratic reform?

    Or is Chong being set up already by the members of the media, in that if this bill fails approval, the CPC will once again be branded as being evil, undemocratic and so forth?

    When will the media be able to treat these issues in an objective manner?

    • More importantly, when did Wherry assume the status of THE MEDIA? You probably shouldn’t tell him. He’ll become even more insufferable if he knows.

  8. A revolution through legislation is not the way to go. Laws are there to guide policies developed so that people know what to do in most situations. in millions of doctors offices, schools, grocery stores, offices, oil rigs, farms, and daycares people do things the way they do because the law tells them to (but indirectly). A school board frames it’s employment policies with a dozen laws in mind. A doctor sets up his office with hundreds of laws guiding his practice. Yet forever and for always we have had political parties free to do what they want (for the most part). Their members speak more freely, assemble more freely and associate more freely than most of us. And we like things that way. We know that if the very people who make our laws don’t feel empowered daily by that extra bit of oxygen they get from freedom that there will be hell to pay. You say MPs have no freedom. Yet ask each one how they felt during their first election, during their maiden speech, the first time they spoke about justice before a crowd… ask them if they didn’t feel free. Powerfully free. As they did those things. Yet a spectre threatening our reality looms! The Reform Act 2013! It regulates what has always been lawless. The last frontier. Who decides what a nomination contest is? Who makes those rules? Party policy, party bylaws, will all be written to make that clear. Our MPs — our freedom fighters — will be forced to know laws like we do. In translation. One set of by-laws for every registered political party. The one best way will be paved at last. And we’ll be lost. Forever.

  9. Devil’s Advocate mode ON:

    Isn’t the MacKay wing of the party all for one riding one vote in the selection of the leader?

    This bill means the power for a leadership review is handed to the ridings where a political party is powerful, and is no longer one riding one vote.

    So is Chong being anti-Quebec again like he was with the nation resolution? (from a Conservative Party perspective, handing a Western-dominated caucus enormous power over the leader, and Quebec gets not say)?

    • “This bill means the power for a leadership review is handed to the ridings where a political party is powerful, and is no longer one riding one vote.”

      I’m pretty sure the bill explicitly leaves leadership selection processes up to the parties. The ridings only gain autonomy in candidate nomination.

      Am I missing something?

      • The power to dismiss is basically as powerful as the power to elect.

        Under Chong’s Bill (there are some parts I like, and I’m being a Devil’s Advocate here), it makes a party leader beholden to where a party is electorally powerful.

        So MacKay becomes the next Conservative leader because of Quebec ridings (which is his plan) but he immediately becomes beholden to all the elected Western Conservative MP’s, because they can force him into a leadership review.

        MP’s should just stop being wimps instead of asking for a stupid new law to give them a backbone.

        A lot of the parliamentary democracy stuff like electing chairs of committee’s etc is fine.

        The interfering in internal party affairs and organization is interfering with freedom of association.

        Chong seems to forget that nutbars tried infiltrating the Liberals during the eighties, the PC’s during their dying days, and it was difficult for Reform/CA/Conservatives to get rid of the candidates who kept sticking their feet in their mouths.

        • “MP’s should just stop being wimps instead of asking for a stupid new law to give them a backbone.”

          Come on, get serious. As things stand, to cross the whips means instant exile, followed by execution at the next nomination. You’re calling for martyrs from a demographic of used car salesmen.

          • good point

        • Very cool with you playing devil’s advocate…

          What I’m hearing then, is that any leader trying to gain power on the basis of limited regional support might be in for trouble. I don’t see that as a bad thing. (Though I don’t share your dim view that MPs will use leadership reviews so parochially – Western conservative immaturity notwithstanding.).

          The point of Chong’s bill is that internal party affairs are secondary to the representative democracy of our nation. If you believe the primacy of the relationship between an MP and the citizens is less important than party rules, then I suppose the bill is a bad deal for you.

          Freedom of Association?!? I don’t think that term means what you think it means.

          Those “nutbars” you’re referring to are the duly nominated candidates of riding associations, who still have to be put into office by the general riding electorate. Democracy is messy, and sometimes it tosses up a Rob Ford or a Rob Anders (come to think of it, I’ll probably never vote for a Rob, on basis of past experience…), but what you’re suggesting is that dictatorship such as we’ve seen under Chretien and Harper is necessary to avoid the odd whacko. Speaking of Rob Anders – how on earth did he squeak past the current safeguards you’re arguing protect us from such nutbars?

          All with respect…

        • “The interfering in internal party affairs and organization is interfering with freedom of association.”

          So all the other rules governing how parties can function are fine, but this is a bridge too far?

  10. I await an enlightening debate on an item that warms
    the cockles … 50% + 1 ..

  11. It is not difficult to understand why those with vested interests in keeping the party whip firmly on all MPs are terrified by the prospect of Michael Chong’s bill having any traction. Ultimately the entire issue becomes a ballot box affair that the whip-lovers abhor: local constituents are asked whether they want their local MP to be their ombudsman in Ottawa or whether they want their local MP to adhere strictly to the ever-evolving dictates of the particular party’s core power centre. Since much of our historiography of Canadian politics lauds the MP who stood for his or her constituents, the net effect is that the local ombudsman aspect will be the most popular, by a long shot. Of course the party personnel with their hand firmly on today’s power levers are mortified by the prospect!

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