OTTAWA – A Conservative MP is set to introduce a bill that would give party caucuses significant powers — including the ability to vote out their leader.
Michael Chong has been working on the private member’s bill for years, and has become a standard-bearer for rebalancing the power between the Prime Minister’s Office and Parliament.
His proposed legislation would also give party riding associations the ultimate say in electoral nominations, removing the leader’s signature from the equation for the first time since 1970.
But the measures that focus on MPs are the most likely to stir debate in the House of Commons, particularly at a time when the power of the executive is in the spotlight.
Details of how Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s staff allegedly tried to manipulate a Senate committee report and an independent audit were laid out in an RCMP affidavit filed last week in court.
Conservative sources familiar with Chong’s bill say it’s not a direct reaction to what’s currently in the news, and wouldn’t even come into effect until after the next election. Chong had been forced to introduce the bill or risk losing his place in the order of Commons consideration.
When asked about the bill Friday, Chong said, “I’m going to wait until the bill is introduced in the House before providing public comment.”
One measure would entrench in the Parliament of Canada Act that the different Commons caucuses — also referred to as parliamentary parties — have the power to trigger a leadership review vote, as long as 15 per cent of the caucus applies in writing for one.
After that, a simple majority of MPs, 50 per cent plus one, could vote to turf the leader and have a leadership race.
Members of Australia’s Labour party caucus recently used that power to eject leader Julia Gillard, at the time the prime minister. Conservative MPs in Britain have the same power.
In the case of Chong’s bill, the power would be restricted to the House of Commons caucus, and not the larger national caucus that includes senators.
Theoretically, the MPs would be cautious about how they vote because of their new, closer relationship to the riding associations that helped send them to Ottawa. The idea would also be to make political engagement more attractive to Canadians, with the knowledge they have more power at the grassroots level.
Commons caucuses would also have the right to elect their own chairs and to call for a review of an MP, as well as to eject or readmit them.
Right now, it is the prerogative of the leader alone — as Harper showed this year when MP Dean Del Mastro was shown the door after being charged under the Canada Elections Act.
Chong’s bill is expected to be introduced next Thursday, and would potentially see second reading debate in February or March.
When asked about the bill, Harper’s parliamentary secretary Paul Calandra said his party already allows caucus to have direct input into legislation.
“Look, if you want to be a good MP, you want to do your job, you want to have an impact in this place, it doesn’t matter what party you’re in, you can,” said Calandra, noting he hasn’t seen Chong’s bill.
“You want to be lazy, and you want to blame other people for your inability to get things done, you can also be that type of MP.”
There is a relatively discreet but substantial section of the Conservative caucus that has bridled against Harper’s control, which has extended to their questions and votes in committees, and what they say on the floor of the Commons.
This spring, they rallied behind MP Mark Warawa’s bid to give MPs the right to make statements of their own choosing in the Commons.
MP Brent Rathgeber left the Conservative caucus in June, complaining about the gradual transfer of power from members of Parliament to the Prime Minister’s Office and cabinet.
Chong is a popular figure in the Conservative caucus, regarded as a moderate and measured straight-shooter with a lot of integrity.
He himself resigned from a cabinet post in 2006, saying he did not agree with a government motion recognizing Quebec as a nation.
In order for Chong’s private member’s bill to fly, he will need more than just the support of his own colleagues. MPs from other parties will also need to come on board.
Dominic LeBlanc, deputy Liberal leader, said it was too early to say what his party’s position would be, but they are taking interest because of Chong’s long work in the area.
“He’s a thoughtful guy who left the Harper cabinet on a matter of principle, he’s been consistent in wanting to improve parliamentary institutions, from question period to committees and so on,” said LeBlanc.
“The fact that he would do it now tells me he’s being encouraged by a number of his other Conservative colleagues who are probably feeling a little downtrodden. Harper’s been so abusive and so domineering of his own caucus, that this is probably the thin end of the wedge.”