Tory MP's bill to empower Commons over PMO finds cross-partisan support

OTTAWA – A collection of parliamentarians of all stripes are backing Conservative MP Michael Chong’s provocative new bill, one designed to rebalance the power between MPs and domineering party leaders.

As Chong held a news conference Tuesday about the legislation he had just tabled, colleagues from the House of Commons and the Senate took their seats nearby in a public show of support.

They included Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal, Tory MPs James Rajotte, Stella Ambler and Larry Miller, Green party Leader Elizabeth May and Independent Bruce Hyer.

Up to two dozen Conservatives could be poised to back Chong’s so-called “Reform Act of 2013,” at a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office is already facing scrutiny for heavy handedness.

Chong is a moderate, well-liked MP across party lines, and has long advocated for the empowerment of parliamentarians.

“It depends on whether Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair will allow their caucuses to vote for democracy,” May said of the bill’s prospects.

“If they do, then the pressure on Conservatives will be that much more and I think the bill would then pass, but no Conservative is going to risk the ire of their leader if they think the Liberals and the New Democrats aren’t on board.”

Chong’s bill has three components, the most controversial of which would give party caucuses in the Commons the right to vote to review the party leader, and to trigger a leadership race.

If 15 per cent of a party’s caucus applied in writing for a leadership review, that would then start the ball rolling for a review vote of the leader in caucus. A simple majority of 50 per cent plus one would result in a new leadership race at the party level.

Attached to that change is one that would entrench in the Parliament of Canada Act the rights of party caucuses — also known as parliamentary parties — to review, eject and readmit MPs.

They would also have the right to elect and eject their caucus chair.

The Ontario MP argues that these rights have always existed by convention, but has not been exercised over the decades. The British Conservative Party holds this power, as does the Labour Party in Australia, and Chong says it’s about reinvigorated the concept of responsible government in Canada.

“I think the decades of changes over many, many years have created a system where we have imposed a presidential style of government over top of our Westminster parliamentary system,” Chong said.

“That needs to rebalanced, and that’s exactly what the Reform Act proposes to do.”

The third part of the bill would give electoral district associations the power to approve of candidates for elections. In other words, a leader would no longer have the power of signing a candidate’s nomination papers.

These measures would theoretically embolden MPs to vote the way they want in the Commons, without fear of being turfed from caucus by the leadership or of being rejected as the candidate in the next election.

Chong insists the bill is not a response to criticism around the Prime Minister’s Office’s handling of the Senate expenses scandal, and allegations it tried to interfere in both a Senate committee and an independent audit.

The legislation would not come into effect until after the 2015 election.

Segal said he is prepared to sponsor the bill in the Senate should it pass the Commons, and is advocating for a free vote.

“I think it would be in the interest of all three party leaders to facilitate a free vote on this issue, because frankly, if you hear the chatter from other caucuses as well as my own, there would be people in other caucuses who are frustrated with the level of top-down control which they have to face,” said Segal.

“This is a notion of how Parliament works regardless of who the prime minister might be and regardless of who might be leading the other parties.”

Ironically, Chong and other MPs at the Tuesday news conference dashed off to the Commons to cast their vote on a motion to limit debate on the government’s budget bill.