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

More considerations of Michael Chong's proposals

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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