The revolution was tabled in the House of Commons at 10:07 a.m. on Tuesday morning. “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,” Michael Chong, the Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Wellington—Halton Hills, explained, 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 . . . 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.”
Formally known as “an Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms),” but succinctly dubbed the Reform Act, Chong’s private member’s bill could be the start of profound change—a serious first step in wresting power from the offices of party leaders, returning it to the MPs whom voters elect and reviving the House of Commons as a relevant forum for our politics. And, after a year of tumult, angst and concern for parliamentary institutions, it seems to arrive precisely when it—or at least a real debate about the state of the House of Commons—is needed.
The Reform Act pursues change on several fronts. First, it would amend the Elections Act to remove the provision that requires the signature of the party leader for any individual seeking to run under a party’s banner. Second, it would specify that House of Commons caucus chairs must be elected, and would establish rules for how MPs can be expelled from, and readmitted to, caucus. Third, it would require that political parties allow for a caucus review of the party leader. The bill would come into force after the next election.
Each of those changes would seem to do the same thing: devolve power from the party leader and his or her office to the individual MP. And if you believe that what is choking the life out of Parliament is the hold on power that party leaders have attained, Chong’s bill would seem to be at least a step toward relief. “Since Confederation, numerous and gradual changes have eroded the power of the member of Parliament and centralized it in the party leadership structures,” Chong told reporters this week. “As a result, the ability of members of Parliament to carry out their function has been curtailed.”
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Chong’s emergence as a reformer has been coming for some time, even if it owes something to happenstance. He was first elected in 2004 and, when the Conservatives formed government in 2006, Chong was named the minister of intergovernmental affairs. His cabinet career lasted just 10 months. On Nov. 27, 2006, Chong announced he was resigning as minister because he could not support the Prime Minister’s motion that the Québécois formed a nation within a united Canada.
What Harper lost in cabinet material and Chong lost in ministerial salary, the House of Commons gained in an advocate for change.
A year after his resignation from cabinet, Chong, who co-founded the civic-minded Dominion Institute before entering politics, penned an essay for Canadian Parliamentary Review, a quarterly journal on the Westminster system, in which he lamented the state of question period and the amount of control that party leaders and ministers exercise over MPs and debate. “Parliament is a living institution whose permanence is not assured; it is not indestructible,” he warned. “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.”
Eighteen months later, Chong stepped forward with a motion calling for a House committee to study several reforms of question period. Within that motion was a small measure of new freedom for backbenchers. Under the current system, it is the parties who inform the Speaker which MPs will be rising to ask a question. Under Chong’s plan, half the questions each day would have been allocated for “members, whose names and order of recognition would be randomly selected.” (Chong’s motion passed at second reading—with support from Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats—but a study of his proposals was not completed before the 2011 election and nothing more has come of his suggestions.)
Events in the House over the last two years have perfectly set the stage for something like Chong’s new bill. The Conservative government has continued to introduce and pass omnibus budget bills. In March, Conservative MP Mark Warawa had his right to make a statement in the House blocked, prompting a number of Conservative backbenchers to speak out in support of him. In June, Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber quit the Conservative caucus after his private member’s bill on public service salary disclosure was overhauled by other Conservative MPs—Rathgeber believing that the Conservative leadership had engineered the changes. Last month, as part of its investigation of the deal between Mike Duffy and Nigel Wright, the RCMP released emails that suggested the Prime Minister’s Office had directed edits of a Senate committee report on Duffy.
Now comes Chong’s bill. The timing is mostly coincidental. In the lottery at the start of each new Parliament that determines in what order MPs will be able to table private members’ bills, Chong drew No. 123. His turn was approaching and he needed to put something on the table. The Conservative MP says he maintains confidence in the Prime Minister and that this is not about Stephen Harper.
Chong describes his proposals as “foundational,” and there will likely be a lively debate about the bill’s implications for parties, Parliament and the political system. In theory, the “rebalancing” that Chong seeks could free MPs to think and act more independently, and that could reinvigorate the proceedings of the House—leading to the sorts of free votes, unpredictable debates and unhindered committee investigations that seem to have been replaced by the mostly rote proceedings of the current Commons. It could bring new significance to the individual MP—a creature that is too easily ignored in the current situation. “These are important changes that I truly believe will restore Canadians’ faith in their Parliament,” Chong says, “and also will reconnect that Parliament much more closely to local constituencies.”
At the very least, it might force both Canadians and their parliamentarians to confront serious questions about the state of the House of Commons and what, if anything, must be done to return it to first principles.