Thirty questions to ask before proceeding with the Reform Act

Michael Chong and the unraveling of the system

In an interview with Andrew Coyne, Michael Chong appeals to the wisdom of the local party member, but on the actual mechanics of removing the party leader’s endorsement from the legislated qualifications to run under a party banner, Tim Harper and Paul Wells note practical questions.

Chong’s bill has other provisions designed to free the back bench. One would have party candidates named by riding associations without any need for the leader to sign their papers. This assumes, as Tim Harper has pointed out,  that parties will have 338 healthy riding associations, which would seriously be a novelty. The effect of requiring 338 healthy riding associations will be to impose a very steep cost of entry for new parties. And if the riding associations aren’t healthy then special-interest groups will have fun stacking them, as pro-life groups did with the Liberal party 20-odd years ago. That adventure led to an earlier reform: giving the Liberal leader, fellow named Chrétien, the power to appoint candidates. Reforms tend to replace problems with different problems.

Meanwhile, Paul Adams points to our complicated relationship with political parties and Chris Selley goes directly at our current Parliamentarians to wonder why we even need the Reform Act.

It’s true only because they accept it as such. MPs can do whatever they like along such lines with no immediate fear of losing their annual $160,200. They fear the leader’s wrath, of course. But their power is far from theoretical. Never mind the fact that — again — parties can write whatever rules they wish in their own constitutions. If 15% of the Conservative caucus decided tomorrow they’d had enough of Stephen Harper, he would have a very non-theoretical problem: If he booted them all out of caucus, he’d be a minority Prime Minister.

It’s all reminiscent of a great line from The Simpsons, in which two laissez-faire parents complain to a doctor about their out-of-control son: “We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas.” Some of Mr. Chong’s Reform Act makes perfect sense. Requiring the leader’s signoff on candidates is an invitation to abuse, and was only instituted under Canadian election law in 1970. Get rid of it. But on the bigger issues, MPs should try rediscovering their principles before resorting to legislation that the jurisdictions they claim to want to emulate — the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand — curiously don’t seem to require.

Assessing the merits of the Reform Act might first require unraveling how the system works now and why. Before we initiate change, we might need to make sure we understand what we presently have.

Any investigation of the political system is complicated by the fact that the best witnesses—MPs, party officials, party members—are also subjects of the inquiry, but we need to understand their experiences to sort through what we have and why we have what we have.

So what is the current state of affairs at the riding level for each of the major parties? What would change if the Reform Act was implemented? What would have to change?

How do MPs feel about their current lot? Do they feel they have enough independence and freedom to act and speak and express themselves?

How are issues hashed out within party caucuses? What goes on behind caucus doors before a party position on a piece of legislation is decided? How often has an MP wished he or she might’ve voted differently on a piece of legislation?

How do MPs interact with their leaders, whips or the officials around the party leadership? What sort of requests and demands are made of MPs by party leaders or whips or the officials around the party leadership? How often do MPs agree to those requests or demands? Do they do so happily? If not, how are they persuaded? What precise powers do party leaders have to convince reluctant MPs? What are the rewards and punishments that guide the behaviour of MPs?

What sort of control is exerted over Question Period? What sort of control is exerted over the time reserved for statements by members? What about House debate? What about committee proceedings? What about private member’s business? How is that control exerted?

What sort of control is exerted over party nominations? How is that control exerted?

Is control a necessary part of modern politics? Is control something that voters reward?

Does the system we have basically work? If not, in what ways does it fail?

What does an individual understand about the system before seeking office? What, if anything, about that understanding changes in the first year after arriving in Ottawa? What, if anything, about that understanding changes after being in Ottawa for four or five years?

We all have basic assumptions about how it all works. Part of the debate now has to be about sorting out precisely how the system actually works.