The Reform Act and democracy math

Conservative Senator David Wells tries to undermine the Reform Act with math, but he's using the wrong numbers

Michael Chong (CP)

Michael Chong (CP)

The fate of Michael Chong’s Reform Act seems to still hang in the balance, as the Senate decides whether it wants to assert itself on the matter of the most-watched private member’s bill of this Parliament.

In the meantime, Conservative Sen. David Wells, one of the bill’s more prominent critics in the upper chamber, has written an op-ed for the Post to explain his primary objection. “The key element that needs to be carefully considered,” he writes, “is the provision that serves to dismiss the will of the grassroots in the choice and dismissal of a party leader.”

At issue here are the provisions of the bill that would allow 20 per cent of the members of a caucus to launch a leadership review, through which a majority of the members of the caucus could vote to replace the leader with an interim leader. The root of the dispute is that leaders, those who lead both the party and the parliamentary caucus, are currently selected by the party’s supporters, not the caucus he or she is made leader of within Parliament. (Party leaders used to be selected by the caucus, but those days are gone and never coming back.)

Wells sees this complication and sides with those who voted for the party leader:

Tucked away in Bill C-586 is a provision that would trigger a party leadership review if a mere 20 per cent of MPs of that particular party say so. The bill purportedly seeks to empower members of Parliament. In this sense, empowerment means to force the leader of the party to bend to the wishes of a few, despite being put in as leader by thousands in an organized and time-tested process.

Canada’s current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, became leader of the Conservative party with 67,143 votes in the CPC leadership convention in March 2004. In the current House of Commons, the Conservatives have 160 members. A disgruntled 32 members (20 per cent) could throw the leadership of the country into chaos by triggering a vote of party confidence in the sitting Prime Minister and 81 could oust him from his job. Remember that thousands of people put Harper in as party leader and millions more put the Conservatives in power—with Harper as leader—through our electoral process.

In the case of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who received a staggering 81,389 votes in the Liberal leadership contest in 2013, 20 per cent of his caucus, a mere eight people, could trigger a review and, shockingly, 19 people could overthrow him. I wonder what the 81,389 people who put him there would think about this piece of “democratic reform” proposed by Chong.

So Trudeau has a “staggering” 81,389 people behind him, so who are eight people to challenge him, or 19 people to “overthrow” him? When put that way, the math seems overwhelmingly in favour of the leader and the process that selected him.

Now, I’m not sure it well serves a senator, particularly one who would like to amend a bill passed by the House, to insist on counting votes to determine legitimacy and authority, but if you want to count votes, let’s count all the votes.

Those eight people who would challenge the Liberal leader would also have votes behind them; they were each endorsed by some number of voters in general elections or by-elections. Indeed, even if you take the eight Liberal MPs who received the lowest number of votes in their most recent elections, you get the nearly staggering total of 75,899 votes.

So the eight representatives of those 75,899 votes could launch a review of the representative of those 81,389 votes. That seems rather less preposterous.

Nineteen MPs could then vote to push the leader aside. Combine the 19 Liberal MPs with the lowest number of votes, and you get the even more staggering total of 244,265 votes, more than three times the mandate of the Liberal leader.

It is perhaps useful to point out here that the party membership could simply re-elect the deposed leader: The caucus would be able to choose an interim leader, but the choice of an official replacement would still be with the party.

And it is likely wise to consider the likelihood that MPs would not suddenly start tossing aside party leaders willy nilly—that it would not be in their interests to casually alienate party members or launch leadership changes.

But what about the “chaos” that would result if a sitting prime minister were challenged? I suppose it could be a bit more messy than we’re used to, but Australia seems to have mostly avoided descending into riotous anarchy and financial ruin, despite challenges in 2012, 2013 and earlier this year. And this country somehow survived years of fussing between Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

(But what about the millions who put Harper’s government in power? Wells further asserts that “millions of voters elect a party to form government,” and “millions exercise their democratic right in our electoral system to choose which party and, therefore, which leader governs the country.” Simply put, they didn’t and they don’t. They voted for MPs and those MPs put Harper’s government in power. However we choose to interpret our votes and the voters of our fellow citizens, it remains true that we can only mark an X beside the name of a single candidate for a single riding. We neglect this fact at our peril.)

The exercise of tallying votes obscures the fundamental question that Wells seems to raise: Is it ever okay for a party caucus to rise up against its leader? Wells’s op-ed would seem to suggest it isn’t. Was it thus anti-democratic for Canadian Alliance MPs to abandon and agitate against Stockwell Day in 2001? Was it anti-democratic for Paul Martin to challenge Jean Chrétien? Do the Australians have a fundamentally undemocratic system?

Furthermore, if a leader’s mandate from the party or the electorate somehow overrides the mandates or the views of individual MPs, what right do those MPs have to ever defy or differ from the leader on anything? At some point, we risk slipping into an imaginary presidential system.

In our current situation, the system is a combination of different mechanisms, ideas and incentives. The trick is finding the balance that strengthens Parliament as the gravitational centre of our federal politics. And the institution, made up of 308 individual members, should always take precedence over any party leader, however many votes he or she can claim.

We can haggle over whether or not the Reform Act will ever actually result in any kind of change. But I tend to believe it is at least a step, however small or large, in the right direction.

See previously:

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.