Reform Act or Pandora’s Box

If leaders have lost their following, there should be a way to oust them. This is required since an representative democracy, including Canada’s parliamentary system, is ultimately based on the view that a nation’s citizens own their government, not vice versa. Even elected heads of government and their political parties can sometimes swallow their own governments in the absence of effective checks and balances. There is little doubt, for example, that some of the changes implemented in 1969 by Pierre Trudeau’s first government marginalized MPs beyond what is healthy in a Westminster-style Parliament.
Authoritarian governments of various stripes have emerged from initially fair elections, as with Nazi Germany after 1933, when the executive branch is able to subvert democratic rights. In a number of nations in central and Eastern Europe after 1989, and earlier in the Americas, democracies were restored or created by courageous citizens fed up with bad governance. Non-violent and strategic citizen protests were important factors in achieving democracy in a number of countries. South Africans, for example, did so in 1994 in favour of Nelson Mandela when they finally obtained universal suffrage.
What evolved in Canada during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was an Executive Democracy. Party leaders, chosen democratically by various combinations of party delegates and dues-paying members, thereafter function as quasi-dictators within their respective parties, challengeable by no one except party members at periodic national party conventions.

With his private member’s bill (Reform Act 2013), Tory MP Michael Chong has tossed a sputtering grenade into Parliament. The question is if it will be adroitly defused, amended into meaningless platitudes, or explode — essentially altering modern Canadian parliamentary practice. But in reality Chong’s proposal makes confusion worse confounded rather than being protective of democracy
The Chong proposal flies in the face of recent democratic expansion for leadership selection; it would make leaders less secure and hence less effective in advancing their policies. It would promote internecine political back-stabbing rather than caucus cohesion. In some elements, it is almost “American” (and thus un-Canadian) and, thereby, makes a reasonably effective legislative system less so. Bad idea; its time should be never.
The bill would:
⦁ Permit 15 per cent of a caucus to trigger a leadership review at any time. A secret ballot of 50 percent would remove the current leader and begin the process for selecting a new leader;
⦁ Remove the leader’s authority to oust (or readmit) a member from caucus; that power would be transferred to the entire caucus; and
⦁ Remove the leader’s authority to select a candidate for an individual riding. That authority would be restricted to the individual riding associations.
The very fact that a private member’s bill attracts such attention reflects popular dissatisfaction with legislatures. The 21st century has been frustrating for democracies. We have endured expensive, unresolved wars in faraway lands. We live dreading terrorist attack sequels to 9/11’s falling towers. We struggle with Great Recession consequences that, at best, are still millstones on our economies.
And legislatures bear the brunt of popular dissatisfaction. U.S. support for Congress is in single digits. In Canada, a popular majority believes the country is headed in the wrong direction. Although our political systems differ, both reflect populations closely split on leaders and policies.
Thus the Chong proposal epitomizes this frustration, but its provisions appear toxic, definitely not tonic.
One of the great strengths of a parliamentary system — and the Canadian parliament in particular — is that a party campaigns on a specific platform to which party members are committed. If one differs with key elements of the platform, one doesn’t support that party. Party leaders are selected through complicated, but increasingly democratic, one-person-one-vote mechanisms. The party leader becomes the parliamentary leader, and tenure has a cruel parameter: win elections (or at least significantly improve party position) or be defenestrated.
The most effective modern party leaders are schmoozer/extroverts. They constantly reach out to their caucus, ask “What are the boys saying?” and adroitly manage individual egos, strengths, weaknesses, and desires while still running an effective government.
But it frustrates the “trained seals” and “potted plants” on the backbenches of both government and opposition. Most MPs are ambitious and highly regarded professionals in their nonpolitical lives. Some have causes (tax the rich, prevent pipelines, protect the unborn) in which they believe passionately, but detract from leadership efforts to win the next election. And if given their heads, they can scuttle their party’s electoral chances, (see “Tea Party” activists) where political purity and electability don’t equate.
In practical terms, a law permitting 15 per cent of a caucus to call for a vote on the leader provides for open-ended discord. Fifteen per cent is a low threshold of discontent; it would institutionalize fractious dissent.
In practical terms, a law permitting 15 per cent of a caucus to call for a vote on the leader provides for open-ended discord. Fifteen per cent is a low threshold of discontent; it would institutionalize fractious dissent. There is no apparent limit on the number of such demands that could be made — one per parliament? Per week? The ballot is secret, so if the leader survives the vote — perhaps with a massive majority — retribution is more problematic, especially if the rule restricting the leader’s ability to jettison a dissenter is adopted.
One can sympathize with the desire that riding associations select the candidates. But one is naïve to imply that riding associations invariably reflect popular attitudes of party members rather than views of the most committed activists who can hijack the nomination process. The party leader’s ability to veto a riding association selection assures that his team runs coherently on the platform. One can be sure the Republican National Committee would have loved to veto the aberrant Senate selections in states such as Delaware, Missouri, and Arizona in recent elections. Or had the right to disqualify a Ku Klux Klan member such as David Duke in Louisiana’s 1989 legislative election.
The answer for dissenters is resignation: either resign from the party or resign oneself to trying again later. Chong took the correct approach in 2006 resigning his ministry rather than supporting the concept of Quebec as a “nation” within Canada. In practical terms, Harper’s move was adroit, helping sidetrack Quebec sovereignty efforts. Chong is principled, but again wrong.
Brian Mulroney, for example, held sufficient sway over party delegates at his own party conventions to avoid any effective challenge to his leadership continuously between 1984 and 1993. Voters in general, however, had meanwhile become so disenchanted that only two of 156 Conservative MPs were elected nationally in the general election of 1993.
Michael Chong, a Conservative MP from northwest of Toronto since 2004 and minister in Harper’s first government during 2006 (who resigned from cabinet on a policy principle), threw major challenges to each of the House of Commons party hierarchies late last year. His private member’s bill, The Reform Act 2013, would “strengthen Canada’s democratic institutions by restoring the role of elected Members of Parliament.” One feature gives a majority of caucus members for each party the capacity to fire their party leaders. It also removes from leaders their current power to veto the nomination of a candidate chosen by a local party constituency organization and to eject an MP from their caucus. Both of these are subject to abuse by leaders.
Chong’s bill corrects several flaws in our national party practices. The most important allows 15 per cent of any national party caucus to demand a caucus vote in which a majority vote, if carried, renders its leadership vacant (Thirty or forty per cent would probably be a more acceptable threshold.). This safety device, if activated successfully in the early 1990’s, might have saved Conservatives from their political near wipe-out in 1993 by removing Mulroney and giving a successor a reasonable chance of electoral success. Michael Ignatieff similarly could have been removed by a similar procedure by Liberal MPs in time for a successor to compete more effectively in the 2011 election.
“The U.S. Constitution created and maintains numerous checks and balances over the president. Canada’s executive branch, however, has grown much stronger without developing similar controls over prime ministers, party leaders and their unelected staff in our parliamentary system.”
The Labor national caucus in Australia used such a mechanism (termed a ‘leadership spill motion’ Down Under), available at both the national and state levels, to remove Julia Gillard as prime minister last year. Some observers say it was nearly done soon enough for Kevin Rudd to win against Tony Abbott and his Liberal party in their recent national election (A successful spill motion had removed Rudd as prime minister in 2010 in favour of Gillard). The New South Wales Labor party caucus has deployed spill motions twice in recent years in their state assembly to remove premiers who had alienated more than half of their own caucus members. Abbott in turn had toppled former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull in a spill motion to replace him as Liberal national leader. In short, vigorous leader accountability to their caucuses prevails across Australia.
Most of the opposition to Chong’s spill proposal comes from those who prefer our present iron rule of party leaders at both our national and provincial levels. Tom Flanagan of Calgary, for example, criticizes the spill device in Australia, saying that Labor was beaten nationally by angry voters for ousting Gillard, even though opinion polls made it clear that Labor with Gillard as leader would have elected fewer MPs than with Rudd.
The U.S. Constitution created and maintains numerous checks and balances over the president. Canada’s executive branch, however, has grown much stronger without developing similar controls over prime ministers, party leaders and their unelected staff in our parliamentary system.
It’s time for the winds of change to sweep through our Parliament Hill. Chong’s bill deserves support from all MPs concerned about the state of our parliamentary institutions and democracy.

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