No point pretending the Reform Act can revive Canada’s Pretend Parliament

Posted on February 26, 2015 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
February 25, 2015.   Andrew Coyne

It is a touching irony that Michael Chong’s Reform Act, intended to revive Parliament as a meaningful legislative body, should have passed the House in the very week that Parliament’s irrelevance was conclusively demonstrated.

Indeed, the very history of the Reform Act, a longtime passion of the Conservative MP, demonstrates much the same. Carefully drafted and modest in its aims, the bill initially aimed, in the main, to do three things: remove the legal requirement that every candidate for every party be approved by the party leader before he can stand for office; set out the terms and procedures under which a caucus might vote to remove the leader; and grant to members of caucus alone the power to expel or readmit a member from their midst.

Yet as modest as they were, these reforms held the promise, over time, of fundamentally altering the relationship between the party leader and the caucus, and thus of restoring members of Parliament to their rightful place in our democracy — as representatives of the people, not footsoldiers to the leader. No more would leaders be able to use the threat of withholding their approval for an MP’s nomination, or of expelling him from caucus, to chivvy him into line.

To the contrary: now caucus would hold the whip hand over the leader, with the power to remove him — not in the shadowy, uncertain, drawn out, brutal way they might (but rarely do) now, where no one knows the rules or even the threshold required, but quickly and efficiently, much as Margaret Thatcher was dispatched. Which is to say, in the manner appropriate to a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, or at least one where ordinary MPs matter a damn.

Of course, even in its original version, the Chong bill declined to fully restore the system under which we were governed for the first several decades of our existence, that is in which the caucus also chose the leader. And in the ensuing months he went further to allay the concerns of critics: where earlier it had been left to an official of each riding association, for example, to sign the candidate’s nomination papers, the bill was amended to assign the responsibility to a provincial official.

But even these concessions were not enough. Of course they weren’t. For the dilemma confronting Mr. Chong was that, in Parliament’s present dilapidated condition, the people whose approval he really needed to see his reforms enacted were the people least interested in reform of any kind: the party leaders. Though professing to varying degrees of enthusiasm for the bill, behind the scenes they put the word out: the bill was not to pass. Or not in anything like the form Mr. Chong intended.

And so we are left with the bill that did pass, which has been more or less gutted of any real effect, and at Mr. Chong’s own hand. The task of signing a candidate’s papers will henceforth be assigned to an officer chosen by the party — can there be any doubt it will be the leader, or his trusted designate? Caucuses will vote after each election on whether they wish to avail themselves of the powers to depose the leader and decide their own membership. But if they wouldn’t vote for them now, when they had the chance, why would they do so then, with the leader looking over their shoulders?

Maybe Mr. Chong is right, that a tenth of a loaf is better than none. Maybe there is symbolic import in the bill’s passage — assuming it is not now quietly strangled by the Senate. Maybe the longest journey begins with a single, barely perceptible step. But looking at the way in which Parliament has been tossed around like a rag doll in recent days, it’s hard to imagine MPs suddenly standing up for themselves any time soon.

Consider that on Bill C-51, probably the single most important piece of legislation to be brought forward in this Parliament (I say single, to leave out the omnibus bills that are this government’s preferred legislative vehicle), the people we elect to protect us from arbitrary rule were given a grand total of two hours to debate it at first reading, plus three days at second reading. It now proceeds to committee, which will be permitted to hear all of six hours of expert testimony. This, for a bill that is positively bristling with civil-liberties red flags.

As if that were not enough, we were also treated to the spectacle of the annual estimates being dumped on Parliament, in what has become the routine, weeks in advance of the budget on which they are supposedly based. MPs are supposedly to give serious scrutiny to these figures, knowing they may all be made obsolete in April — or May, or June, or whenever the finance minister gets around to it — and which are in any case stated on an entirely different accounting basis from the budget.

A Parliament that cannot offer meaningful scrutiny, even for a bill with such potential to curtail civil liberties; that has proven itself repeatedly unable to hold the executive to account; that long ago lost control of the public purse: this is not a Parliament in any real sense. It is a Pretend Parliament, and it is probably best that we did not pretend it could be revived.

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