Pass the Reform Act before election clock ticks to zero

Posted on December 9, 2014 in Governance Debates – Globe Debate
Dec. 09 2014.   Michael Macmillan

Michael MacMillan is the Co-Founder and Chair of Samara Canada, a charity that shines new light on Canada’s democratic system and encourages greater political participation across the country. MacMillan is also the co-author of Tragedy in the Commons: What Members of Parliament Tell us About our Failing Democracy.

This week, Reform Act, 2014 – the bill put forward by Conservative MP Michael Chong – goes in front of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee in an effort to prove that it is the best legislative tool available to curb the well-documented centralization of power that has permeated Canadian politics in the last few decades.

The bill aims to eliminate two tools party leaders exercise to reduce the autonomy of Members of Parliament. First, it would remove the leader’s control over the selection of local party candidates, currently enshrined in the Canada Elections Act. Second, it strengthens caucuses as decision-making bodies. These two small changes are a step in the right direction for a stronger and more representative democracy – and should be passed before the next batch of MPs enter the House in 2015.

The problem of centralized power is not confined to the current Parliament. When Samara Canada interviewed 80 former Parliamentarians from various parties from the 38th, 39th and 40th parliaments, they spoke about decisions being made at the centre of party leadership that prevented them from representing their constituents or their own views.

Canadians feel it too. Samara Canada’s recent survey research shows that Canadians believe MPs currently do a better job at representing their own party than they do representing their constituents.

Mr. Chong’s amended bill would demand that parties decide who will sign nomination papers for candidates rather than leaving that decision automatically to the leader. This is no small thing. Our former MPs tell us that the threat of an unsigned nomination paper – a punishment for going against the party – was a game-changer, effectively preventing them from competing in future elections.

Mr. Chong’s amended bill would also require that MPs from each party decide publicly on how they would like to govern their own caucus, effectively rewriting the rules around the review and removal of the party leader, the election of an interim leader, the removal and re-admission of a caucus member and the election of a caucus chair. In most cases, these powers currently reside in the hands of leaders and are used both to effect conformity in the ways MPs vote and generally punish behaviour that doesn’t align with the party’s goals – neither of which are good for representative democracy.

A positive side effect of the bill might be to make the operation of caucus not just a private decision for MPs, but the sort of issue about which constituents could inquire during an election campaign. Will you vote to ensure your own independence? one might ask an incumbent or candidate.

Critics of Mr. Chong’s Bill suggest that parties will simply appoint the leader to sign the papers anyway, and when it comes to caucus decisions, they point out that MPs already have these powers but simply refrain from exercising them in the face of strong leadership. (Indeed, no law says the party leader is in charge of how caucus is run.) However, the system of party leader control over caucus has become the norm, and many new MPs don’t even think to question it and these amendments make caucus decision-making worth discussion.

Each party’s decisions on these issues will show Canadians how willing they are to become more representative bodies. Currently a full 69 per cent of Canadians believe parties only want their votes and are not interested in their opinions. The passage of the bill has the potential to reverse that cynicism and start a new conversation about how we want our democracy to work.

But the conversation has to start now. “Time is short and we are up against the hard deadline of the dissolution of Parliament and a general election,” Mr. Chong recently told the House committee. And Mr. Chong would know – his 2008 efforts to reform Question Period were stopped because the election clock ticked to zero.

While not perfect, the bill that is currently before Procedure and House Affairs committee is the best chance we have to allow the new cohort of MPs that will be elected in 2015 to become the representatives of the country – rather than the party – that Canadians want.

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