Backbenchers no longer taking a back seat to parliamentary reform

Canada Politics
Backbenchers no longer taking a back seat to parliamentary reform

Hopes for reforming Parliament for the better may not have to die with the predicted death of Michael Chong’s Reform Act; a number of backbench MPs across party lines are committed to reforming Parliament if re-elected come October.

One of these MPs is B.C. New Democrat Kennedy Stewart, who’s been talking to other members about ways to work together to mend what many say is an ailing institution.

The first goal right now for these MPs is re-election, obviously, but they’ve agreed to meet after Oct. 19, to sit down and make some parliamentary reform plans.  

“I’ve talked with a number of members from my own party and from other parties, like Mr. Chong,” Kennedy told Yahoo Canada News, “about after the election…getting together right away and trying to hammer out four or five items that we might be able to work on together in terms of parliamentary reform.”

In addition to Chong, Stewart said Liberal MP Stephane Dion, Craig Scott from the NDP and Conservative Brad Trost, among others, are interested in continuing efforts for reform.

It’s mostly informal conversations in the halls of Parliament Hill these days, Stewart noted, but MPs will make things more formal once things have settled down after the next election. They’ll talk about more private members’ motions and private members bills “and see how we might work together to make this place better.”

Chong’s Reform Act — which intended to empower individual MPs with measures such as allowing caucus to dispose of an unliked party leader — is according to supporters significantly watered down from its original version. But the bill made its way through the House of Commons and is now at the stage where it should be studied by senators.

It doesn’t look, however, that the Senate will even study it at committee before Parliament adjourns for the summer. 

The Senate could easily let the Reform Act die — and are expected to, quietly, given what many say is a heavy hand from the Prime Minister’s Office whipping Conservatives in the Upper Chamber.

“Frankly, we’re worried about the institution,” Stewart said.

“We’re in a situation now where it looks like the Senate is going to block Mr. Chong’s Reform Act. And it’s all about changing how the House of Commons works, nothing to do with the Senate,” he added. 

“I think everybody’s got a sense that there’s huge problem here. I think they know Ottawa’s broken.”

Smaller reforms, like Stewart’s e-petitions bill that passed in the House with the help of members across the aisle, are important, even if they don’t get discussed as often as more “big ticket” items like, as the NDP will campaign on, abolishing the Senate and replacing first past the post with proportional representation, he said. 

In that instance, and in other instances such as with getting the Reform Act through the House, backbenchers have helped each other out; an exercise of building trust across party lines. 

“It’s really up to backbenchers or kind of lesser cabinet or shadow cabinet members to try to do this work,” Stewart said. “That’s what’s happened in other parliaments. It’s usually led by a very strong team of backbenchers and it’s usually cross party.”

Stewart said he, Chong and Dion, as well as Senator Larry Campbell, are in “early discussions” about putting together a book on parliamentary reform. The idea would be to have chapters written by parliamentarians with their pie-in-the-sky reform dreams as well as more practical, doable reforms, and for it to serve as a mini-agenda after Oct. 19.

For Stewart, these efforts are a very important way for backbench MPs to serve their country. 

“If you are a backbencher and you’re not making speeches every day and you’re not on media panels…you do have time to do that kind of work,” he said. 

“And this is the kind of work that we should be doing.”