Reform Act: Chong’s proposal creates more confusion, not more democracy

Conservative MP Michael Chong in Ottawa on Tuesday, December 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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.

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, 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. 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.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.