Reform Act: If leaders have lost their following, there should be a way to oust them

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 4, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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.

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 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.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.