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Chong Bill Needs Some Sober First Thought

[First appeared as a column for National Newswatch, on December 3, 2013]

Whoa. At this rate, the Michael Chong #ReformAct bill could be adopted unanimously before it’s even tabled in the House!

A commentariat gravely worried about party group-think has shown itself all-too-ironically-susceptible to the very same affliction, as one columnist after another trips over himself or herself to jump in front of the parade.

Things have deteriorated so badly in the last two days that I’ve been told it really doesn’t matter what’s actually in the bill, because in politics everything is appearances, and people have to be seen to be lining up behind democracy.

But it does matter what’s in a piece of legislation that seeks to amend the Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act, and we do need to debate it at length. What’s really wrong with our democratic system is that this is almost never done anymore. We’re all about Omnibus budget bills and Twitter fights being storify’ed now. Neither is a very good way to make laws. And the only way to change that is to say “stop”.

As for the bill (aka “the Bill that will single-handedly restore the Westminster tradition and fix Parliament”), it hasn’t been tabled in the House of Commons yet, but somehow we already know what’s supposed to be in it, so there goes another overlooked Westminster parliamentary tradition out the window.

If the reports are accurate though, the Bill would formalize in legislation a party caucus’ ability to call for and effect a leadership review. I say formalize, because there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

At least two fairly current provincial examples also exist:

* the BC NDP where the “gang of twelve” faced off with leader Carole James, ultimately pushing her out and arguably setting in motion the events that led to the re-election of Christy Clark’s BC Liberals; and

* the Newfoundland & Labrador NDP where the entire caucus recently called for a leadership review of Lorraine Michael who promptly had her director of communications read their letter over the phone to the CBC instead of meeting with them, thereby losing half her caucus in the process, and more than half of her party’s standing in the public opinion polls.

So, it’s not that a caucus CAN’T call for a leadership review or push a leader out, it’s that they apparently won’t, and/or they don’t. I fail to see how enacting legislation formalizing this authority gives them any more actual power to do so, or makes them any more accountable back home for not showing some backbone.

Power is defined as having the ability to influence an outcome, while Authority is defined as the legitimate right to exercise a power. If caucus members choose not to exercise the power they clearly have now courtesy of their numbers and bully pulpits back home, no amount of authority by legislation will make any difference.

Part of the reason it won’t is that people join political parties because they share certain views about how the country should operate and certain common ideas about public policy. Another part of the reason is that if you don’t hang together, you’ll usually hang separately. Sure the occasional lone wolf will be lavished with media attention for stepping outside the team, but that’s a last resort if you want to actually get things done in government, which as everywhere else is most often accomplished by being able to work well with others.

I also think the rationale for this provision of the Chong Bill mixes up the powers of party leadership with the more substantial powers entailed in being a Prime Minister. But, regardless, both are only exercised with the active or passive consent of backbenchers.

But, many commentators will assert, this Prime Minister and/or this government have exercised powers of discipline and control never-before-seen in the Canadian parliamentary system. If so, I maintain, it’s because they enjoy the consent (reluctant or otherwise) of a Conservative party caucus that displays a never-before-seen level of deference to authority and acquiescence in the government’s means of implementing its agenda.

The one bad thing formalizing this authority in law might accomplish is to exacerbate regional tensions further, given that until recently most Canadian political parties have had regional bases of support and regional wastelands. Taking control away from delegates to party conventions, or even from party members (and now party supporters), means taking authority away from nationally representative deliberative bodies, and putting it into the hands of a potentially regionally unbalanced caucus.

There is another option, however: one that’s more rooted in the tradition of collective action and solidarity, than in deference to authority and falling in line during battle. That is: if the caucus members disagree, then let them do so. Kind of like going on strike against the caucus and party leadership: “members of the caucus unite: you have nothing to lose but your priority office space, SO 31s, committee memberships, and parliamentary delegation travel!”

Should the Conservative caucus decide to withdraw its consent for the iron rule of its leadership, what about the remedies the Bill would impose to mitigate any consequences for mutiny and going all wild-cat? It proposes that a delegate from the local riding association be the one who signs the candidate’s party endorsement letter rather than the leader.

Big whoop, as they say. Because party headquarters can still deregister the riding association, and the leader appoint another candidate instead. Or the party can decide to de-prioritize the riding, refusing central services (including the provision of the party logo artwork, the leader’s tour, transfers of resources, staffing, opinion research, voter ID, telephone town-halls, regional ad buys and database access, and so on). Meanwhile, a rejected MP can always run as an independent in the same riding instead or run for another party. Either way, mutually assured destruction usually follows, whether the leader signs the endorsement letter or someone else does.

[The purpose of the endorsement letter is to signify which candidate can run with that party’s name on the ballot in a riding; and is also used to calculate the party’s national spending ceiling in that election, given it’s based on the number of ridings where that party endorses a candidate.]

For new candidates, parties will still need to vet them (or “green light” them, as one party calls it) before they run for the nomination. This is because a rogue candidate can cost the party’s members and donors a lot of money and lost time during an election campaign: every day lost to a candidate eruption costs a major party 1/36 th of its national ceiling, or just over half a million dollars. The only leader to try it the other way (nominate, then vet) was Elizabeth May and the Green Party. Then they ran into a candidate who mused about rape or something on Facebook in Newton-North Delta, and subsequently changed their procedures as well. After losing Georges Laraque and tens of thousands of dollars in the Bourassa by-election, you can be sure they’ll be vetting harder now, too. Their party members and donors will demand it.

As to the third reported provision: is it really only up to a party leader who sits in caucus? Perhaps in the Conservative caucus, perhaps in others, but only where the leader already enjoys the support of caucus. Caucus officer positions have been elected in the NDP in the past, though I believe Jack Layton moved to an appointment system after 2011 with the arrival of all the new MPs.

So, to summarize, all the legislative authority in the world can’t make the weak and powerless suddenly powerful, except in the most counterproductive ways possible, none of which are probably in the public interest. The bill is a solution in search of a problem, albeit born out of the noblest of intentions. It should be tabled, and then it should be thoroughly and non-partisanly debated, perhaps amended, and in the best traditions of private member’s business, it should be decided through a non-whipped vote.

I commend all the debate and discussion on how to strengthen our democracy, but what would really get me excited is a bill to end the use of Omnibus legislation and time allocation. Maybe then we could start properly debating some of the issues that really affect Canadians. The fact we’re not getting that kind of bill from a government backbench MP just shows how much they truly do consent to their government’s legislative strategy.

9 Responses to “Chong Bill Needs Some Sober First Thought”

  1. Paul McKivett says:

    Alice, excellent analysis, as always. Part of the problem, I think (which reinforces your point) is that it has been so long since true caucus power has been used, it has fallen into the realm of the theoretical like the ‘unused’ reserve power that rests with the Governor General or a Lieut Governor. Caucus can try to exercise power, but if the Leader is more popular than the dissident caucus members, there is always a price to be paid ie the continuing unpopularity of some of the BC NDP 12 who unseated Carole James.

    On another note, will you be doing anything on the assembling of the various federal party campaign teams. Things appear to be well underway within some of the Parties.

  2. Observant says:

    Chong’s bill is a Pandora’s Box which would ensure that there is no successful merging of the Liberals and NDP. Any attempt at merger would run into divisiveness over it’s leadership. It would reek havoc in any Lib-Dip merger because somebody would always be unhappy with the leader.

    Also, Trudeau’s and Mulcair’s leadership would be subject to such a bill, and chances are that there are plenty of Liberals and Dippers not happy with their leadership.

    Perhaps Harper feels confident that he could withstand a challenge to his leadership between now and October 2015.

    Of course if Harper is planning to abdicate the leadership and abandon the CPC to cash out in the private sector, he may not care one way or the other.

    I suspect it’s win-win for Harper. He can turn his back on politics now and survive nicely.

  3. janfromthebruce says:

    Observant, I’m amazed that you think that the NDP and Libs could merge with the assumption that they have much more in common as opposed to much more in common between the policy positions shared closely by Libs and Cons.

    Excellent posting Alice.

  4. Observant says:

    @janfromthebruce…. If the Trudeau Liberals tank in the next election, they will split into Red Grits going NDP and Blue Grits going CPC.

    If the Liberals reach OOP status, then there will be no merger and the NDP will continue paddling along and most likely without all the l’Orange Crushez Quebec MPs.

    My crystal ball is sorta clouded, fuzzy, opaque on this one.. ;-)

  5. I remember, back in the mists of time in a first year Poly-Sci course, the professor discussing all those informal mechanisms and traditions that limit the PM’s powers and make Parliament tick. The point was that informal mechanisms work, until and unless someone ignores them.So here we are, living in a Canada under a Government that doesn’t give a fig for limits on their power. The argument that formalising our constitution, and the functioning of Parliament is a good idea has gained a lot of weight in my mind. From what I see, this bill is approaching the problem ass-backwards, and looking to regulate internal party politics to acheive a result in Parliamentary bahaviour. The debate is overdue, but the legislation seems way off the mark. I agree with you that omnibus bills are the absolute worst abuse of Parliament, and they need to go. For the rest, legislate lightly…

  6. Shadow says:

    NDP and Liberals really do have a problem with whipping what should be free votes.

    Think of all the members the Liberals lost in the last election because Ignatieff forced his MPs to vote in support of the long gun registry!

    Meanwhile on issue after issue I notice deep splits in the Conservative party, especially social issues like votes on reopening gay marriage, trans rights, and study of when life begins.

    So maybe instead of the Chong bill a good start for democracy would be the assurance that Liberal/NDP party leaders do not whip private members bills ?

  7. Wilf Day says:

    “Taking control away from delegates to party conventions, or even from party members (and now party supporters), means taking authority away from nationally representative deliberative bodies, and putting it into the hands of a potentially regionally unbalanced caucus.” As Stéphane Dion says “I do not see why we should maintain a voting system that makes our major parties appear less national and our regions more politically opposed than they really are.” He proposes a proportional voting system which “would correct the artificially-increased regional concentration of political party support.” Chong’s bill is, at best, premature until we have PR; will Dion say so?

  8. Brian says:

    Such is the urgency of this reform bill to fix what’s wrong with Parliament that Michael Chong has, in his wisdom, made sure it wouldn’t go into effect until after 2015. Cue accolades for courage and heroism. I guess he doesn’t have such a problem with things after all.

    And Shadow, those Liberals weren’t lost because Michael Ignatieff made them vote for the gun registry. Those Liberals were lost because they were led by Michael Ignatieff.

  9. Shadow says:

    Wow at first I was impressed with Trudeau’s senate move this morning. Very reformist, Chong-esque to be sure.

    Yet by this afternoon its become clear that nothing happened. The Liberal senate caucus still exists. They now meet separately from the house caucus.

    The notion of separate caucus meetings isn’t new – it was suggested for the CPC last year during the senate troubles and Segal tanking the union bill.

    So still waiting on the federal leaders to pledge concrete democratic reform proposals …

    Hopefully Harper gets on board with senate abolishment. Empty gimmicks like this morning’s just reveal the utter poverty of new ideas and policy coming from Ottawa on this file.

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