Sometimes we get caught up in the details of politics and don’t see the big picture. What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Does this or that solution help? There’s been immense interest in Conservative MP Michael Chong’s proposed Reform Act. Political analysts have brought up precedents and international comparisons, history lessons, Parliamentary evolution, and more.
We’re losing the forest for the trees.
The problem is simple: over the years, our parties have centralized more power with the leaders and their handpicked teams of political professionals, and the party IN power has governed that way. So the unelected backroom loyalists in the Prime Minister’s Office (or centralized party offices for the opposition) have taken more and more power from MPs, candidates and riding associations. Chong’s bill tries to ratchet back this imbalance.
If there’s been anyone arguing democracy would be better served with more power for the prime minister, more power for the party leaders, and more power for the leaders’ unelected operatives, I’ve missed it. But this is where we’ve been going as a country.
It’s not new or sudden. It’s an evolution from at least the time of Pierre Trudeau who oversaw the massive expansion of the Prime Minister’s Office into a power centre of its own. Trudeau was attacked by Conservatives as an undemocratic control freak for taking prime ministerial control beyond long-established boundaries. Mulroney was similarly described by the Liberals, and Chretien received much of the same attack (often from Stephen Harper). Prime ministers add to their power bit by bit, era by era, but they rarely give any away.
Here is how Mr. Chong explains it on his website:
It is clear that decades of changes to Parliament have weakened the role of MPs and centralized that power in the party leaders. As a result, your democratic representation through your elected MP has been much weakened over the past several decades.
These changes are not the result of any one party or any one leader, but are the cumulative effects of changes made over many decades that have eroded the power of the MP and centralized it in the leaders’ offices.
In Canada, unlike the US, citizens exercise only one vote at the national level: A vote for their local MP. Canadians rightfully expect that their local member be able to represent their views in Ottawa, and not the other way around.
The trend is away from democracy, away from local representation and accountability, away from transparency. The power is going ostensibly to the leader, but is really carried by the leader’s team, their longtime campaign advisers and aides.
When small groups of highly partisan, unaccountable individuals get more power, it’s easy to predict that poor governance will result. The recent Senate scandal over Mike Duffy is a predictable result of this trend. If we don’t correct it, more such scandals will result, or worse, be hidden because the fewer checks we have on centralized power, the more the inner circles can sweep things under the carpet.
The party leader, especially when in power, has overwhelming authority over his MPs. He controls their membership in the party caucus, he controls their riding nominations, he controls their profile in the House of Commons, and their committee or cabinet appointments. He owns them. This bill will give some measure of that power back. So that we will have more open nominations, less representatives forced down the throats of local riding associations. So that MPs will not have the same fear of voting their conscience, or for their riding’s interests. So that elected MPs can not be ordered by backroom partisans to make fools of themselves in the House of Commons, parroting party-approved talking points and at all expense avoiding discussing the merits of their actual work. And so that House and Senate studies and investigations can be carried out faithfully rather than having their findings ordered from above.
Michael Chong’s bill will not transform our government into the wisest, justest assembly of modern times. It will, by tweaking a few rules, give a modest push in the direction of local democracy and representation. Anything that does that is a good thing. In fact, Chong’s previous bill, aimed at improving the deplorable state of debate and government accountability in the House of Commons might have been even more powerful, and should be revived. But the Reform Act is a step in the right direction.
The Reform Act is summarized here, but it has three main points:
- Restoring local riding control over nominations. Ridings often hold free nomination votes, or so I’m told. I’ve been involved at some level in five federal campaigns, and I’ve yet to see a nomination battle. Often candidates are force fed from party central, or riding nominees are disqualified by party leadership. This part of the bill, like the others, doesn’t restrict any of those outcomes. It makes it more difficult for the party leadership to override local choice.
- Giving caucus control over caucus membership, which will eliminate an element of leadership coercion over their MPs.
- Formalizing a process for caucus revolt to oust a leader. This is the most controversial aspect, but if the exact formula is well chosen, it could be another method to ensure a leader keeps some humility in exercising their enormous powers.
The details will require study and debate, but this is exactly what Parliamentary committees are meant to do, rather than function as kangaroo courts for pre-ordained outcomes.
I’ve never met Michael Chong, but he strikes me as a model Parliamentarian: thoughtful, principled and dignified, he is not one of those that disgrace our House of Commons with shouts, smears and deflections. He quit a Harper cabinet position on a point of principle, yet never went out of his way to grandstand or criticize his leader or the party as other, more egotistical politicians would have in that situation. He has now offered two sensible plans for improving our democracy. In a politics of sound bites, where image trumps substance, and political poses are more important than policy analysis, Michael Chong is one of those working on ideas. We should pay attention to him.
There is a constant tension in democracy between policy issues (what the government does), and governance issues (how the government does it). Usually, policy wins. But remember that good governance is Canada’s golden goose. If our standards of governance erode too far, no good policy will help the country.
Democracy is always pretty ugly. If you poke at any historic era and examine the legislature and rivalries, you’ll see that politicians through time have behaved pretty badly. And everyone lusts for power. That’s axiomatic. Does this mean we can’t try to do better?
Our democracy is not in a state of crisis. We are not a dictatorship, nor in imminent danger of becoming one. But the state of our democratic institutions is heading the wrong way. The next prime minister, and his unelected team, will likely be more controlling than our current one and his unelected team. This is not an attack on Stephen Harper. It’s an argument for the direction of our government.
So far, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has indicated he will support the bill. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has at least taken a wait-and-see posture, while the prime minister has indicated he will likely vote against it.
The time to pressure MPs is now, before the leaders publicly finalize their intentions, and any plans to force party-line votes.
All parties have promised open nominations for the next election. Could it be the leaders are getting pushback against their control? This gives momentum and opportunity, because it means sitting MPs can be challenged if they lose the faith of their riding associations. The grassroots in each party have a moment of leverage, by letting MPs, newspapers, and riding associations hear support for the Reform Act.
Make sure the party leaders hear you, as well as the Conservative leadership candidates like Jason Kenney, Peter McKay, and James Moore. If support for Chong’s bill is felt, leaders will feel the pressure, and the chance of both alienating their caucus and base, and appearing undemocratic to swing voters.
Don’t let our party leaders believe we’re not watching.