Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Defending the Reform Act

Michael Chong (CPC – Wellington-Halton Hills, ON) has sensed his moment and he has acted. The normally unassuming Member of Parliament in the Conservative backbenches is best known for his attempts to reform Parliament. At first he tried to tackle Question Period, but now it seems that he has set his eyes on something far larger.

Chong has plans to introduce a bill short titled the “Reform Act” which has the potential to fundamentally reshape political power in the House of Commons. Andrew Coyne is probably the most outspoken and well-known public intellectual who has heartily endorsed the plan, but individuals from all parties have come forward to lend support to the idea.

Andrew Coyne in the National Post eagerly endorsed the legislation as an important first step to restoring Parliament. The Reform Act has three central components: it would enshrine MPs ability to call a leadership review, it would allow caucus to decide whether or not an MP may sit among them, and candidates for election would not require the signature of the party leader to be a candidate. This is precisely the package of reforms I endorsed, and Andrew Coyne proposed in his speech “The Alarming State of Canadian Democracy” that I featured on this blog a few weeks ago.

It can hardly be surprising that I find a great deal of merit in this legislation. Though I have written about it in the past I will quickly say that re-establishing the MPs’ right to topple their leaders, control caucus collectively and win the support of their riding associations free from leader interference would go a long way to restoring the independence of MPs. I, unlike others, do not believe this will correct our democracy overnight, but I hope it will act as a course adjustment and create a greater public diversity of opinions and stronger, more influential Members of Parliament.

Not everyone is as enamoured with the proposal. Today Alice Funke’s analysis and calls for “Sober First Thought” has gained traction as chief critic. First, I’d like to say I greatly enjoy Funke’s work and have shared it on this blog, but I would like to take some time to deconstruct her argument.

Funke begins by suggesting that the mad rush to endorse the legislation that had not even been presented was foolhardy and showed the clear desperation of some for reform. I believe she has a point here. I was stunned at the mad rush of support that I witnessed. I think it is significant though because it reveals that this reform has an honest intellectual basis of support. As has been iterated many times, this is the practice in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. It is how a parliament is meant to function. The excitement around it also speaks to the desperation to staunch the bleeding. Clearly our politics and democracy is sick, even a cotton swap and bandage start to look like miracle cures.

Funke’s second line of argument is the formalization of caucus ousting leaders, “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”. This is one of the great weaknesses in Canadian democracy. So much of our system is governed by convention and ritual that there are little formal restrictions on power. Prorogation is a perfect example. It is a common tool used in Britain, but rarely more than a day or two, but there are no “formalized” procedures for its use so there is nothing preventing a government for hypothetically proroguing for months and months.

Our traditions are so atrophied and weak that is only logical to formalize the conventions to restore them, and protect them from further loss. Yes, parties now could kick out their leaders, but there is limited ability in the party constitutions to do so. The recent examples Funke cites involve parties in opposition whose leaders are far weaker than sitting premiers or prime ministers.

Funke also raises the arguments that voters want cohesive party messages and not a disparate array of opinions. That makes sense, this would not, however, eliminate party discipline. In the UK it is not as though voters are unsure of the general positions of the Labour or Conservative Party. I would add that in our system we do not elect parties, but Members of Parliament. This may encourage a greater degree of scrutiny of those individuals.

My blog is running long and Funke had other points. I will endeavour to address some of the final points quickly.

Canada is a distinctly regional country. Burying our regional conflicts under the guise of a national party does little to correct or address them. Maybe it makes sense if all the British Columbian MPs, regardless of party, came together on an issue that affected them. This will change the nomination process and parties will have to be more careful, Funke argues. It seems to me parties are already pretty careful, even still, crazy candidates slip through and the public (thankfully) rarely elects them. Voters should be the safeguards of quality, not the central party. Local riding associations have a duty to put their best foot forward, let’s not let them off the hook.

What Alice Funke misses is that the legislation is meant to empower MPs and give them a weapon to use against the leadership. The leaders will still be able to run roughshod over the caucus, but there will be a consequence. Consider Mark Warawa’s (CPC – Langley, BC) efforts to speak out on a motion regarding abortion. The Prime Minister would be welcome to silence him, but the Conservatives would back Warawa might be far less inclined to support him, or if Warawa declared a challenge, back him.

The hope of reformers such as myself is that this legislation may restore the long-vanished backbones of our Members of Parliament. That the leaders will have to think carefully about whether or not they can afford to silence our democratically-elected representatives, and whether or not parties can survive a diversity of opinions. It works in other countries, and I desperately hope it will work here.

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