There has been much discussion this week about Michael Chong’s Private Members Bill to reform some of the aspects of how our parties act and control MPs. Whether one agrees with all the details found in his bill, one thing is certain; it can’t make things any worse than they already are on the Hill.
Almost everyone agrees that our MPs (in all parties) need to reassert themselves and become the people we elected them to be. They are the representatives of the people and while we all recognize that there will always be a certain degree of party discipline involved, we still expect them to represent us. What we don’t intentionally elect is “a trained seal.” Unfortunately all too often that is what we get.
Individuals run for office out of a sense of duty and public service and with a desire to make Canada a better place to live. It doesn’t matter which party they represent, their political platform may be different, but MPs are all there for the same reason. Unfortunately once elected those aspirations get buried under the controlling influence of the various leaders’ offices.
If we look at a couple of the more controversial clauses we should ask ourselves are they worse than the status quo. For instance, is it fair to allow 15% of the caucus to trigger a leadership review process? I would suggest why not?
As it stands right now, forcing a leader out is a messy process. If your caucus is so small that 15% is hazardous to the survival of the leader, ask why that caucus is so small in the first place. Did the leader blow an election? Was the election team the leader put in place at fault? Was the platform the leader signed off on not accepted by the public? The buck has to stop at the top.
How many of those worried about this new review process have lived through or participated in the Chretien-Martin wars, the Clark-Mulroney wars or the ousting of Diefenbaker. What about the rebellion against Stockwell Day, when every few days a veteran MP would step out of the party to sit with what became known as the Democratic Reform MPs. Getting rid of a leader when they aren’t inclined to go is a brutal undertaking. It is also something that MPs never take lightly and the potential repercussions on the party’s electoral hopes and damage to the party brand are things every MP will be taking into consideration.
Nomination contests are another issue that raises a red flag for many. What happens if a special interest group packs a meeting and nominates someone who doesn’t reflect the views of the leader? Should the leader have the right to prevent that person from running? Does the democratic process start at the bottom or must we rely on the leader and his or her staff (in the political bubble that is Ottawa) to decide who is best to represent that riding?
If Chong’s bill is accepted we will certainly see more of such candidates. It is not always a bad thing. Think back to Joe Clark’s second leadership run and the attempt by the Orchard supporters to gain control of the old PC Party. It highlighted policy issues, and it got many PCs out the door to vote for both the leadership process and the subsequent election nomination meetings. In the electoral cycle, any party that sees too many single issue candidates elected will pay a price down the road when a subsequent election is called or for that matter any election when the views of the single issue candidates are exposed and they are at variance to the majority of the general population. While it shouldn’t be left in the hands of the leader and his unelected cohort of staffers to decide nominations, this is an area where MPs have an opportunity to make input as they know from first-hand experience what the process is like now and they should be able to suggest workable solutions. Even if the bill is left as is, it is still better than what we have now where all power is left in Ottawa and nothing in the riding.
Another issue is whether or not a leader should have the power to expel an MP from caucus or readmit them to caucus. Members of caucus are the representatives of the party, the Prime Minister or the party leader is simply one of many elected MPs. The caucus can take care of itself. All MPs know when an individual does not measure up to the expected standards of the caucus. MPs should not be removed simply because they don’t get along with the leader or because they don’t toe the leader’s line on all issues. Caucus is perfectly able to decide when someone is damaging their brand and their electoral future. The collective will is more important than that of one person.
One issue that I would have liked to see included in his bill was interference by the party leadership in Private Members Bills or PMBs. It is a sad day for our MPs when the Liberals have to announce that they are allowing a free vote on Chong’s PMB and everyone is wondering if the Conservatives will whip their vote. PMBs were the last refuge for all MPs to bring forward bills on subjects that are important to them. It would have been nice to see something in Chong’s bill that stated all PMBs were free votes.
Yes, we would see some controversial bills brought forward, but better that than a bunch of MPs who have to wait to be told how to vote on business that is reserved for them. If nothing else it would force voters and the media to ask the tough questions of every candidate running for office, so that the voter knows exactly who they are sending to Ottawa and their position on our most controversial issues.
Chong’s bill has lots of potential, now let us see if MPs from all of our parties have the guts to seize the moment and pass it.