To Be Something

Speaking of our lawmakers, Pierre Trudeau (in)famously remarked that “when they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, they are no longer honourable members, they are just nobodies.” Not that the honourable members fared any better on Parliament Hill ― over there they were, as he apparently also said, just “trained seals,” performing whatever tricks their party leadership wanted them to perform. Things have not changed ― certainly not in the direction of MPs becoming human beings ― since Trudeau’s times. But they will now, if one of them, the Conservative Michael Chong has his way, and Bill C-559, grandly entitled the Reform Act, which he introduced this week, is enacted.

Although its name appeals to a long tradition of legislation making the British parliamentary system more democratic, expanding the franchise from a small fraction of men to, eventually, the entire adult population, Mr. Chong’s bill would, of course, do nothing of the sort. It would, rather, shift (some) power from party leaders to MPs ― for those political parties, that is, which have any. At present, as Lori Turnbull explains in an op-ed supporting the bill,

[p]arty leaders have many tools at their disposal through which to maintain this discipline within their caucuses … Leaders decide on cabinet positions when the party holds government and shadow cabinet posts when the party sits in opposition. If a leader were really ticked off, she could refuse to sign an MP’s nomination papers when the next election comes around, thereby preventing the MP from reoffering [sic; perhaps re-offending?]. It’s a simple carrot and stick approach: leaders can reward those who are loyal and punish those who are not.

Bill C-559 would limit the leaders’ power over their MPs, and give the MPs a countervailing power over their leaders. More specifically, it would do three things. First, it would give local party organizations control over candidate nominations, removing a party leader’s ability to reject a candidate by refusing to sign onto his or her nomination. Second, it would prevent a leader from expelling an MP from his party’s caucus. An expulsion (or a readmission ― though not, perhaps interestingly, the admission of a floor-crossing member) could only take place upon the written request of 15% of the members of the caucus, approved by a majority vote on a secret ballot. And third, a written request by 15% of the members of a caucus would trigger a “leadership review”; if a majority of the members of the caucus voted against their leader on a secret ballot, the leader would be dismissed, and the caucus would elect an interim leader, pending the election of a new permanent one by the party.

Supporters of Bill C-559 might be tempted to paraphrase the Abbé Siyès: “What are ordinary MPs? Everything. What have they been hitherto in the political order? Nothing. What do they desire to be? Something.” However, before we agree that this desire ought to be gratified, we must ask two questions. One is whether the changes proposed by Bill C-559 are, substantively, a good idea. In other words, would our democracy be better if party leaders could not prevent the nomination of a candidate or expel a member of their party’s caucus, and/or if they could be removed by a vote of their caucus? The other question is whether, even if these changes would be for the better, legislation is the right way to implement them. Why not, rather, leave the parties themselves to make changes which could be implemented through their own internal rules? I will address these questions in separate posts.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

4 thoughts on “To Be Something”

  1. On at least one point; which some may argue is the root of the current problem, that a leader can veto riding associations’ nominations (thereby, conceivably punishing particularly wayward MPs when they wish to run again for election under the party banner), the offending power was granted to parties via reforms to the Canada Elections Act in 1970.

    We can debate aspects of this bill, but surely the fundamental notion of returning Canada to a Westminster norm doesn’t seem a bad idea to me. It works well enough in most other Westminster jurisdictions. Yes, you have unseating of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard, and the pretty ironic unseating of Julia Gillard by Kevin Rudd in Australia, but those are pretty rare events in most Parliaments. David Cameron and many of his predecessors have had to put up with caucus revolts, or at least revolts of some portion of their caucuses, but in general the self-moderating factor is that any caucus revolt that becomes extremely serious is liable to bring the government down, potentially threatening the jobs of the very MPs leading the revolt.

    There seems to be this idea that Canada is some sort of a unique jurisdiction, where the politicians are particularly wayward and dangerous, where strong, even autocratic leaders with arsenals of potent tools of discipline are necessary, and where MPs must be sublimated to the point of ineffectiveness into the wider party.

    I agree to a point that legislation ought not to be the best tool for this, and other than the aforementioned changes to the Elections Act forty odd years ago, most of the problems that Chong’s bill attempts to address should be addressed by the parties themselves.

    A hammer is always the best tool to drive in a nail, but sometimes you can’t get your hands on the hammer, so you have to grab a rock and clumsily try the same process. Perhaps even the Honourable Member from Wellington-Halton Hills isn’t so naive as to believe his bill is going to survive, or at least survive without heavy molestation, but it’s pretty clear that whatever the fate of this bill, there is some wide support for it across party lines.

    I have sent my support for the bill to my MP, even though I’d rather this was something the parties willingly did themselves. However, seeing as they have had forty years to make the changes, with a constant stream of MPs and ex-MPs complaining about these issues, I guess we have to start somewhere.

    1. Thanks for this. I just want to emphasize that I did not mean, in this post, to express a view about the questions I raised. I am still thinking about them, and will try to address them in the coming days.

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