The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A bill to improve Parliament’s constitutional scrutiny of legislation is a step forward ― but not good enough

Earlier this week, the federal government introduced Bill C-51, which will make some noteworthy changes to the Criminal Code ― mostly cleaning up offenses now deemed obsolete, but also codifying some principles relative to sexual that have been developed by the courts, and some other changes too. There has been quite a bit of discussion about these changes (see, for instance, this tweetstorm by Peter Sankoff), and I am not really qualified to speak to their substance, beyond saying that, all other things being equal, cleaning up the statute and making sure it reflects the law as applied by the courts are pretty clearly good things form a Rule of Law standpoint.

I do, however, want to say something about another, less commented, innovation in the bill: its clause 73, which would oblige the Minister of Justice to provide, alongside to any government bill introduced in Parliament, “a statement that sets out potential effects of the Bill on the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is a step forward, although not a sufficiently bold one, but also a troubling symptom of the constitutional favouritism that afflicts the government and seems to show no signs of letting up.

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The idea that the Minister of Justice ought to provide advice to Parliament about the compliance of bills with rights protections actually pre-dates the Charter. It was first introduced in subs 3(1) of the Canadian Bill of Rights, which required the Minister to

examine … every Bill introduced in or presented to the House of Commons by a Minister of the Crown, in order to ascertain whether any of the provisions thereof are inconsistent with the purposes and provisions of this Part and he shall report any such inconsistency to the House of Commons at the first convenient opportunity.

Identical language, but referring to the Charter, now appears in subs 4.1(1) of the Department of Justice Act. Yet these provisions, which might have involved Parliament, or at least the House of Commons, in constitutional discussions, have largely proven ineffective. There was, as we can tell from judicial decisions declaring federal legislation  invalid because contrary to the Charter (or, admittedly rarely, inoperative because contrary to the Bill of Rights), no lack of opportunities for inconsistency reports. Yet in well over half a century, only one such report has ever been made.

The reason for this is that, as the Federal Court explained in Schmidt v. Canada (Attorney General), 2016 FC 269 successive Ministers of Justice interpreted the reporting requirements as only obliging them to notify the House of Commons if they, or rather the Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers, couldn’t come up with “[a]n argument” that the bill is constitutional “that is credible, bona fide, and capable of being successfully argued before the courts”. [5] Because DOJ lawyers are clever and creative, and perhaps also a little optimistic about their ability to mount successful arguments, this interpretation allows the Minister to avoid making a report to the House of Commons even if the constitutionality of a bill is very much in doubt.

Contrast this situation with New Zealand. Section 7 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is a direct descendant of the Canadian inconsistency reporting requirements. It provides that the Attorney-General must “bring to the attention of the House of Representatives any provision in [a] Bill that appears to be inconsistent with any of the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights”. Attorneys-General have interpreted this as a duty to form their own opinion about whether proposed legislation is consistent with the Bill of Rights Act, and not merely about whether they might make credible arguments for the proposition that it is. As a result they have made almost 40 “section 7 reports” on government bills, and over 70 in total, including on non-government bills, which are not covered under current Canadian legislation and still would not be under C-51, in just 25 years. (One reason why similarly worded provisions have been interpreted so differently in Canada and in New Zealand is that New Zealand, like the United Kingdom, separates the roles of Minister of Justice and Attorney-General, and the latter, although elected as an MP and a member of the Cabinet, by convention acts in a relatively non-partisan fashion. I would love to see Canada adopt this practice, but won’t hold my breath.) And New Zealand’s Attorneys-General have gone further than the Bill of Rights Act required them to. The have also made public the advice regarding the consistency with the Act of all bills since 2003 ― not only those that they found to be inconsistent.

If enacted, Bill C-51 wuld take Canada close to New Zealand in this regard ― and, to some extent, even further. It will go further both in that it will create a statutory requirement, as opposed to a mere policy (albeit on that has been consistently followed by governments of various partisan persuasions), and in that it will formally inform not only the public but Parliament itself. On the other hand, the requirement will not go as far as the New Zealand policy, because it will only apply to legislation proposed by the government ― and not by individual MPs or Senators.

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Despite its limitations, of which more very shortly, this is a good change. Getting Parliament to engage more with constitutional issues that arise when it legislates would be a wonderful thing. To be sur, we should not be too optimistic about what ministerial explanations of Charter concerns will accomplish. In New Zealand, Parliament routinely ignores the Attorney-General’s warnings about the inconsistency of bills with the Bill of Rights Act. It may well be that if such warnings, or a fortiori statements to the effect that a bill gives rise to constitutional concerns but the government believes that it is nevertheless consistent with the Charter become more common in Canada, legislators will similarly ignore them. But even occasional engagement with such concerns is likely to be an improvement on the current situation, in which they are systematically ignored whether or not Parliament is the only place where they could be addressed.

One particular issue to think about here is the role of the Senate. It is at least arguable that it would be more justified in opposing the House of Commons (at least by insisting on amendments, but perhaps even by outright defeating legislation) because of constitutional concerns than for any other reason. Having such concerns outlined by the Justice Minister would make it easier for the Senate to do this, and might thus contribute to make it a more significant legislative actor. That said, the Senate did give way to the House of Commons on the assisted suicide legislation, despite constitutional concerns, so any such changes are, for now, a matter of speculation.

As the above comparison between Canada and New Zealand shows, a lot will depend on just how the Justice Ministers approach their new statutory duties. This is where we come to the less attractive features of clause 73. Its wording is very open-ended ― to repeat, it requires reports bills’ “potential effects … on [Charter] rights and freedoms” (emphasis mine). In a way, this is useful, in that it allows the Minister to offer a nuanced assessment, and perhaps candidly say that there is no clear relevant guidance from the courts. But if a Minister wants to fudge, or simply to say, consistently with currently practice, that plausible ― but not necessarily compelling ― arguments can be made that a bill’s effects can be justified under section 1 of the Charter, clause 73 would allow that too. As Lisa Silver has noted, ministerial “statements may be self[-]serving”. On the whole, then, I would count the clause’s vagueness as a bad thing.

The other bad thing about it is that, as I noted earlier, it only applies to legislation introduced by the government. Now, it is true that most significant legislation is, in Canada anyway. But there have apparently been concerns that the last Conservative government used private members’ bills to advance policies that had its private support but with which it was unwilling to be too publicly associated. Whether or not that was true, something like that might happen in the future. And of course any bills introduced in the Senate would be exempt from scrutiny, at least until the rather hypothetical for now day when there are cabinet ministers from the Senate. In short, the exclusion of legislation not introduced by the government from the current scope of clause 73 is potentially dangerous ― and I have a hard time seeing why it should be there.

It gets worse ― indeed, in my view, it gets outright ugly. Clause 73 confirms what I have denounced the government’s tendency to treat the Charter as a favoured part of the constitution, and ignore the others, notably the Constitution Act, 1867. The clause will, if enacted and approached in good faith by the Justice Ministers (the latter a big if, as I noted above), force the government to alert Parliament to the repercussions of proposed legislation on a part of the Constitution. But why only part? Why that part? Why shouldn’t Parliament be alerted to issues surrounding the division of powers, not to mention aboriginal rights and, arguably above all, the constitution’s amending procedures? And what about the (quasi-constitutional) Bill of Rights, while we’re at it? (Though it is often forgotten, the Bill of Rights does protect some rights that have been left out of the Charter, perhaps most significantly the right to a fair trial in civil cases, and so remains relevant despite the Charter’s enactment.) Of course, the current provisions requiring inconsistency reports only concern the Charter and the Bill of Rights, but since the point of Clause 73 is to expand them, why is this expansion so selective? As I have previously explained, the vision of the Constitution that it reflects is a defective and a pernicious one. To that extent, Clause 73 deserves condemnation ― and cries out for amendment.

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Let me conclude, then, with a quick sketch of what an amended version of Clause 73 that addresses the criticisms outlined above might look like:

(1) The Minister shall, for every Bill introduced in or presented to either House of Parliament cause to be tabled, in the House in which the Bill originates, a statement that sets out potential effects of the Bill on

(a) the rights and freedoms that are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or recognized, declared or otherwise protected by the Canadian Bill of Rights;

(b) the aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada recognized and affirmed by the Constitution Act, 1982; and

(c) the scope of and limitations on Parliament’s legislative powers under the Constitution of Canada.

(2) The statement shall, in addition to any other matter, note whether, in the Minister’s opinion, it is more likely than not that the Bill is inconsistent with the Constitution of Canada.

(3) The statement shall be tabled

(a) in the case of a bill introduced in or presented by a minister or other representative of the Crown, on the introduction of that Bill; or

(b) in any other case, as soon as practicable after the introduction of the Bill.

(4) The purpose of the statement is to inform members of the Senate and the House of Commons as well as the public of those potential effects and the constitutionality of proposed legislation.

This is, in all likelihood, an imperfect effort. In particular, it might be unnecessary to require Ministerial statements on private members’ bills that never make it past first reading. I’d be grateful for any input on this, and on the corrections that might be necessary to my proposal, from those more knowledgeable than I about Parliamentary procedure and legislative drafting. But I do think that my substantive concerns are serious. I would be very nice indeed if Parliament were made to address at least some of them.

A Bad Fit

I blogged about Michael Chong’s proposed “Reform Act” back when it was first tabled as Bill C-559, criticizing both the substance of the changes it sought to introduce into the Canadian democracy, and the choice of legislation as the vehicle for effecting these changes. The bill (now C-586) has been much amended, and passed by the House of Commons recently. It now heads to the Senate. The original C-559 would, among other things, have forced federal political parties to give their caucuses the power to expel members (taking it away from the party leader) and to dismiss the leader him- or herself upon a secret vote of more than 50% of the caucus members. C-586, as it now stands, requires the caucus of each recognized party in the House of Commons to choose, after each general election, whether to grant itself these powers.

This change does not really address my criticisms of the original project’s substance. Among other things, I didn’t like the fact that, by allowing causes to remove the party leader, the Reform Act would in effect allow them to veto the choice of a different, and much broader, constituency ― whether the delegates at a leadership convention, or a party’s entire membership, or even its members and “supporters.” To me, this seemed, and still “seems a decrease, rather than an increase, in democracy.” At a minimum, this shows that the Reform Act is not a well-thought out intervention in our political arrangements. It changes some elements of the system without touching other, directly related ones. From their diametrically opposed perspectives, two op-eds published by the National Post this week confirm this.

One is by John Pepall, who argues that the Reform Act will fail to address the problem of the concentration of power in the hands of party leaders, because

[t]he authority the leaders exercise comes from their having been elected by the party — that is, the extra-parliamentary party, rather than the caucus — by virtue of which they are invested with indefinite power for an indefinite term.

As Mr. Pepall notes,

[t]he idea that parties should choose their leaders has become so entrenched in our political culture that Chong didn’t dare propose that MPs choose their leader.

The other op-ed is by the Liberal MP (and former leader who might know a thing or two about occupying that position without much support from his caucus), Stéphane Dion. Mr. Dion was one of only 17 MPs who voted against C-586, and has taken to the Post’s op-ed page to explain his vote. He notes that, unlike in the countries from which Mr. Chong found his inspiration, “in Canadian democracy, it is a longstanding tradition that the leader is elected by the party membership,” whose will would thus be undermined by a vote of the caucus. He adds that a caucus can be “regionally unbalanced,” presumably making it even less representative of the party membership.

Messrs. Pepall and Dion thus point to the disconnect between the “entrenched” “tradition” of party membership choosing its leader, and the Reform Act giving caucuses the ability to grant themselves the power to kick out the leaders. However, they draw radically different conclusions from their observations. Mr. Pepall is hoping for a “Super Chong” who would have the courage to go against the tradition and “get people to understand what needs to be done to make party leaders MPs’ leaders instead of their parties’ chosen commanders.” In other words, go further in the direction of other commonwealth countries where the caucuses not only fire, but also choose their parties’ leaders. Mr. Dion, by contrast, wants the party memberships to remain in control.  “[I]n a sound democracy,” he writes, “MPs need to secure approval of their respective party memberships before giving themselves such a power [to fire their leaders].”

My own sympathies lie with Mr. Dion. There is something perverse in wanting to improve our democracy by severing the link between party leadership and membership. However much contempt Mr. Pepall can have for what he describes as

a mish-mash of political enthusiasts who enjoy working in elections, long-time loyalists who dutifully serve from election to election, birds of passage swept in by an issue or a fetching new leader and instant members bussed in for a nomination or leadership contest and never seen again,

they are a broader and more representative constituency than a few dozen, or even a couple hundred, members of a caucus (which can indeed be unbalanced in any number of ways, as Mr. Dion points out). Party memberships are declining, as Mr. Pepall points out, but some parties are responding by opening leadership selection to non-members as well. Even those that are not seem to be moving towards one-member-one-vote arrangements, which give more people a direct say in the choice of a leader than the delegated conventions of yore.

Be that as it may, it remains the case that the Reform Act is a bad fit with the Canadian political system. It’s not that that system is particularly good. There is indeed a good case to be made for the proposition that it is broken. But if that is so, then fiddling with one particular element of it, while ignoring the way in which that element interacts with others can hardly be the solution.

Intelligent Life on Parliament Hill

In an interesting recent blog post, Brent Rathgeber, an independent MP, discusses the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, and Parliament’s eventual response to it. Mr. Rathgeber’s post deserves attention for a number of reasons. Beyond its immediate subject, which is of course interesting in itself, it is relevant to the debate about the role of MPs that has been rekindled by the proposed “Reform Act” (my posts on the topic are here). In addition, Mr. Rathgeber has an interesting, albeit in my view unpersuasive, theory of the proper role of courts and of judicial review, which I will address in a separate post.

Mr. Rathgeber agrees with the Supreme Court’s decision, writing that

Sadly, there is no shortage of evidence to support [the] proposition [that these three Criminal Code Prohibitions made practising a legal trade unsafe and that is in violation to the Canadian Charter’s protection of security of the person].  Serial killer Robert Picton and Edmonton’s Project KARE’s Task Force on nearly a dozen murdered or missing women from “at risk” lifestyles are only a couple of the examples of how streetwalking is a dangerous, sometimes lethal, vocation.

As for what Parliament should do now, he notes that the government, which in his view is “[n]ot the least bit interested in harm reduction,” will be tempted by the “Nordic model” of criminalizing the purchase (though not the sale) of sex. In his view, however, doing so would be a mistake. Most importantly, as the Bedford respondents say, this approach still drives prostitution underground and thus makes it dangerous in much the same way the Supreme Court found to be unconstitutional. For another,

the liberty of purchasers also attracts Charter protection; if one could be jailed for purchasing sex, the Nordic Model becomes constitutionally suspect. I am searching for a product that is legal to sell in Canada but illegal to purchase.  I cannot come up with an example.

Better to rely on “the approach Canada takes with respect to other morally challenging products such as tobacco, alcohol, and even exotic dancing”: licensing, regulation, and prohibition only where those involved are there as a result of coercion or are minors. This “approach is imperfect in all instances, but is likely preferable to an attempt to  prohibit prostitution or unregulated anarchy.”

We can agree or disagree, of course. But what is certain is that this is a well thought-out position. Furthermore, Mr. Rathgeber is the rare politician who acknowledges that the politicians’ ability to shape the world is not unlimited. But of course his ability to think and, especially, to speak, so freely is a consequence of his being an independent MP, not beholden to ― and also, therefore, unable to influence ― any party. Were he still a member of the Conservative caucus, it is more than doubtful that he would have been able to express the same views in the same public way.

Which is a shame.  Mr. Rathgeber is, one hopes, not the only thoughtful MP; one hopes that he was not the only one among his former party colleagues. It would surely be better if the intelligent and thinking MPs were able to speak their minds and deliberate about legislation which Parliament enacts. And it is important that such deliberation happen not only behind the closed doors of a party caucus, but also in public. 

Conservative MP Michael Chong’s  Bill C-559, the “Reform Act,” intended to increase the independence of individual members of Parliament from their resepctive parties’ leaders, might seem like a way to make this more likely. But there seems to be little reason to believe that it would have allowed Mr. Rathgeber to express himself publicly while remaining a member of the Conservative caucus. Bill C-559 would make an MP’s caucus membership subject to the will of his or her riding association, which would need to approve his nomination as the party’s candidate, and caucus colleagues, who would have the power to expel him or her, taking these powers away from party leadership. But party instances (whether leadership or riding association) did not force  Mr. Rathgeber to leave the Conservative caucus. He chose to leave, citing his “comfort level in caucus,” policy disagreements, and the fact that the legislative process is subject to control by “unelected staffers” within an “opaque” Prime Minister’s Office. With Bill C-559, a conflict with caucus colleagues could lead to an MP’s expulsion ― indeed, the will of a party leader who, for whatever reason, chose to tolerate an unpopular gadfly MP might be overridden. And Bill C-559 does nothing to address the MPs’ lack of control of, or even involvement in, the legislative process.

Mr. Rathgeber’s story certainly suggests that something is rotten in our Parliament ― but also that the “Reform Act” would not stop this rot. It would be better, it seems to me, to try to take advantage of the intelligence and intellectual curiosity which, though it often seems otherwise, still exist on Parliament Hill, by involving members in the legislative process ― which, after all, is what their job description calls for. No legislation is necessary to make this happen ― only a change of attitude of party leaders who would let their colleagues be more than cogs in an electoral machine, and arguably also of the media who would not make any attempt at thinking out loud and deliberation as an opportunity for creating “gotcha” scandals and questioning the strength of a party leader. The trouble is that minds are much harder to change than laws.

Where to Stand

I wrote last week about Bill C-559, the proposed “Reform Act” that would, if enacted by Parliament, shift some power from party leaders to parliamentary caucuses and maybe individual MPs. It would do so by making it impossible for a leader to deny a candidate chosen by a local party association the ability to run for the party at an election, by making expulsions from (and re-admissions to) a party caucus subject to the caucus’ members’ secret vote, and giving a caucus the ability to dismiss a party leader, also in a secret vote, which can be instigated by 15% of its members. These changes, I wrote, raise two sorts of questions. First, would our political system be better if they were implemented? And, second, is legislation the right way to implement such changes? In this post, I will address the first of these questions.

I need to emphasize, however, that my thinking here is quite tentative, and that I do not claim any particular expertise in political matters. Nonetheless, legislation that affects the workings of Parliament is obviously a matter if constitutional significance, in a substantive sense at least, and thus of interest to me. Another important caveat is that, in reality, nobody seems to have a clear idea of what the effects of Bill C-559’s coming into force would be. Both supporters and opponents of the bill seem to be suggesting that these effects would be at once very limited (and hence the bill is either innocuous or useless) and far-reaching (and hence it is either very important or very dangerous). I think that, as a matter of precaution, we should assess the bill on the assumption that it will have a real impact ― but that is only an assumption, not even an educated guess.

Bill C-559 is described and defended as a means to give powers to MPs, at the expense of party leaders. However, it is important to make a distinction, between the powers of individual MPs and those of MPs as members of party caucuses. Of the three changes reforms of Bill C-559, only that which would make local party associations rather than party leaders responsible for endorsing party candidates will really make individual MPs more independent. Preventing a leader from unilaterally expelling an MP from caucus will do nothing for a real gadfly who breaks with the party line and thereby angers not only the leader, but also his or her caucus colleagues (who, in any case, even with C-559, would remain under a considerable influence from the leadership). As Dan Arnold notes in an op-ed in the National Post, it is scandal or rejection by colleagues, not “excessive” independence from leadership that tend to bring about MPs’ expulsions.

What is more, the independence from the leadership which C-559 would grant an MP would have a flip side: dependence on the local party association. I am not sure that an MP so dependent would be in a better position than one beholden to the party leadership to exercise independent will and judgment. Perhaps ― but I would like the supporters of this change address this issue, which I have not seen done so far. A further problem, raised by Alison Loat in an op-ed in the Globe, is that, at present, riding associations often lack the transparency and organization necessary for them to handle even their current responsibilities, never mind the increased ones that Bill C-559 would grant them. In its present form, the bill would at best do little more than shift power from one set of actors of dubious legitimacy to another.

Legitimacy is also key to assessing the proposal of giving caucuses the power to remove party leaders. The supporters of Bill C-559 argue that this power already exists as a matter of “convention.” And as a practical matter, it would probably be most difficult for a leader who lost the support of his or her caucus to cling on to leadership. However, it remains the cases that ― unlike in other Commonwealth jurisdictions to which the supporters of C-559 compare its proposals ― the ultimate source of a party leader’s legitimacy in Canada is the support not of his or her caucus, but of a much larger constituency. At the very least, it is a fairly broad set of delegates at a leadership convention; but, increasingly, it is all the members of a party (if the party uses a one-member-one-vote system for leadership contests), or an even larger number of people (for the Liberal Party, which opened its most recent leadership contest to non-member “supporters”). It is at least conceivable that a leader would lose the support of the caucus while retaining the support of the party as a whole; perhaps more realistically, a party may elect a new leader who does not enjoy the support of the caucus (Stéphane Dion may have been in that situation in 2006, though I am not sure). In such cases, how would it be legitimate for the members of the caucus to dismiss the leader and, in effect, impose their views to the party members? Bill C-559 acknowledges something like this concern by providing that, upon dismissing a leader, the caucus only has the power to appoint an interim replacement, not a permanent one. But, given the practices of Canadian political parties, even giving a caucus veto power over the members’ choice (which is what C-559 amounts to) seems a decrease, rather than an increase, in democracy.

More generally, one must ask whether Bill C-559 makes sense in light of the reality of politics in the 21st century. Democracy today does not look the same as it did in the days of James Madison or Edmund Burke, or even those of John Diefenbaker. In other Commonwealth jurisdictions, which the supporters of C-559 cite as models, and even in continental Europe, where political parties are much more regulated than in the Commonwealth, the role of legislators and legislatures has been changing. As Bernard Manin’s excellent book on The Principles of Representative Government explains, politics throughout the Western world are more leader-centric than they used to be, largely because of the leaders’ ability to use the media to connect with the electorate, and because the the complexity and challenges of today’s world favour executive decision-making. Standing athwart history and yelling ‘stop’ might be noble and even necessary, but one needs to be intelligent in picking the place where to make one’s stand.

It seems to me that Bill C-559 does not make the best choice. As Dan Arnold points out,

all that is being transferred are punitive powers – the opportunity to boot a leader, or a caucus member. This act would do nothing to give them a greater say in passing laws or having their opinions heard.

If one really wants to challenge the seemingly inexorable course of the centralization of political power in the hands of party leaders and their coteries of spin-masters, one should find ways to actually involve legislators in debate and legislation. Having more free, or at least freer, votes, as Colin Horgan suggests, would be a good start. The difficulty with this approach is that it is probably not amenable to legislation. But, of course, it is not clear that legislation is an appropriate tool to implement even the changes that Bill C-559 would make.

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.

An Ancient Parliamentary Right

I learned something about constitutional and Parliamentary tradition yesterday, and decided I’d post about because I was probably not alone in my ignorance of this quirk. Apologies to those in the know already!

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Each session of the mother of parliaments, at Westminster, and her daughters throughout the Commonwealth, starts with a Speech from the Throne, which sets out the Crown’s – so, by convention, the cabinet’s – agenda for the session. Debate on the government’s agenda as outline in the Speech from the Throne is the first order of legislative business, and the vote on the Address in Reply – the formal response of each House of Parliament to the Speech from the Throne – is a vote of confidence. So far, so familiar.

But, it turns out, not exact. Actually, the first order of business, in the House of Lords and the House of Commons at Westminster, the Senate and the House of Commons of Canada, and the Ontario Legislative Assembly (and perhaps others – I haven’t researched other provinces) is not debating the Speech from the Throne, but the introduction and first reading of a bill that has nothing to do with the Speech from the Throne. In the U.K. House of Commons, it is the Outlawries Bill. In the House of Lords, it’s the Select Vestries Bill. In the Canadian House of Commons, it is Bill C-1, An Act respecting the administration of oaths of office. In the Senate, it is Bill S-1, An Act relating to railways. The British bills seems to have a substantive content relevant to their titles. Canadian ones do not have anything to do with oaths of office, or railways, or anything else. Their only section reads:

1. This bill asserts the right of the House of Commons [or Senate, in S-1] to give precedence to matters not addressed in the Speech from the Throne.

This wording is revealing. It is unusual, indeed strange, for an act of Parliament to “assert,” although this is not altogether unique in Canadian legislation: the National Horse of Canada Act, S.C. 2002 c. 11, “recognize[s] and declare[s].” More importantly, it probably is unique for an Act of Parliament – even for a bill – to refer to itself as a “bill” rather than as an “Act”.

The reason for this unique wording is that these are bills that are not meant to become Acts. The preamble to C-1 explains this tradition:

Whereas the introduction of a pro forma bill in the House of Commons before the consideration of the Speech from the Throne demonstrates the right of the elected representatives of the people to act without the leave of the Crown;

Whereas that custom, which can be traced to 1558 in the Parliament at Westminster, is practised in a number of jurisdictions having a parliamentary form of government;

And whereas it is desirable to explain and record the constitutional relationship represented by that custom …

That of S-1 is similar, though of course it makes no reference to “the elected representatives of the people.” It also does not specify the date on which the custom of the pro forma bills originated.

This is perhaps as well, since there seems to be some confusion on this point. The latest iteration of Ontario’s version of the pro forma bill, more transparently named An Act to Perpetuate an Ancient Parliamentary Right, also refers to 1558. But the earliest version available on the legislative assembly’s website, dating back to 1998, claims that

[t]his practice dates back to the reign of Elizabeth I, when on March 22, 1603, (just two days before her death), Parliament made this assertion of independence from the Crown for the purposes of legislation.

The British bills seem to actually have a traditional substantive wording, related to their titles. But their purpose is exactly the same as that of the Canadian pro forma bills, for which they have served as a model (though as you can see, we have somewhat innovated on it).

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This is all quite amusing, as are many other constitutional traditions originating in Westminster. But it in a way, it is also rather sad. Pro forma bills are bald assertions of power, not intended to lead to its exercise. Having won its independence from, and then control over, a once-powerful Crown, Parliament has become the servile instrument of the Cabinet. The executive is once again in control of the agenda, and whatever Parliament says at the beginning of each of its sessions, it does not give precedence, or indeed almost any consideration, to matters not put before it by the Cabinet. (Indeed, it is the Prime Minister who tables Bill C-1 in the House of Commons.) Legislative supremacy, or even autonomy, is not much more real now than under the Tudors and the Stuarts.