The Reform Act, Bill C-559

I think it’s time for democratic reform in Canada. I support the principle of restoring the balance of power in parliament between Members of Parliament and Party leaders. While I plan to support the Reform Act at second reading, I have concerns with several details of the bill.

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Over many decades, political power in Ottawa has become concentrated in the hands of party leaders. Canadians are concerned that their elected representatives, their Members of Parliament, do not have the power to properly represent constituents and instead are controlled by tight party discipline. In recent years, MPs have been powerless to prevent the burying of important legislation in omnibus bills, executive control of parliamentary committees, imposition of time limits on debate, and the tight party control of opportunities for MPs to speak.

It seems clear to Canadians, and also to scholars of Parliament, that the party leadership has accumulated too much power over its MPs, and that, particularly with the current Conservative government, there is a problem with the way that the power of a parliamentary majority is being abused. I am happy to see that some of these issues are being addressed in the Reform Act.

The Reform Act makes two key changes.

First, a party’s candidate will no longer need the leader’s consent to be on the ballot. The candidate will be elected by the local party members, and his or her nomination papers will be signed by a locally elected “nomination officer”. This means that the leader of the party can’t parachute a candidate in, nor can he or she veto a candidate chosen by the riding. In theory, this should mean that the riding association’s authority cannot be superseded by the party leader.

This is a good idea, and one that the Liberal Party has already adopted. One of Justin Trudeau’s first policies was to call for open nominations for all candidates, including candidates for seats held by incumbents (including himself!). Justin has promised not to appoint any candidates, because he understands that each MP should represent the interests of their constituents in the House of Commons.

That said, there are a few cases where this proposal might not work. Many riding associations are so small that they are not representative and thus not democratic. Sometimes they don’t even exist. These organizations may be further challenged when there is a snap election. In these cases, it might make sense for a party’s leader to be able to designate a person to represent the party on the ballot.

My suggestion for an amendment would be that if more than, say, one-half of one percent of the electorate votes to choose a party’s candidate, then the party leader must accept that democratic will. If fewer people showed up to vote for the party’s candidate, then that vote has the possibility of being undemocratic (Was it held at an accessible time and place? Was it dominated by a special interest group? ) and the party leader should retain his or her ability to choose the party’s candidate.

The second big change in the Reform Act deals with giving a party’s caucus (all of the MPs belonging that party) the ability to remove the leader of the party. The bill proposes that the leader of the party is subject to a review if 15% of the caucus calls for a review. After the review, there would be a secret vote and a 50 percent plus one vote would be enough to remove the leader.

I can understand why it is important to restore a balance of power in parliament, and in particular to decentralize the power of political leaders so that MPs are able to represent their ridings properly. But this ignores a key issue, especially for the Liberal Party. I’ve been proud that the Liberal Party has been opening up the political process, making it more transparent and accessible. In 2006, over 4000 delegates elected Stephane Dion as Liberal leader in a contest that took the better part of a year. Then, in 2013, over 100,000 Canadians from across the country voted, and Justin Trudeau emerged as leader, obtaining over 81,000 votes. I don’t think that 18 Liberal MPs should be able to remove a leader that over 100,000 Liberal Party members and supporters elected.

My suggestion would be that the MPs could vote, not to remove the leader, but to ask the party to hold a more democratic leadership review.

The Liberal Party has decided that Bill C-559 will be a free vote. I’m looking forward to debating this, and seeing if any amendments will come out, but until then, I support the bill in principle.

 

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