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 it is an appropriate tool to implement even the changes that Bill C-559 would make.