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.

4 thoughts on “A Bad Fit

  1. As with electoral reform, everyone seems to be generally (or rather, vacuously) in favour of “fixing things”, but the moment a proposal comes to the table, the critics come out of the woodwork. So I think if we’re going to declare Chong’s bill bad, then let’s hear what exactly would be good reforms.

    I’ll put my position out there. Having the party be able to essentially override elected representatives, parties, mind you, that only a minority of voters even belong to, is fundamentally undemocratic.

  2. On the “coming out of the woodwork” point ― it’s an illusion. Until a proposal is made, those who are content with the status quo don’t need to speak up; those are not, do. This creates the impression that “everyone” ― actually, everyone who speaks out ― is in favour of reform. That doesn’t mean the impression is justified.

    As for the substance ― sure, only a minority of voters belong to a party. That’s still a great deal more people than the number of our elected representatives. Not to mention that, insofar as people vote for a party more than an individual MP ― and they do ― the representatives are elected to support the leader, not to choose him.

      • Before we get to solutions, we should agree on the problem. And as I think I’ve said in my earlier posts on the Reform Act, I’m not persuaded that the problems it purports to address are the most pressing ones. I would be more interested in a bigger role for MPs in the legislative process, meaning more free votes and, perhaps even before that, fewer omnibus bills, more time to study bills in committee and to debate them and maybe other changes in the parliamentary process (in the intricacies of which I am not an expert) that would make Parliament more than the circus it has become. And legislation isn’t necessary to do these things. All it takes is a commitment by the next PM and, to a lesser extent, other party leaders.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s