In the Canadian parliamentary system, you only get one vote. You don’t vote for a government, or a party or a prime minister. You vote for a member of Parliament. The governing of this country is supposed to take place in Parliament, and through an executive that rises from and is empowered by Parliament. Leave aside the unelected Senate, and what is Parliament? It’s those 308 elected MPs whom you voted into office. Those 308 theoretically powerful representatives – who, thanks to changes in law, practice and party rules, are increasingly impotent.
Earlier this week, Michael Chong, the Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills, introduced a bill to shift some power back to MPs. He calls it the Reform Act, 2013, and it aims to make future governments and prime ministers more accountable – to Parliament. This is how Canadian democracy and the relationship between party leaders and MPs once worked.
Mr. Chong’s legislation is a private member’s bill, normally the runt of the legislative litter, but it’s already received more public interest and support than most pieces of government legislation. There’s a good reason for that. Thoughtful people can debate the particulars of the proposal, but there’s no question that the problems Mr. Chong aims to address are real and serious.
Canada is a representative democracy. An MP is supposed to be a constituency’s representative in government – not a party’s or government’s representative to constituents. That this would surprise many voters, not to mention MPs and party officials, shows how far off course things have gone.
One of the key issues that Mr. Chong is concerned with is this: The executive branch in Canada – in particular, the Prime Minister’s Office – has become too powerful. In the Westminster parliamentary tradition – Australia, New Zealand, other Commonwealth countries and the mother of parliaments in London – there is a certain equilibrium between executive and legislative. Even a prime minister in a majority government is far from all-powerful relative to his own party’s MPs. In the Westminster tradition, and that includes the Canada of Macdonald and Laurier, the prime minister is the leader of his party’s MPs, but he isn’t quite their boss. His or her power over them is extensive but limited. And the MPs collectively have power over the PM, namely the power of removal.
That’s how things once worked in Canada, but it’s not quite how it does any more. As between a prime minister and an MP from the same party, the power is almost entirely in the hands of the former. The same goes for the balance of power between an opposition party leader and an MP.
Mr. Chong has three proposals to put Parliament, and the MP, back at the centre of decision-making. He would give the caucus – a party’s MPs – the power to remove a party leader. He would strip party leaders of the power to veto the nomination of a candidate chosen by local party members. And he would remove from a party leader the power to kick an MP out of caucus.
Let’s consider each of these. The power of MPs to remove their leader in Parliament, even a sitting prime minister? This was once the norm in Westminster democracies. In Canada, the power theoretically still exists, but it has fallen out of use. Mr. Chong is right to want to reinvigorate it. A convention of party members would still have the power to choose a party leader, but sitting MPs would have the power to remove one, at least from his or her position as the leader of the caucus. Would this create the need for a party leadership convention? Yes. Would it give rise to endless leadership battles, making parties too unstable? This is a legitimate concern, and it’s one part of Mr. Chong’s bill that deserves careful study. It’s worth noting, however, that parties were no more or less prone to crack up in an earlier Canada, which effectively operated under these proposed rules. If anything, changes of leadership could become more swift and timely. And perhaps most importantly, it could favourably rebalance the relationship between the PM and the MP.
That’s also the reason to back Mr. Chong’s call to remove from party leaders the power to kick an MP out of the parliamentary caucus. There are times when a party feels it must boot a member – but that’s a decision that should be made by an MP’s fellow caucus members, not by a party leader. A party leader, especially a prime minister, already has too many tools with which to threaten and reward MPs. This is one power the PM shouldn’t have. Again, it’s about restoring a balance of forces between PM and MP.
The most controversial of Mr. Chong’s proposals is his call for party leaders to be stripped of their power to effectively veto a candidate’s nomination. To be nominated to stand as a party’s candidate for MP, you must be acceptable to the party leader. This is a power that’s only been around since 1970, when the Canada Elections Act was amended. Some think the measure is needed: How else to prevent a local riding association from nominating someone with crackpot ideas or a checkered past? Then again, this protect-the-party provision of the Elections Act has been on the books for more than 40 years. And every election, candidates whose opinions, gaffes or history make trouble for their party still manage to win nominations.
The old balance of power between the MP and the party leader has become an almost entirely one-sided affair – especially when that party leader is a prime minister. Mr. Chong’s bill aims to restore some of that balance. Canadian democracy is supposed to be parliamentary, not prime ministerial.