Canadian democracy has suddenly become a hot topic – and that’s good news for the country. Over the past weeks, Canadians have become aware of the flaws in the Conservative government’s so-called Fair Elections Act, a bill that this newspaper has said should be killed and sent back to the drafting stage. It pretends to be about empowering voters and strengthening the fairness of our democratic system, but it instead undermines those objectives, and hands greater powers to the political parties. But another piece of legislation, touching on the inner working of Parliament, is moving forward, and deserves to.
We’re referring to a private member’s bill known as the Reform Act, put forward by Conservative MP Michael Chong. It also aims to shift the balance of power, and in ways that Canadians should support: by empowering our elected representatives against the overwhelming power of parties and party leaders. MPs are not supposed to be eunuchs in the service of the almighty Prime Minister’s Office, but the most important people in the parliamentary system.
On Tuesday, the Conservative Whip John Duncan told The Globe that the government is looking to work with Mr. Chong to get the bill passed. Is this a good thing? That depends. Amendments to the Reform Act are being considered, in order to win government approval or at least approval for a free vote. If those amendments are modest, allowing the core of the principles advanced by Mr. Chong to become law, that would be a fair compromise, and a big step forward.
For example, in Mr. Chong’s bill, a vote by just 15 per cent of a party caucus would be sufficient to trigger a leadership review. There’s now talk of raising that figure, and putting in other safeguards to avoid making it too easy to launch leadership challenges within a parliamentary caucus. It’s reasonable to debate the right figure or mechanism; the principle is what’s most important. And that principle is that party leaders, including prime ministers, rise out the body of MPs, and are something less than the MPs’ lord and master.
This and other possible amendments to the bill call for study, and there’s time to do that. So long as the Reform Act’s core principle of empowering individual MP is advanced, an amended bill would be worthy of support.