The educational foundation Your Canada, Your Constitution recently released the results of a national survey that shows a large majority of Canadians (71 per cent) support legal restrictions on federal party leader powers to give more freedom and power to MPs, while only 20 per cent are opposed to such restrictions.
Experts have concluded that political party leaders in Canada have more powers than party leaders in any other democracy.
So how could these powers be restricted? One way is to change the Constitution by adding rules for all governments across the country. Alternately, changing the Canada Elections Act (and similar provincial laws) to prohibit party leaders from appointing candidates (unless the riding association agreed) would be a first step. The federal Conservatives vowed to make this change in their 2006 election platform, but broke their promise.
If this law were changed, parties would very likely continue to use “character qualifications” surveys to determine whether candidates have any personal problems that make them unattractive. As a result, these qualifications would likely have to be limited to ensure party leaders did not use them arbitrarily to keep out independent-minded candidates.
As a second step, the Parliament of Canada Act or House and Senate rules, and similar provincial rules, would have to be changed to give all politicians in each party caucus the power to choose who sits on which committees (instead of the party leaders).
Those two steps are relatively easy compared to setting limits on when party leaders can “whip” politicians in their party (i.e. force them to vote with the party). In Britain, Australia and New Zealand, what is a “vote of non-confidence” is strictly defined in a document known as the “Cabinet manual.” Essentially, a vote of non-confidence has to say explicitly that “the legislature has no confidence in the government.” Such a rule could be implemented across Canada.
The non-confidence vote rule in these countries does not mean that MPs can vote as they like on every other measure, but it does free MPs somewhat because it effectively prohibits the Prime Minister from forcing MPs to toe the ruling party line by arbitrarily designating any bill or resolution as a vote of non-confidence.
Justin Trudeau promised during his campaign for the Liberal leadership three restrictions on his powers to whip politicians in his party. That could be a good start, but those rules leave a lot of wiggle room. Requiring MPs to vote the party line only on matters “that implement the 2015 Liberal platform” sounds good, but could easily mean requiring them to vote for very specific measures that were only vaguely promised. And promising to whip MPs only on votes “that enable budget or significant money measures” or that “speak to the shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms” also sounds reasonable. However, what does “significant” mean? And what if non-budgetary measures are included in an omnibus bill (something Mr. Trudeau promised not to use, but which is commonplace in this government)? And what is the scope of “shared values?”
For these reasons, more specific restrictions than those proposed by Mr. Trudeau would be needed to make votes actually free. Clear rules would also be needed on how and in what circumstances party leaders could penalize politicians who don’t toe the party line – rules that establish, for example, whether the leader should be allowed to suspend or kick someone out of the party’s caucus or whether approval of the caucus would be needed.
As well, rules would be needed to determine when a politician could justifiably leave the party to sit as an independent without being required to resign and run in a by-election (for example, when the leader breaks all the party’s election promises).
There are other areas of concern about ruling party leader powers that also seem more ripe for change -- in another survey released by our organization in January, 84 per cent of Canadians supported enacting new rules regulating when the Prime Minister and premiers can open and close parliament; what measures can be included in budget bills; what is a vote of confidence and how should the legislature’s confidence on non-confidence in the government be demonstrated.
Although a large majority of Canadian want these restrictions on their leaders, most are likely unaware that we already have Canadian governments where the politicians are much more free.
There are no political parties in the Northwest Territories or in the territory of Nunavut, and their politicians make decisions by consensus, with the Premier and the Cabinet elected by the members of the legislature.
Over all, given that a large majority of Canadians want these changes, how federal and provincial (and Yukon Territory) political party leaders respond is a test of the extent to which Canada is actually a democracy. Will any leaders introduce new rules to restrict their own powers in any of the ways that Canadians want? Or to put it another way, if any politician proposes new restrictions, will party leaders allow all politicians in their parties to vote freely on the proposals?
Duff Conacher is coordinator of Your Canada, Your Constitution, a national educational charity.