Michael Chong’s private member’s bill, introduced this week in the House of Commons, is meant to address a serious problem in Canada’s democracy: the concentration of power in the political executive and, more generally, in political party leaders.
The bill makes three major proposals. First, caucus members would be able to remove their party leader by majority vote. Second, leaders would no longer hold the power to veto election candidates chosen at the constituency level. Third, party leaders could not decide unilaterally to kick someone out of caucus. The MPs who make up the caucus would decide collectively whether fellow members were removed or readmitted.
None of this is wild or revolutionary. These proposals are in line with what happens in other parliamentary systems around the world.
The pros and cons of the bill are legion. On the plus side, if the bill were to become law, it would act as one of the very few checks on party leaders, who wield a staggering array of powers in our system whether they lead the governing party or another one. In Canada, political parties operate according to a strict expectation of party discipline. This means that even though MPs are elected by their constituencies, they vote according to their party’s platform on almost all bills proposed in the House. Failure to do so is uncommon and, when it has occurred, it has been met with severe consequences, including expulsion from caucus.
Party leaders have many tools at their disposal through which to maintain this discipline within their caucuses, so much so that, for the most part, they really need not fear revolt or disloyalty. The balance of power is in their favour. Leaders decide on cabinet positions when the party holds government and shadow cabinet posts when the party sits in opposition. If a leader were really ticked off, she could refuse to sign an MP’s nomination papers when the next election comes around, thereby preventing the MP from reoffering. It’s a simple carrot and stick approach: leaders can reward those who are loyal and punish those who are not.
Mr. Chong’s bill confronts the status quo by placing limitations on both the carrots and the sticks: leaders would no longer be able to mete out as many swift and drastic punishments for “rogue” MPs – at least, not unilaterally. Further, leaders would need to hold the confidence of their own caucuses, which means caucuses could decide the fate of party leaders rather than the other way around.
And here’s where the cons come in: many observers have criticized the bill already on the grounds that it would allow a caucus to substitute its own judgment in the place of the party’s. Party leaders in Canada are chosen by their parties at-large rather than their caucuses, in nationwide contests that allow card-carrying members across the country to be involved. (The Liberal Party opened its last leadership contest not just to members but to supporters as well.) Is it undemocratic for the collective decision of the party members to be overturned by the caucus, only a small faction of the party?
Though there’s an apparent logic to this line of thinking, it’s flawed. This bill does not pit the caucus against the party. While the caucus would be permitted to remove a leader by majority vote, it would then select an interim leader until the party chooses a new leader. This way, the party at-large retains control over who the leader is; a leader chosen by caucus would hold the position only temporarily.
Last week, in anticipation of the bill’s introduction, NDP MP Linda Duncan told the Huffington Post that the problems that the bill aims to solve are Conservative problems. This is simply not true. These are institutional rather than party-specific problems. At this point, no matter which party was to hold government, the prime minister would be too powerful. Mr. Chong’s bill proposes to tackle this problem by empowering the legislative branch by enumerating a few specific powers and freedoms into statute. This bill would not change the world, but it would give MPs some independence from their leaders and give a caucus a method of recourse in the event that its leader became impossible to live with.
The bill’s overall message resonates with the logic of responsible government: The political executive is to be accountable to the legislative branch. If Mr. Chong’s bill becomes law, the institutional change would likely not give way to immediate cultural change. Rest assured, party caucuses would not fire their leaders at the first opportunity! They’d have to answer to the electorate if they did. And leader-centrism is a long-standing tradition in Canadian politics that would not crumble overnight. But this is a start.
A few years ago, Mark D. Jarvis, the late Peter Aucoin and I published a book called Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government. In it, we proposed that caucuses have the ability to remove leaders and select interim ones. We also called for an end to leaders’ ability to veto constituency choices for election candidates. I say this not to self promote, but to be completely forthright about my support of Mr. Chong’s efforts.
No bill is perfect and the word on the street is that this one won’t pass anyway. It is customary for political parties to treat private member’s bills as free votes in the House, which means that if MPs want these changes, they can make them happen. But if the majority of MPs do not support the bill, what is the take home message – that MPs don’t want to be more independent? If this bill does not open the door to meaningful reform in parliament, then what will?
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of political science at Dalhousie University. With Mark D. Jarvis and the late Peter Aucoin, she wrote Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government.