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Parliament Hill in Ottawa is shown on Tuesday, October 29, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Parliament Hill in Ottawa is shown on Tuesday, October 29, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

ALISON LOAT

Parliamentary reform must reach down to the riding level Add to ...

Michael Chong’s Reform Act, introduced in Parliament last week, is remarkable for a reason it shouldn’t be: An elected representative standing up for the role of the Member of Parliament and the integrity of the House of Commons.

As Mr. Chong has noted for many years, for too long Parliamentarians have allowed the steady erosion of their role in the face of the growing centralization of power in the leaders’ offices.

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This trend long pre-dates the current government. In a series of exit interviews Samara, the non-partisan organization I co-founded, conducted with 80 former Members of Parliament from all political parties and from across the country, we heard the same complaint: that party influence and control curtailed MPs’ ability to represent their constituents and do their jobs well.

Citizens feel this too. Public opinion research indicates that Canadians give MPs a failing grade – 46 per cent – in representing constituents.

The Reform Act seeks to restore the balance of power between party leader and MP. Now that Mr. Chong has taken this first step, it is critical to advance a debate on how the principles he champions can be best achieved and what amendments would best ensure their effective implementation.

Aspects of the bill – for example, the section outlining how MPs may seek to remove their leader – simply represent an effort to clarify agreed-upon conventions. Today’s MPs are not legally beholden to their parties or leaders, but nevertheless act that way either because they don’t appreciate existing conventions or because going against one’s party – or party leader – is not as easy as it looks.

Indeed, this bill will not address all the subtle ways former MPs told us parties stripped them of agency. MPs who disagreed with their parties had fewer opportunities to speak in the House. Some lost their committee assignments or travel opportunities and had no chance for advancement. Money bypassed their constituencies for others.

But Mr. Chong’s bill gets to one of the most severe threats: that party leaders can refuse to sign MPs’ nomination papers. The Reform Act proposes to put the power to decide on candidate nominations in the hands of the party riding associations, removing the leader’s ability to punish a wayward MP who has strong local support.

In order to ensure that power appropriately flows from citizens to Ottawa and not the other way around, it is imperative that riding associations are equipped to handle the responsibility, with transparent operations that encourage participation from the average citizen, and not just party insiders.

As currently constituted, many riding associations do not. In our exit interviews, former MPs described their nominations as opaque, with changing rules and deadlines. The MPs’ descriptions varied widely from riding to riding and the process appeared subject to a host of idiosyncrasies. One former MP called their nomination “the worst political experience of my life.”

Judging by their online presence, riding associations have room to improve. Samara recently reviewed the websites of riding associations across Canada for the five major political parties for research that will be published early next year. While 80 per cent of ridings have some Web presence, only three among 1307 possible sites had information on how to become a candidate. Just over half offered a way to contact the association and only 5 per cent shared any meeting schedule, past or future.

Websites are only one slice of riding associations’ activities, but they may signal a much larger problem for the state of politics, particularly when it comes to citizens’ participation in it.

Political parties are heavily supported by tax dollars, and should be expected to operate openly, and in ways that invite involvement. This bill should prompt consideration of how rules to run for a nomination can be clarified and applied consistently, how local engagement with political parties can be improved, and how transparency and fairness will be ensured.

Over the coming months, MPs of all parties should to turn their attention to strengthening the bill – using their own experiences and concerns to propose improvements where they see them – to open up a much-needed conversation on how to improve the relevance of our democratic institutions.

Let’s hope they do this now, rather than wait for an exit interview to wish they’d done things differently.

Alison Loat is the executive director of Samara, and the co-author of Tragedy in the Commons: Former MPs Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy, to be published by Random House in April.

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