Following his first appearance before the Conservative caucus since tabling a bill that would beef up MPs’ powers, backbencher Michael Chong said he’s optimistic his Reform Act will get “substantial support” – though whether it will pass remains unclear.
Mr. Chong’s bill has fervent supporters and has triggered far more debate than other private members’ bills, but other MPs are expressing doubt about it, one saying response among government MPs was mixed.
Mr. Chong’s bill would give MPs more powers at the expense of party leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Under his proposed changes, MPs would control who was kicked out of, and let into, caucus, and would be able to trigger a leadership review with 15 per cent support. Throwing out a leader would require a majority. In both changes, Mr. Chong says his bill codifies an area currently governed more or less by unwritten convention. A third overhaul proposed in his bill would strip party leaders of their requirement to sign off on nomination papers, a move meant to divest power from the leader and give it to grassroots party supporters through local electoral associations. The bill, if passed, would take effect after the 2015 election.
The bill is years in the making and Mr. Chong stresses he’s a supporter of Mr. Harper, but the bill comes during a year in which the Prime Minister has dealt with backbencher unrest and seen an MP quit and complain of onerous involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in daily affairs. The PMO is also at the centre of the Senate spending scandal, where unproven RCMP documents suggest the office played a close role in managing political fallout from Mike Duffy’s expenses.
Focusing on a silver lining, Mr. Chong says it altogether presents an opportunity to have a debate about parliamentary reform. He’s getting one.
On Wednesday, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced his party would have a “truly free vote” on the bill, but he personally hasn’t decided how to vote. He also appeared to have doubts, saying there are “balances to try and get right so the Liberal party is both a party that is chosen and empowered by grassroots Liberals, and reflects the vision that Liberals across the country actually have,” suggesting he may be reluctant to leave party candidacy entirely in the hands of local boards.
The NDP have also pledged a free vote and are supportive of the bill, while the leader of the Bloc Quebecois leader opposes the bill, saying it undercuts the power of political parties.
Four Conservative backbenchers immediately came out in support of Mr. Chong’s Reform Act, but the party’s Democratic Reform minister has refused to say whether the bill will be a free vote – suggesting Conservative MPs may be ordered to vote a certain way.
On Wednesday, after the Conservative caucus meeting, Mr. Chong took to Twitter to say he’s “optimistic” about “substantial support,” but some MPs had doubts.
Alberta MP Leon Benoit said feelings were “mixed” about Mr. Chong’s bill. “We’ll learn more about it, and we’ll have debate and we’ll have a vote” in caucus, he said. Asked whether the bill can pass, Ontario Conservative MP Chungsen Leung said: “I think it needs to be reviewed first before we can consider that.”
Wai Young, a Conservative MP from Vancouver, applauds the “intent that he wants to convey” but has concerns with Mr. Chong’s bill. For instance, she believes 15 per cent is “absolutely too low” a bar to trigger a leadership review.
“I think the one thing we have learned, through the successive minority governments, is that Canadians want the stability that majority governments bring. And so when you have bars set as low as 15 per cent that’s not going to bring a lot of stability to the political system. We saw this happen in Australia recently where they’ve had musical chairs with their leaders,” Ms. Young said, adding she expects vigorous debate on it.
“You have a lot of personalities that are across the country [in the Conservative caucus]. So that’s where one has to really look at his bill, think about it and debate it. I’m looking forward to being at home and talking about it with my constituents, and to see where they’re at,” she said.
Mr. Chong has said he’s overwhelmed by the feedback on his bill, but is open to “constructive amendments” to improve it.
“It’s early and many will need to review [the bill] before making a decision,” Mr. Chong said on Twitter Wednesday. “I expect a vigorous debate.”