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Conservative MP Michael Chong addresses a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday December 3, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Conservative MP Michael Chong addresses a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday December 3, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Conservative MP unveils bill to give backbenchers more independence Add to ...

A Conservative backbencher has proposed a bill that would beef up MPs’ powers and claw back those of party leaders, triggering a cross-partisan debate over the powers of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his fellow party leaders.

Michael Chong’s Reform Act bill is meant to reverse what he calls decades of gradual consolidation of power in the hands of party leaders, a move that has already drawn support from fellow Conservatives and opposition MPs alike.

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But while Mr. Chong stresses the private member’s bill is not a rebuke of Mr. Harper, Bill C-559 nonetheless comes at a time when the scope of the Prime Minister’s Office is under scrutiny for its handling of the Senate expense scandal, and in a year in which Mr. Harper has faced calls for more backbencher freedom and saw an MP quit because of interference from his office.

All that presents an opportunity to consider the changes, Mr. Chong said, adding he’s “optimistic” Mr. Harper may actually back his bill.

“I think it’s good timing for the party and for the government,” the Ontario MP told The Globe and Mail in his Parliament Hill office on Tuesday, after introducing the bill. “I think it’s also good for Canadians to change the channel from the constant talk about scandals to a more foundational debate about the kind of Parliament we want.”

The bill would bring in three key reforms, but wouldn’t take effect until after the 2015 election. It would codify MPs’ power over who is kicked out or readmitted to caucus and, secondly, allow them to kick out a leader. The current rules on those subjects are “vague and opaque because they’ve not been clearly defined,” Mr. Chong said. His bill defines them. The third proposal would strip party leaders of the power to approve candidates in each election.

The bill aims to reverse the growing power of party leaders by “restoring the power and the role of the elected member of Parliament,” Mr. Chong said, adding anyone who things the bill is a response to current party leaders, or controversies, “is missing the points of the bill.”

The bill’s fate is murky. Private member’s bills often fail, in part because of lack of support from the governing party, but Conservative backbench MPs James Rajotte, Stella Ambler, Larry Miller and Kyle Seeback are already backing Mr. Chong. NDP MPs will be allowed to vote freely on the bill and their Democratic Reform critic backs it. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supports the “broad objectives,” but didn’t say if his party would vote for it.

What the rest of the Conservatives, including cabinet, will do is unclear – and there are no guarantees Mr. Harper will allow a free vote on the bill, as is common on private member’s bills. Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre twice on Tuesday declined to say whether it would be a free vote. “Caucus still needs time to review the proposal” before taking a position on Mr. Chong’s bill, PMO spokesman Jason MacDonald said.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May supports the bill, saying it’s “critical we dismantle the level of control in the Prime Minister’s Office, and also of all other party leaders.” She said it will likely pass if the Liberals and NDP back it. Mr. Miller went so far as to challenge those parties to do just that. “They especially have always said we need democratic reform. Well, put your money where your mouth is and vote for this. In my opinion, if they don’t support this, they’re hypocrites,” he said.

Independent MPs Brent Rathgeber, who quit the Conservative caucus this year, and Bruce Hyer also support the bill. Mr. Hyer called it “a litmus test on whether we have democracy or not.”

Mr. Chong stresses he continues to support the Prime Minister, and brushes aside questions of whether his own nomination papers may be refused by Mr. Harper before 2015. Mr. Chong says he has been humbled and surprised by early pledges of support for the bill.

“I’m excited because it means that we are doing what Canadians want us to do, which is to fix and improve their parliamentary system of government. That excites me, because I think it’ll reconnect Parliament to Canadians,” he said.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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