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Caution, democracy at work: Chong’s Reform Act passes

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

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Thanks to Michael Chong, this year's federal election just got more interesting. Mr. Chong, a Conservative MP from Ontario, has managed to get his Reform Act passed by the House of Commons. The bill has been watered down from its ambitious original form, but it still puts a check on the powers that party leaders use to silence MPs and turn them into rubber stamps.

The bill makes two changes. In the first, it removes the statutory requirement in the Canada Elections Act that party leaders sign off on their party's nominee in each riding. Under the Reform Act, that crucial power to decide who gets to call themselves a Conservative, Liberal, NDP or Green candidate will go to a "person or persons authorized by the political party."

Perhaps each party will choose to leave that authority where it is now, with the party leader. But until now, MPs had no choice about who had the ultimate say over whether they got to be an MP. Now they have a choice, which means there can be debate about an important issue.

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The other change is to the Parliament of Canada Act, and it is the more crucial one for the impending election. The bill allows a caucus to remove its chair or its leader, or expel a member, if 20 per cent of the members call for a review. If the 20-per-cent threshold is reached, then there is a second, secret vote on the matter. If 50 per cent plus one of all caucus members vote to remove the leader or the chair, or expel a member, then that's what happens.

But here's the catch: These powers are available to MPs, but they are not automatic. The bill obliges party caucus members to decide at their first meeting after an election whether they wish to take advantage of the powers in the Reform Act, or stick with the status quo. The vote must be recorded and reported to the Speaker.

Thus, during the federal election, voters will be able to ask candidates a big question: If elected, will you vote to empower yourself? Parties and party leaders have long lorded it over individual MPs who want to vote their conscience but can't without risking exile. The Reform Act, advanced by an independent-minded MP, negotiated with all three major parties and ultimately passed by a vote of 260 to 17, is a product of greater MP independence, and, we hope, a promise of more to come.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which should pass it quickly and without fuss so that it is in place for the election this year. And then Canadians can starting asking new questions.

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