Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet has opened the door to passing an amended version of the Reform Act, a backbencher's bill that would substantially claw back the power of party leaders and hand more grassroots power to individual members of Parliament.
The bill, tabled in December by Conservative MP Michael Chong, is set for discussion in a private caucus meeting on Wednesday, sources say. A notice sent to MPs says the event will be hosted by Mr. Chong and Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, who has so far stayed largely quiet about the bill's prospects. That meeting comes on the heels of another recent caucus meeting at which sources say the bill was discussed, including amendments that may boost its chance of passing.
Conservative Whip John Duncan said on Tuesday no decision has been made on how cabinet will be told to vote – "It's in motion," he said – but that the party is working with Mr. Chong to get Bill C-559 passed. "I think we're trying to work with the proponents. We generally try to find a way to work with the proponent to make it work," Mr. Duncan said.
It is now expected by some caucus sources that the vote on the bill will be free for backbenchers even if cabinet votes against it. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair favours the bill, which is likely also to find broad support among his party members in a free vote. With Liberal backing and enough Conservative backbenchers, an amended version could pass without the support of Mr. Harper's cabinet.
A vote on second reading would come in early June, Mr. Chong said, and the bill would then head to committee. Since it was tabled, the Reform Act has triggered extensive debate about the role of Canadian MPs, and Mr. Chong has said regularly he is open to amendments.
"I've taken some of the public suggestions that people have come forward with, and I'm in the process of preparing amendments to the bill in order to strengthen the bill – but also to garner even more support for the bill to ensure its passage at second reading," Mr. Chong said on Tuesday.
Amendments include raising the level of support needed to trigger a leadership review. The bill's initial proposal would have required just 15 per cent of caucus. Mr. Chong says he plans to raise that to 20 per cent, and add a requirement to publish the names of those who vote in favour of a review. To push out a leader, Mr. Chong says, the bill will require more than 50 per cent of the entire caucus, rather than the initial proposal of a majority of those present at the vote.
The bill also would have handed the power to local electoral associations to approve a person's candidacy, which is currently held by party leaders. Mr. Chong says he is willing to give that power to a provincial nomination officer elected by the heads of electoral associations in each province.
Asked if he can win support of cabinet, Mr. Chong replied: "That's why I'm bringing forward these amendments. I'm hoping to win the support of the government for the bill, and I'm hoping to gain substantial multiparty support. I don't expect unanimity in support of the bill, but I do want significant multiparty support, and that's precisely why I'm working on these amendments."
In a March 7 interview, Mr. Poilievre said the party had not yet made a decision on the Reform Act.
"I respect what Mike Chong is attempting to do with this bill. He's put many years of thought and research into this proposal. We're studying it carefully. Caucus and government have yet to take a position in response to the bill," Mr. Poilievre said. Asked whether amendments might ensure passage, he replied: "I just don't want to speculate on what changes he's willing to consider … we have some time."