Skip to main content

It was funny, sort of, that the last threat to Michael Chong's parliamentary Reform Act came from senators who worried it would give a handful of MPs undemocratic power.

In the end, Mr. Chong's bill, to give MPs a smidge more influence to contest the will of a party leader, was passed by the Senate on Monday night, and will become law.

But it was a hard-fought battle. Mr. Chong had to overcome the idea that it would entrench improper powers for backbench MPs, and in particular, that they are usurping the power to review and oust leaders elected by their party's "grassroots."

It was a sign of how far the place of MPs has fallen in Canadian democracy, that a small reassertion of power by the only people in the federal system who are actually elected by the Canadian people was opposed as a dangerous overreach.

Now that the small step of the Reform Act has been taken, the question is whether MPs will have the guts to use it.

In fact, the real point of this bill was to stiffen the spine of MPs, to make them feel a little more confident that they can stand up to their party leadership, to speak out or vote their conscience, without political disaster being brought down upon them.

Mr. Chong believes, as many do, that MPs always had all these powers, but they were unwritten and unclear, so MPs were wary of trying to use them. This bill will shift that balance.

"It's going to lighten the whip," Mr. Chong said in an interview. "I think you're going to start to see it in the next Parliament."

Even Mr. Chong admits this bill is a small step that won't suddenly put the backbench in charge. But, he notes rightly, it's a victory for reforms in the right direction, and more might follow.

It allows MPs in a party caucus, rather than the leader, to decide if one of their fellows should be expelled. And it allows MPs in each party to pick their caucus chair, an interim leader when it becomes necessary, and yes, to trigger a leadership review, and vote to oust a leader.

But it's not mandatory. After every election, MPs in each caucus will hold a series of votes to determine whether MPs have the power.

And then there's the risk of using them: An MP still has to stick their neck out when they break ranks, and especially if they seek to remove the leader. There are other punishments a prime minister can use, short of expelling an MP from a party, starting with killing an MP's ambitions.

What has really hurt the power of MPs, and parliamentary democracy, is an overblown sense of party discipline and partisanship. A leader decides and MPs do his bidding, and they often do it because they feel that is the path to survival, against the other parties, and within their own caucus. It makes the legislature, which is supposed to hold the executive to account, become its tool instead. Canada has evolved to executive government with a nearly irrelevant Parliament.

But even with the Reform Act, MPs will have to show spine if their leaders are to feel accountable to someone.

Senator David Wells stood up in the Red Chamber on Friday to complain that Mr. Chong's bill would allow a small number of MPs to trigger a leadership review, and a majority of a caucus could oust a leader democratically elected by their party's grassroots.

In his argument, the duly elected are required to dutifully follow someone chosen by the people who bought a party membership card. That's an upending of parliamentary democracy. Now MPs have clearer rules that define some of their power, but they still need backbone to use it.