Conservative MP Michael Chong is the author of one of the most dramatic moments in Canadian federal politics in recent history. His 2015 private member’s bill, the Reform Act, was the instrument used to effect the ouster of Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole last February, leading to the leadership race that will be decided on Saturday.
Now he’s at it again, with a trio of proposed parliamentary reforms to further address the imbalance of power between party leaders and elected members of Parliament.
Not that the Reform Act has been much used. It gives caucuses the power to vote on the expulsion of an MP, and to vote for a caucus chair and an interim leader, should the need arise. Above all, it gives caucus members the power to trigger a leadership review and then oust the leader with a simple majority vote – the mechanism that sealed Mr. O’Toole’s fate.
But those powers aren’t automatic. Each caucus has to vote to give itself access to them, or not, after every general election. To date, only the Conservatives has done so. And only once, after the 2021 election, have they gone as far as to select “leadership review” from the menu. MPs from the other parties have consistently chosen to leave all power in the hands of their leaders.
Which is not ideal. Party leaders in Canada (unlike, say, the United Kingdom) wield extraordinary power over their caucuses, which they use to enforce discipline in ways that strip MPs of any independence.
This imbalance is particularly alarming when a party forms government – especially a majority government. MPs are supposed to be a check on the executive, and the keepers of the public purse; instead, they have been reduced to biotic voting machines, operated remotely from the Prime Minister’s Office, rubber-stamping legislation and budgets dictated from above.
Maverick MPs can find themselves thrown out of caucus for failing to toe the party line, or for not voting according to the leader’s wishes – something Mr. Chong tried to address in the Reform Act. But the party leader and his or her minions have other strings to pull, some of which are the targets of Mr. Chong’s latest proposed reforms.
Unlike the British Parliament, where the Speaker recognizes any MP who rises to ask a question or take part in a debate – and where MPs in the governing party routinely ask tough questions of cabinet ministers – the Speaker in Ottawa tends to only call on MPs approved in advance by their party and presented to him on a list.
This is a violation of MPs’ constitutional right to speak freely in the House – a right considered so fundamental to their role as elected representatives that anything they say in the Commons is protected from prosecution or civil liability. Mr. Chong wants to restore the Speaker’s power to call on any MPs who rise to speak, and give them back their voices.
He also wants Parliament to follow the British model of letting MPs elect committee members by secret ballot, instead of leaving it to the PM and opposition leaders to choose. This would strip party leaders of their ability to reward the slavishly partisan with plum committee jobs, and punish less obedient MPs by keeping them on the sidelines.
Finally, he wants to remove the prime minister’s power to name key Parliamentary officers, such as the Clerk of the House of Commons and the law clerk, and give it to the Speaker – another traditional British practice. This would reinforce the public perception, and the fact, of the impartiality of these vital roles – something that came into question last year when questions arose about whether the Clerk of the House was favouring the Liberal Party.
Some might argue that giving MPs more independence could lead to instability. Just look at how many leaders the Conservative parties of Canada and Britain have gone through since 2016 (six and counting between them).
But democracy is a delicate balance of powers. Its legitimacy depends in equal parts on the government’s ability to get bills through Parliament and on MPs’ ability to have some influence over the governments and parties they represent.
In Ottawa, that balance long ago tilted too far in favour of the office of the leader. Canada has a very presidential prime-ministership. Mr. Chong’s reforms are a measured and needed response. The only thing standing between them being implemented are party leaders whose interests are served by the status quo.
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