A lot of people have been rooting for the Reform Act, a private member's bill tabled in 2013 by Conservative backbencher Michael Chong to limit party leaders' autocratic control over members of Parliament. Many of the bill's supporters now feel betrayed because Mr. Chong is proposing amendments that scale back its original remedies. Some feel the bill has been gutted.
They're wrong. Mr. Chong is doing what it takes to get his bill passed. If he succeeds, the Reform Act in the form he is now proposing will still realign the balance of power in Parliament.
In Ottawa, party leaders wield their legislated power to approve nominations in each riding and to boot people out of caucus as disciplinary clusterbombs, killing off independent thought. MPs have been reduced to rubber stamps and mouthpieces.
Mr. Chong's original bill tilted the field in almost entirely in the reverse direction. It gave riding associations the sole discretion to choose a candidate. And it restored the traditional right of caucus members to review and potentially replace the party leader at any time, and to have a say, via a vote, on the expulsion of wayward MPs.
Admirable as those reforms were, they were never going to make it into law. Many MPs were ready to say yes; most parties were not. Mr. Chong is now wisely proposing to give final say over nominations to "a person to be designated by each registered political party," rather than to individual riding associations. In other words, a party leader like Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau would no longer have statutory control over candidate selection. That power would fall to someone chosen by the party as a whole. It could still be the party leader. But different parties could, and would, make different choices.
As for caucus powers, Mr. Chong is proposing that, after every general election, each caucus as its legislated first order of business vote on whether to give themselves the power to remove a party leader or leave the rules as they are. It will be worth a leader's while not to exercise her or his control over caucus in a tyrannical fashion. That's because each party's MPs will have to make a public choice about these rules – and do so after each election. This is not a revolution. But it opens the door to evolution.
Mr. Chong hopes these amendments will give the Reform Act the support it needs to pass. That's our hope, too. Complaints that the bill has been watered down are moot – it never would have passed in its original form. If it can become law without further compromise, it will give us a Parliament in which party leaders are no longer so comfortable lording it over their MPs. A better Parliament, in other words.