Elizabeth May has tabled yet another Private Members’ Bill which she is flogging before the media tomorrow, and this time it’s about one of the necessary steps to restore some of the necessary balance to our Westminster system of democracy. In this case, it is specifically to do with limiting the power of the party leader to sign off on nomination papers, which has become a kind of blackmail tool that leaders have increasingly employed to keep their caucus in line. It’s a valiant effort on May’s part, and props to her for giving it a go, but let’s step back for a moment and remember a few things.
Number one – this is not the only bill she has on offer. In fact, she has five others on the Order Paper already. In all likelihood, this will never see the light of day. She herself has admitted that she hasn’t decided which of her bills she’ll bring forward when her slot comes up on the Order Paper – not that it’ll stop the usual round of “But the government is totally free to pick this up and I’ll withdraw it, I’m doing this to raise awareness” and other kinds of equivocations and excuses that MPs make when you confront them with this fact. As such, I’m usually loathe to give too much attention to these kinds of bills because it just encourages MPs to spend more time tabling them and holding press conferences and events in support of them “to build support,” even though they’ll never see the light of day, when they should instead be spending their time doing their actual jobs, which has a lot more to do with studying the estimates and holding the government to account. But since May is pretty good on that to begin with, I’ll give this one a pass.
Number two – this is a somewhat cynical attempt to latch onto the whole Warawa Rebellion/”Backbench Spring,” whose thrall We The Media are caught up in. Yes, it’s important that we’re having these discussions and that we’re starting to see some faint sparks of life in the backbenches that have to do with their actual roles of holding the government to account. But let’s also remember that this can’t actually be done piecemeal, which this bill is. If we’re to make a genuine restoration to Westminster principles of strong representative democracy, then ensuring that leaders don’t need to sign off on nominations is only one piece of the puzzle. Broader reform needs to happen, most especially is the way in which leadership contests are run in this country. The reason why backbenchers have actual powers in other Westminster democracies is because they select and remove the leaders – not the broader membership, or as the Liberals rather ineptly decided to do in their latest contest, anyone who totally swears that they’re not a member of another party to help decide, even though they have no actual loyalty to the party whose leader they are choosing. Yes, it’s been done under the rubric of “more democracy,” but as was soon discovered, “more democracy” means “less accountability,” and with their “democratic legitimacy,” leaders elected under these newer systems have resisted caucus efforts to remove them because as they rightly pointed out, said caucus didn’t select the leader and can’t remove him or her. Until that kind of change happens, limiting the ability to sign off on candidate nominations can only be seen as little more than a half measure.
Number three – the bill as drafted seems to ignore some of the history around why the changes were made in 1970, and leaves gaping holes for problems to crop up. I spent some time this past summer going over those changes in 1970 as part of the research for my book on civic literacy (which is still awaiting a publisher, for the record), and it might surprise you to know that the concern that a leader might use this power of signing off as a tool of control was never once mentioned in debate, either in the Commons or in committee. The major change at the time was that they were going to put party affiliations on the ballots instead of the candidate’s address and occupation, a practice that had become increasingly problematic. Alongside these changes were spending controls on political parties, which made party identification necessary in order to apply the controls, but because political parties were not well defined legal entities, they needed some means of control, so that any candidate couldn’t simply declare themselves the candidate for one party or another, or to put a similar party name on the ballot (ie: “Progressive Conservative Party FOR Canada” instead of “Progressive Conservative Party of Canada”). They used the leader’s signoff as that tool. Let’s be clear – we can’t realistically go back to a system where the party identification is taken off the ballots, given those very same spending controls, and given that publishing addresses is no longer kosher, nor would it address the inherent problems around listing an occupation, especially where it concerns the incumbent.
The other reason, anecdotally cited by not in the debates at the time, was the problem of pro-life groups hijacking local nominations, especially amongst the Liberals. (Remember this was just after the sweeping omnibus bill of 1969 did things like decriminalising homosexual and allowing birth control and abortion under certain circumstances, and pro-life groups were on a rampage). The feeling at the time was that for “quality control” purposes – as in, avoiding a hijacking – the leader’s signature would keep things in check. Obviously that tool has been misused in other ways, but May’s bill doesn’t allow for an alternate mechanism to dump a candidate in the event of a hijacked nomination or other problem. The most it demands is that one board member from the riding’s executive endorse the nominee, and if there is no riding executive, then the leader can sign off in his or her stead. If the aim is to ensure that the control remains in the grassroots and not the leader’s office, then it would seem to me that there should be some other mechanism in place. A single board member is no insurance against a hijacked riding – it should be just as easy to get a single board member in place as it would be to hijack the nomination – which is why there should be a more robust means of checking the power. Perhaps the party president, or a meeting of the riding presidents could serve as that override mechanism, as those remain within the grassroots of the party and outside of the leader’s control. But as it stands, May’s bill leaves this gaping hole.
Like I said before, it’s a valiant effort, but one that has its problems. Hopefully it can be used as that means for a broader discussion rather than just a shiny bauble tossed into the ring while the Warawa Rebellion/”Backbench Spring” rages on around it. But unless we have that honest dialogue with the bigger picture – selection and removal of leadership, getting over this false notion of “more democracy,” and even more broadly, tossing away lists and scripts from the Commons entirely – this particular piece of the puzzle is wholly inadequate to actually addressing the problems that have developed within our system, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.