The romance with half-assed reform proposals


Throughout his press conference this morning around the introduction of the Reform Act, 2013, Conservative MP Michael Chong insisted that the changes he was proposing would simply bring Canada back into line with other Westminster parliaments such as the UK and Australia in giving the caucus the power to dismiss the leader. This, however, is not exactly the case. It relies on the omission of the key fact that the ways in which these parties tend to select their leaders impacts on the ways in which they can overturn them.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen the disconnect between inputs and outputs when discussing a reform proposal. The entire discussion around Senate reform is replete with these kinds of convenient omissions, most notably around the desire by many to elect senators. So while they focus on the inputs into the system, they dismiss any notion of the outputs, or rather the consequences of what changing those inputs has on the overall system. This kind of myopia is endemic with any such discussions because there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for consequence-based thinking with any reform proposals that sound good on paper, or which seek to address a symptom without addressing root causes.

In the case of the Reform Act, the ability for the caucus to turn over a sitting leader when they didn’t select him or her is problematic. This goes back to when the Liberals opened up their leader selection process to a delegated convention in 1919, and William Lyon Mackenzie King was named leader and eventually prime minister. King was keenly aware of the dynamics that put him into place, because it gave him a legitimacy that extended beyond the caucus. Thus, when an issue came up that the caucus was pushing back at him he is reported to have told them that because they hadn’t selected him, they couldn’t remove him. This kind of “democratic legitimacy” argument gets even harder to dispute the more the parties broaden that particular franchise under the rubric of making their leaders “more democratic,” from either one-member-one vote, to the quasi-primary system that the Liberals put into place last year for their most recent leadership process. Because Justin Trudeau can say that he has the endorsement of some ten thousand-plus votes, he commands the greatest democratic legitimacy of not only his party, but of any leader in the Commons.

This is the tension that Chong’s bill now finds itself in. Sure he may say that this bill simply codifies the convention that the leader must also have the confidence of his or her caucus, and puts in place a mechanism whereby fifteen percent of the caucus can call for a leadership review vote, and a secret ballot of the entire caucus would follow, it doesn’t change that dynamic whereby a leader can claim democratic legitimacy, or that the membership can consider the caucus to be making short-term calculations against their wishes. It muddies the lines of accountability, which is what a significant portion of our entire system of government revolves around. It is more than just voting to decide on representation, but also voting to hold those in the system to account, and there needs to be that line between decision and accountability. This hybrid system makes a mess of that line.

The difference in the UK and Australia, until recently, was that it was the caucus that selected their leaders, and thus could remove them in that clear line of accountability. But even that has recently started changing, where UK parties and now moving toward a system more akin to that in Canada where the party membership is now selecting the leaders, as we saw with the election of Ed Milliband as the leader of the Labour Party, and Kevin Rudd began the process in Australia of making it harder for the Labour Party there to turn over their leaders as he and Julia Gillard did to one another. Because those systems of input (until recently) matched the system of output, there was no institutional tension. Now there will be, and in Canada, this tension will simply be exacerbated by Chong’s bill.

A similar example exists with the proposal to elect senators, where newly democratically empowered senators will be looking to exercise that power, and will claim greater democratic legitimacy than MPs by virtue of having been elected by a much larger electorate. That none of the proponents of these elections feels that this will be a problem — at best shrugging it off with the platitude that “surely anything is better than what we have now” — are betraying just how little thought has gone into their reform proposals, and the extent of the problems that will follow.

That Chong wants to restore the principles of Responsible Government in our parliament is a good thing. The problem is that he isn’t actually restoring them, but is looking to institute a half-measure that will only serve to muddy the waters and create even greater confusion. If you want to return Canada to a Westminster democracy without the presidential Americana that we have slowly been grafting onto the system, then you have to be serious and clear-eyed about it, looking at the inputs as well as the outputs. Half-measures can’t do the job, and may make a bad situation worse.

2 thoughts on “The romance with half-assed reform proposals

  1. Pingback: Canadian government MP tables bill to reform powers of party leaders, caucuses

  2. Great piece. I haven’t decided where I sit regarding the Reform Act generally, but I am happy to see the conversation it’s provoking. Since there are several components to the bill and this piece has focused mostly on the removing-leaders portion, I will focus on that as well.

    While most of the arguments around the Reform Act have focused on taking away power from the PMO and giving it back to MPs (and therefore have suggested this is as much a rebuke of Trudeau Sr., Mulroney, Chretien, as it is of Harper), I would suggest this is specifically an attack on Harper’s style of governance. In his interview with Coyne, Chong says: “The prime minister has my confidence to carry out the mandate voters gave Conservative MPs in the 2011 election.” While this seems relatively innocuous, this goes against Harper’s entire message regarding minority governance, culminating in his attacks on the coalition in 2008. Harper’s message has been consistently that democratic mandate trumps the will of the House. This is why we still talk about 2011 as if it was Ignatieff who called an election, rather than Harper who lost the confidence of the House.

    The fundamental question that Chong raises, obliquely but, I would argue in that quote especially, firmly, is do the Canadian people elect MPs to represent them or a (presidential) Prime Minister? Harper has spent his entire term as PM arguing the latter, and Chong has argued otherwise. Even if the problem Chong is combating is one of rhetoric, rhetoric is what has gotten us in this mess in the first place.

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