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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Against Michael Chong's Reform Act

Michael Chong’s proposed Reform Act has been excitedly received: The bill ‘would change Canada’s Parliament forever,’ ‘repair our damaged democracy,’ ‘takes a stab at fixing Canada’s undemocratic Parliament,’ ‘could empower MPs and save democracy,’ ‘democratize democracy,’ ‘it’s the change Canada needs.’

I am Against Reform and would be expected to be suspicious of Chong’s initiative. But some claim it will return us to Westminster style parliamentary government. I should be all for that.

And I believe party leaders should be chosen by those they are to lead, the party’s MPs. So I might be expected at least to like the proposed procedure under which 15% of a party’s MPs could trigger a vote of those MPs, who could by a majority oust their leader and then choose an interim leader. But Chong’s bill is grounded in the muddled and foolish thinking that underlies all reform talk and is all bad.

As Andrew Coyne, who on this issue, if on no other, sees roughly eye to eye with me, and who is Chong’s chief cheer leader, has delicately pointed out: ‘The logic of caucus review points to election by caucus as well.’

But Chong stops short of providing that MPs should chose their own leader, because he knows, and accepts, that that would be a step too far. Had he proposed to forbid parties to choose leaders by whatever cockeyed scheme they fancy, the populist screech would have doomed his initiative.

So all the bill does is set out a procedure under which MPs could trigger a party leadership contest. The party might throw the ousted leader back at them. The bill is circumspect about that, using the words ‘review,’ ‘replace’ and ‘endorse.’ It would be a brave judge who would read it as forbidding a party to send back a leader ousted by MPs.

Supporting, following or accepting a leader are not like worshipping God or subscribing to the Furherprinzip, unqualified and unconditional. It is always a matter of compared to whom? And the ‘to whom’ is circumscribed by whom those who chose the leader like. What Chong proposes is that MPs should be provided with a procedure by which they might chose between their present leader and whoever might be chosen by whoever might be the party members or their delegates some months later, perhaps the present leader. If the party at large is unhappy with its leader or sees a better prospect, MPs might think it best to wait for the party’s own leadership review. If it is the MPs who don’t like the leader or see a better prospect, they’d risk in using Chong’s procedure up to a year of damaging party turmoil with no assurance that they’d get the one they wanted.

As things stand now, no statute or rule of the Commons requires MPs to support their leader. They do so, if they don’t simply think their leader is the best available, because they accept the practice, which has become part of our political culture since the fell Liberal Convention of 1919 that chose Mackenzie King as leader, of leader selection on the model of American candidate selection. They may even think that’s best. Apart from Andrew Coyne and myself hardly anyone seems to question it. The direction has all been towards longer, more involved leadership contests culminating in the nonsense of Justin Trudeau’s election by Liberal ‘supporters’ with the ever stronger implication that whomever the party people have invested as leader no MPs should set aside.

But by stopping short Chong’s bill affirms what its chief object should be to condemn. As it says

(iii) if a majority of caucus members present at the meeting referred to in subparagraph (ii) vote to replace the leader of the party, a second vote of the caucus shall be conducted immediately by secret ballot to appoint a person to serve as the interim leader of the party until a new leader has been duly elected by the party.

The party, not the MPs, are to chose the new leader.

Some may say: “At least it’s something.” But it’s not even that. You say: “If it became law it would be clear how MPs unhappy with their leader should proceed.” It is clear enough now. But if Chong’s bill passed there would be a rule. 14% of discontented MPs prepared to speak out would not be enough. 10% were enough to oust Stockwell Day from his leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2001. Had Chong’s rule been in effect their not being 15% would have been an argument to be used against them.

Best that Chong’s initiative should fail and the real issue be addressed: Why shouldn’t MPs choose who will lead them?

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