Sunday, December 08, 2013

My problems with Chong’s Reform Act and my own preferences for reform

Having finally gotten around to reading Michael Chong’smuch-ballyhooed Reform Act, which is being pushed by the media pundit class with a fervor that would make most partisans blush, I feel that, while well-intentioned, what the act proposes is flawed and suffers from a narrowness of view that has trouble looking south of the Queensway.

The act deals primarily with four things: the ability of the caucus to fire the leader, the nomination process (ending the ability of the leader to veto a candidacy by refusing to sign their nomination papers), the removal of MPs from caucus, and the election of the caucus chair. I support the last one, so I’ll instead focus on the first three.

Nomination of candidates

With regards to nominations, the act would create the position of “nomination officer” who would be elected by the riding association to oversee the nomination of a candidate. The riding association would set the time and date for the nomination contest, and the nomination officer would report the name of the party’s nominee to Elections Canada, thus eliminating the ability of the party leader to effectively veto a nominated candidate by refusing to endorse them to Elections Canada.

This sounds good from a distance, as for all parties the nomination process is a serious mess, open to abuse by party officials who can seek to influence the outcome by setting timelines that favour certain candidates or refusing to “greenlight” the candidacy of others. I’m not wholly opposed to removing the formal veto, although I don’t recall the last time it was used and, in the today rare instance of a single-issue takeover of a contest, it may be nice to have. Nevertheless, we can probably lose it.

However, the Chong solution is trading one set of problems for another. Unsurprisingly for a caucus-driven proposal, it would serve to entrench the position of incumbent MPs at the expense of a more open nomination. All parties have a range of riding associations across the country, from the non-existent and dormant, to the open and inclusive, to the ones ran as closed-shops, tightly controlled by an incumbent MP or a past MP or other prospective future nomination candidate.

By and large, his proposal would merely shift the tinkering and jury-rigging of the nomination process from the hands of the leader and his or her appointees to the MP or one prospective candidate that controls the riding association. That may be an improvement for the MP, who can better ensure their nomination is safe, not just from the party leader but from other challengers, but it’s not an improvement for an open and transparent nomination process nor for the party members and citizens of the riding at large.

Firing the leader

The part of Chong’s bill that has gotten the most attention is giving caucus the formal ability to fire the leader that was duly elected by the party’s members (and, in the case of the Liberals, its supporters). It would allow for 15 per cent of caucus members to trigger a vote of confidence in the leader by the caucus, with a majority vote firing the leader and triggering a leadership race, with the interim leader to be selected by the caucus.

I have serious problems with this proposal and, like its solution to nomination contests, its bias is that it ignores the party membership and focuses solely on the prerogative of the caucus. The leader is not elected by the caucus; the leader is elected by and derives its mandate from the party membership (and supporters). This includes the caucus members, but also party members across the country. Caucus members have an influential voice in any leadership contest, but they have one vote, just like any other member. Such a reform would make more sense in the context of the leader being directly elected by caucus itself, but that reform is not on the table and is a bad idea for a whole other column’s worth of reasons.

As proposed, this reform is an anti-democratic usurping of the rights and prerogatives of the party membership that is far more representative of the nation than any parliamentary caucus. If the proposal was to make it easier for the party membership (which, again, includes caucus members) to trigger a leadership review, I’d be open to debating that. But allowing tens of caucus members to override the wishes of tens of thousands of party members is a non-starter for me.

Also easy to overlook here is that this bill would give the right to select the interim leader to the caucus. Today, in the case of the Liberal Party, for example, while the advice of caucus is sought and is undoubtedly highly influential, it is the national board of the party – elected by and answerable to the party membership – that selects the interim leader. This was the case when Bob Rae took over for Michael Ignatieff. While it’s unlikely the caucus choice would not be accepted unless the circumstances were extraordinary, I don’t support this change.

Removal of MPs from caucus

Today, by convention, removing an MP from caucus is essentially the prerogative of the party leader. Chong’s bill would instead rest that power with the caucus. The only way an MP could be removed from caucus would be by a majority vote of the caucus, a process that can be triggered by the request of 15 per cent of the caucus.

I’m not as wholly opposed to this reform as I am to the two above, but I’m not sold yet either. In my view, removal from caucus should only happen in extreme circumstances, when a member has acted or voted contrary to a fundamentally-held principle of the party, on an issue the caucus itself has agreed by majority vote is a matter of confidence. Such occasions should be rare, but they do exist: it’s easier to get elected under a party banner, but it also means sharing a few certain core principles of what that party and its candidates and members stand for. These should be known going in and, if you can’t agree, maybe you’re running for the wrong party. I want MPs free to speak and vote as they wish on 99 per cent of issues but, if you’re going to represent a party, you do need to share its values, and not just view it as a convenient banner to get elected under.

So in essence I guess I’m likely fine with this one, although I do still feel a certain weariness for reasons I’m unable to articulate.

My own thoughts on reform

Allow me to offer a few possible alternative proposals for reform as a jumping-off point for discussion that may more effectively address some of the wider issues Chong’s Reform Act seeks to address.

On nomination reform, there are two ways we could go.

  • Within the party system, it could be mandated that nominations for all ridings open on a pre-determined and publicly known date, with set deadlines flowing backward from that date for membership cutoff, approval as a nomination candidate, submission of nomination papers, and so on. In combination with the removal of the leader veto with the creation of the nomination officer as envisioned by Chong, and a transparent process for approval as a candidate, this would remove the ability of the party leadership (as today) or the MP or possible candidate that controls the riding association (as under Chong’s proposal) to manipulate the process for a favoured candidate. Everyone would have a level playing-field under which to contest the nomination.
  •  If we want to think bigger, we could move to an Elections Canada-run primary system for nomination races, where every resident of the riding has the option to register as a supporter of a party and vote in only one nomination race, which could all happen at the same time on a pre-determined and known timeline similar to that outlined above, but ran by Elections Canada to ensure transparency and fairness. My concern with this scenario is the dilution of the privileges of party membership, similar to the concerns I expressed when the Liberals debated the issue in the leadership selection context in 2012.
Both scenarios address the core issue Chong sought to address – leaders keeping caucus members under the whip by threatening to veto their nominations – without having the side-effect, as his proposal does, of making it more difficult for members/citizens to exercise their democratic prerogative to nominate another candidate for the next election.

On the issue of caucus firing the leader, I’m less inclined to propose radical reform because I fundamentally oppose what Chong is proposing to do. As mentioned, the caucus doesn’t elect the leader, the membership (and supporters) do, and caucus should not have the right to overrule the democratically expressed will of the membership by fiat. We members would like to reserve that right for ourselves. If caucus members don’t like that, perhaps they should consider how they’re going to get re-elected without thousands of loyal volunteers to knock on doors, stuff envelopes and make donations. Chong’s bill shows a pretty fundamental disrespect for the party loyalists, volunteers and workers without whom they would not be in Parliament. The party is bigger than just the caucus.

While the ability to fire the leader must remain with the membership, I would be open to considering making it easier to trigger a leadership review vote. Currently, in the case of the Liberals, a leadership endorsement vote is held with every member having the option to vote as part of the process of selecting delegates to the first biennial after an election in which the party did not form government.

As far as I’d be willing to consider going towards what Chong proposes is to allow a majority vote of caucus to trigger a leadership endorsement vote by the membership of the party. If the leader is endorsed, the leader stays on. If the leader is not endorsed, a leadership race is triggered. And, of course, the leader could chose to quit having lost the support of caucus, triggering a leadership race. But the ultimate power should rest with the party membership, not with caucus. If you’re a caucus member that doesn’t like the leader the party membership wants, maybe you’re in the wrong party, or need to accept that in a democracy you don't always get your way.

It’s not all about Parliament Hill

I’ve gone on too long already, so I’ll leave the need to think beyond Ottawa when it comes to political reforms for a future post. Instead, I’ll just close by saying I do support reforms to empower individual MPs, to allow them to speak to constituency concerns and stray from the party line when it’s not on an issue of fundamental principle. When considering how to accomplish such goals though, we can’t merely look at Parliament Hill, at MPs and leaders, in isolation.

Party leaders and MPs are (unless they’re independents) members of a political party. Parties include a leader, they include (hopefully) caucus members, and they include members (and even supporters). They’re all united by common goals, and a common idea and vision, and by policies they come together to debate and discuss and then go forward and support. The party doesn’t exist just on Parliament Hill – it exists right across the country, and any reform worth considering will acknowledge this.

I want to devolve power in our political system. But I don’t see a devolution from the party leader to the caucus as a particularly desirable step forward – instead, I want it devolved to the party membership itself, whether it’s picking our nomination candidates and our leader, or developing our election platform. 
If MPs have a stronger mandate from their party membership and local residents they’ll be able to exercise more independence from the party leadership, while still recognizing there are issues that bind all party members together.

That’s the kind of reform I could get behind. In the mean time, while I understand the desire for change in many quarters, that doesn't mean we should blindly hop in the first piece of reform that comes along. And far from behind an imperfect step forward, this bill seems like an ill-advised step in the wrong direction.

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bazie said...

I think the problems with the expunging caucus members is actually the worst of the three (I agree with your criticism on ejecting the leader, and think the electoral reform changes are largely irrelevant). What I worry about is pressures towards homogeneity and suppression of dissenting voices. Already I think that the top (particularly for the Cons) basically imposes the views and everyone else is expected to follow along. Because of the thresholds (15% to trigger, 50% to expel) it makes it very easy to get rid of someone - or threaten to, which is almost as effective - unless they fall in line with the majority of the party. This is particularly important because parties change their views on issues (such as, say, gay rights) over time first by a small number of members supporting it and then it grows. But if someone has to fear that their lone support of a position that is against the party orthodoxy and only takes 15% of the hardcore stalwarts on this issue to trigger a politically risky move against them, perhaps they just don't bother. The party would then tend towards homogeneity.

I also think that while many parties do have various sets of views that are sort of litmus test issues, there are many such litmus tests in the make up of any given party, and one can be lock step with the party on all but one. People should be able to violate a central party tenet without fear that this can mean expulsion.

kcm said...

I'm going to play a bit if devil's advocate since I've already posted a hybrid membership/ caucus sharing of the right to call for a LR, with members getting the final say at firsties)
But as I read you, you've completely missed the point of Chong's proposal. It's not just to loosen the grip of the leadership , it's to bind the caucus mp more closely to their constituents rather then the party ; the other voters here if you remember.
Still, I support our compromise since members now choose leaders and constituents play no part in that. They can however become members.