Michael Chong's revised reform bill would do little to boost backbench power
When Conservative MP Michael Chong launched his bid to rebalance the power between MPs and party leaders, it was seen as a noble, if doomed, endeavour — a quixotic campaign to restore a modicum of dignity to beleaguered backbenchers that would almost certainly be squelched by the front benches at the earliest possible opportunity.
Nearly one year later, Chong is about to see his bill receive a second-reading stamp of approval from the House of Commons — with the full blessing of the government.
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But his so-called Reform Act set to be sent to committee for further study next week bears little resemblance to the bill Chong originally tabled in the House.
In fact, to paraphrase Disney's Captain Barbossa, it appears that bill C-586 in its final form, like the Pirate's Code, "will be more what you might call 'guidelines' than actual rules."
Revised version introduced earlier this year
For those who tuned out midway through the slow-motion parliamentary psychodrama that has accompanied Chong's bill during its leisurely trek to the top of the private members' priority list, a brief recap of the twists and turns so far:
That rewrite raised the threshold required to trigger a leadership vote within caucus and loosened provisions that would have given local riding associations full control over the nomination of parties' candidates.
Apparently, even that wasn't enough to guarantee a second-reading victory, because Chong is now willing to accept further amendments that leave it up to the parties to decide which reforms, if any, to adopt.
He announced last week that, after having "consulted widely with colleagues from all parties," he was prepared to change the bill in response to their "constructive criticism."
Under his latest offer, the bill would still amend the Elections Act to strike out a section requiring the party leader to sign off on nominations, but it would be up to the party to designate who should have the final say — which would presumably include simply leaving it in the hands of the leader.
As for allowing MPs to trigger leadership reviews and decide other internal matters, under Chong's new proposal every caucus would hold a vote at the start of each new Parliament on whether to submit to the prescribed process.
Effectively, this would give the majority the power to preemptively veto the rights of a minority of their colleagues — 20 per cent of the caucus, under the Chong formula — to formally challenge a decision by the leader in future.
It's also not clear that there would be any requirement to, say, conduct that vote by secret ballot, to ensure MPs can exercise that franchise without fear of repercussions, or even to release the results.
Bill 'has a lot less ambition now,' Chong admits
Chong acknowledged his once-controversial bill has "a lot less ambition now," at least as far as how it would change the rules surrounding nominations.
"The parties — none of them — would have supported the bill in its current form," he told CBC News Thursday.
"It had no chance of passage in Parliament."
Instead, he believes the debate on control over the candidate selection process will go to the floor at the parties' respective national conventions.
But he maintains that the other major change — the move to a voluntary, opt-in policy for caucus-driven leadership reviews — actually strengthens it, as caucuses would be obliged to revisit the issue after each election.
Even if they vote not to adopt the protocol, he says, "at least they've made a deliberate decision."
Chong said he reserves the right to withhold the bill from third reading if the committee goes too far in amending it.
Bill neutered, says Rathgeber
But to Independent MP Brent Rathgeber — who left the Conservative Party after he saw his own private members' bill forcibly amended by his former caucus colleagues — Chong's bill has been neutered.
"The bill, in my view, will not do anything to restore parliamentary democracy, or at least won't do anything that couldn't happen now if the members were so inclined — i.e., a caucus resolving to terminate its relationship with the leader," he told CBC News.
Rathgeber also raised the suggestion that, by publicly championing the Chong bill, the Conservatives may be able to sidestep future reform of Parliament.
"The public perception is going to be that it's been fixed, because the bill has been passed in some watered down form."
Still, as Rathgeber noted, even without the bill MPs already have the power to challenge a listing leader.
There is nothing that can stop a small but outraged contingent of MPs from rising up behind closed doors and issuing an ultimatum to party leadership over an irksome legislative proposal or policy.
If they have the spine to demonstrate their objections in public, they can vote against their leader in the House — and if that leader happens to be the prime minister, that could be enough to bring down the government.
That, it seems, still constitutes far more consequence than anything contemplated by Chong in his original Reform Act.
Fortunately for MPs, and the electors they represent, that power cannot be revoked or voluntarily given away through a vote in the House of Commons, or in caucus.
with files from Laura Payton