Michael Chong's Reform Act may not clear Senate before election

Michael Chong's much-discussed and mostly amended Reform Act cleared the House of Commons in late February. But as the clock ticks toward summer recess, the Senate has yet to send it to committee. Could senators kill it by failing to prioritize?

Private member's bill amended to get all-party support in Commons, now in jeopardy as election looms

Conservative MP Michael Chong has been working since late 2013 on a private member's bill to reform Parliament. He agreed to many concessions to secure its passage through the House of Commons in February - but now even the amended bill may not clear the Senate. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Michael Chong's much-discussed and mostly amended Reform Act cleared the House of Commons in late February.

But as the clock ticks toward summer recess, the Senate has yet to send it to committee.

Could senators effectively kill C-586 by failing to prioritize it for passage before Parliament dissolves?

"There is more than enough time for the Senate to pass the bill before the end of June. The question is... whether or not the Senate has the will to pass the bill," Chong told CBC News on Tuesday.

Chong had to scale back his original ambitions, but says the bill passed by MPs still offers "meaningful reform" in the form of freer votes in the Commons and more power for MPs to represent their constituents.

But intended rules around MPs triggering leadership reviews, suspending and reinstating caucus members and selecting caucus chairs became more like voluntary guidelines when the bill was amended. Another option limits the power of a party leader to approve candidates.

The former cabinet minister turned backbencher says despite his lobbying, the Senate has done "practically nothing" to advance the bill. (It has been up for debate twice, with few senators weighing in before debate adjourned.)

"What I've been told is that the Senate's been quite busy, and that they've had other items on the agenda, and I think that argument made sense in the early weeks... but it's now been two-and-a-half months," he said.

The Senate does have bigger fish to fry over the pre-election heat, including anti-terrorism legislation and the latest omnibus budget bill. But Chong sees a failure to respect MPs.

"The bill didn't marginally pass the House of Commons, it overwhelmingly passed... with support from all three recognized parties ... 260 votes in favour, 17 opposed."

'Heart is in the right place'

Claude Carignan, the government leader in the Senate, wrote CBC News to say the timeline for Bill C-586 "so far is within average" and "not unusual."

Carignan said there's no mechanism available to allow his office to prioritize a private member's bill over a government bill, or speed debate. Changes were proposed to the Senate's rules committee, but Liberals there are stalling. 

Joan Fraser, deputy leader of the Senate Liberals, is one of the few senators to speak in the brief debate, so far. And she's not a fan. 

"Good intentions don't always get us where we want to go," she told the Senate last Thursday. "I believe this bill would have the perverse effect of discouraging citizens' engagement with politics and, Lord knows, we don't want to discourage citizens' engagement with politics."

While "Mr. Chong's heart is in the right place," she said, "the law should not be determining how caucuses govern themselves. It really should not."

Fraser's concerns echo arguments made during the Commons debate. Former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, for example, wrote a newspaper editorial explaining how his experience made him wary of giving a grumpy caucus the power to depose a leader picked by a party's membership.

Chong says these arguments misunderstand what the bill really does. Caucuses would vote on what applied to them.

With timing tight, "any senator who suggests that the bill should be amended, is in fact proposing to kill the bill," he said.

Doing Harper's 'dirty work'?

Senators who were elected officials before being appointed — including former Ontario Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Bob Runciman and former Liberal MP Serge Joyal — support the measures, Chong said.

"For certain senators, they were appointed by certain party leaders and they're very beholden to the existing power structure here in Ottawa. That's the reason for the resistance," he said.

"I told Michael Chong from the beginning that his party would look for a way to kill his bill, and that it was likely to the Senate that it would turn to do its dirty work," NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott wrote CBC News. "If they want to hasten their own abolition, they are going about it in exactly the right way."

"We've seen in the Duffy trial the extent to which the prime minister's office is involved in things as sensitive as the audits of sitting senators," said Liberal Dominic LeBlanc. "Partisan control of the Senate is used to make sure that in this case the House of Commons' will is thwarted.

"It's too bad because it's embarassing for one of their own members," said the Liberal house leader. "They should have the guts to stand up and defeat it, if they want to do that."

"My worry, as someone who supports a second chamber... is that if the Senate doesn't pass this bill before the end of June, the institution will be fundamentally damaged in the eyes of the public," Chong said.

Democractic reform advocate Dave Meslin has organized an online lobby effort — Friends of the Reform Act — asking supporters to write senators to ensure all the time and energy spent on C-586 isn't wasted.

"The irony is that when I accepted amendments to the bill last September, many people criticized those amendments as amending the bill to the point of it not being of any importance," Chong said. "Now there are senators who are voicing opposition to the bill precisely because they think it goes too far."


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