Michael Chong's Assault on Democracy: a "Reform Act" for Disloyal MPs

December 12, 2013 by  

Michael Chong’s proposed Reform Act, 2013 has been praised as a bill that would shift each party leaders’ power to their respective caucus members, thereby revitalizing an allegedly withered role of Parliament’s confidence in government, and facilitating a broader diversity of party policies and philosophies in Parliament. Whatever the merits of such arguments, they miss the essential nature and function of Mr. Chong’s would-be law, and the threat that it poses to democracy itself. The bill should be rejected by all MPs worthy of re-election.

To understand the threat posed by Mr. Chong’s bill, a review of some basic legal and political facts is in order.

Parliament and Government

Canada’s system of governance is founded upon the Westminster model that was exported to virtually all British colonies. In its current form, Canada is divided into 308 geographically-defined “electoral districts” (also called “ridings”). The adult Canadian citizens living in each riding elect one of the governed to be the MP for their riding.

Parliament is the group of people who consider how best to use physical force to govern human behavior in a way that achieves Peace, Order, and Good Government within Canada. A “member” of Parliament (an MP) is just that: a member; a member of a special sort of club, among whose number is, theoretically, the Queen, who theoretically has formed the club so as to obtain advice from club members about laws she should create or repeal.

Canada is not a republic. The “people” are not the head of state: the Queen is. The Queen is not a President: she does not represent “the people”. The individuals living on her land (she is the only person holding ownership in Canadian land: the rest of us just hold estates or tenancies in it) are her subjects.

Canada does not have a house of “representatives”. Under the written parts of Canada’s constitution, an MP is not a “representative” of the people who elected him/her. He is not a servant of his electorate: he is a servant of the Queen.

An MP is charged with the responsibility of advising the Queen as to which laws she should make and repeal. MPs do present petitions to Parliament but, not being representatives, the written parts of Canada’s constitution do not set up MPs as mere conduits through which the opinions and demands of the governed are communicated to the Crown. Hence British Conservative MP Edmund Burke’s famous statement that: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving, you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

The “government” is a number of individuals appointed by the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) to introduce bills and administer laws. The Governor General selects one MP to be the first minister – i.e., the Prime Minister – in Her Majesty’s government. Pursuant to constitutional convention in our system of “responsible government”, the MP selected by the Governor General is the MP who the Governor General believes can form and lead a government that has the “confidence” of the greatest number of MPs.

The appointed Prime Minister advises the Governor General as to which other MPs he/she thinks should be appointed as administrators of various laws. Pursuant to constitutional convention, the Governor General essentially rubber-stamps the Prime Minister’s choices, and each MP chosen by the Prime Minister is appointed a “Minister” of some part of the laws of Canada (e.g., Justice, Finance, Defence, etc.).

Political Parties

The average Canadian assumes, incorrectly, that his neighbours are all much more informed than he is about politics and policy proposals. Therefore, in the absence of a personal interest or competence in matters of politics or policy, many voters decide to operate on the assumption that there is safety in numbers. At election time, they read or hear about public polls that give them a purported numerical indication of who their neighbours are likely to vote for. Taking their lead from their neighbours, they tend to vote the same way without really knowing much about the people or policies they are voting for.

However, a very small percentage of people nonetheless exist who are highly motivated to follow politics; to read policy proposals; to get politically active; to raise money and labour in support of political candidates etc.. Such people have found that, by co-ordinating their efforts with other individuals sharing their political beliefs and aims, they can have a big impact upon who gets elected MP, and upon the terms pursuant to which he or she will get elected.

Whether registered or not – indeed, whether or not they give themselves a name – such groups of individuals are political parties. A political party is a number of individuals who work together primarily to gain increased influence or control over the laws and decisions made by MPs (both as law-makers, and as government ministers).

From the perspective of the individual who wants to become an MP, the value and power of a political party stems partly from the fact that a candidate working alone and independently cannot influence the electorate as much as a candidate having the relatively large financial and physical support of people who buy and distribute flyers and signs; who knock on doors and get sympathetic voters to the polls on election day; who stack an all-candidates debate with supporters who will clap and cheer after everything their candidate says, so that the papers report that their candidate was well-received; etc.. It stems also from the fact that, when a voter sees so many people supporting and working for a candidate, the voter is led to assume that that candidate – as opposed to the loner independent – must be well-qualified to be the riding’s MP. As electoral history shows, a candidate who is not supported by a relatively large or popular political party is unlikely to win an election. Therefore, a person seeking to become an MP, or to be re-elected, generally wants and needs the support of such a political party.

In our system of elections, a party can officially nominate (i.e., endorse) the candidacy of an individual seeking to be the MP for her riding. Hence election signs and literature that feature not only the candidate’s name, but the name of the party who has endorsed her candidacy. That endorsement is the party’s communication to the public that it supports – physically and financially – that candidate, and that the party considers that candidate a good choice for the office of MP.

A party’s endorsement is not given gratuitously. Almost without exception, a party will not endorse a candidate unless the candidate is a member of the party. Usually the party’s own constitution dictates the conditions of continued party membership. Therefore, the candidate who wants to remain a member of the party, and who wants to remain eligible for the party’s ongoing support and endorsement, will be expected to honour the terms and conditions of his membership. Normally, especially as an MP, those conditions will require the endorsed candidate/member to be loyal to the party’s aims and decisions, to promote the party’s policy proposals both during elections and between them, and – where the MP’s personal preferences are not the same as the party’s – to defer to the preferences of the party. In short, in exchange for the electoral advantage that the candidate gets from having the party’s ongoing support and endorsement, the candidate agrees to serve the party and its interests, deferring to its decisions instead of remaining free to decide matters completely independently.

New problems and opportunities arise for government between elections. A party might get around to adopting a new policy to address such developments, eventually (say, at an annual party convention) but, to be effective, a party has to have a way of deciding how to respond within months, days, hours, minutes or even seconds. Accordingly, party members normally agree upon a set of guiding principles or – at least – a general perspective on how things ought to be, and enshrine those aims and principles in their party’s constitution. And, so that the party can make policy decisions and express itself quickly on day-to-day developments, the party’s members normally elect from their number a party leader: one member who is thought best to represent the party and to make decisions consistently with the party’s aims and principles. The result is that, most of the time, the mouth of the party’s leader is the mouth of the party’s members, both during and between elections.

For that reason, a candidate’s or MP’s deference to the aims, policies and decisions of the party that endorses and supports him usually means, in practice, deference to the decisions and directives of the party’s leader. In Parliament, MPs supported and endorsed by a given party are expected to vote as a block in accordance with the decisions made by the party, as expressed by the party leader.

To ensure that MPs continue to honour the terms pursuant to which they obtained the party’s endorsement and support, Parliament has passed into law certain checks and balances against any MP inclined to take a party’s endorsement and then dishonour the conditions upon which it depended. Each party appoints a party “whip” who ensures that MPs attend for important votes, and that they vote as the party wants them to vote, as indicated by the party leader on behalf of the party’s members. MPs who cease to remain loyal to the party will find that the party ceases to remain loyal to them and, come election time, they will probably find themselves lacking a party endorsement, and losing a re-election bid.

The result of all of this, in Parliament, is that there is a reliable degree of loyalty by a party’s MPs to the decisions made by their party’s leader. That loyalty is a key part of Canada’s constitution. Because of that loyalty, the Governor General – when deciding which MP to appoint as Prime Minister – has followed the convention of appointing the leader of the party holding the greatest number of seats in the House of Commons. The rationale is simple: because MPs will tow the party line set out by the party’s leader, that party’s leader is presumed to have the ability to form and lead a government having the “confidence” of MPs that is required by our system of “responsible government”. Party discipline is the strongest guarantee of, and most easily observable evidence of, the MPs’ confidence in the government.

The effects of parties and party discipline in Parliament are apparently overlooked by many who are commenting on Mr. Chong’s proposed bill:

  • Were there no requirement that MPs defer to the preferences and directives of the party’s members – as expressed by their chosen party leader – the Governor General would have no reason to presume that a party leader can form a government having the confidence of MPs in the House of Commons. More importantly, there would be no reason for the Governor General to appoint as Prime Minister a person chosen by party members. And, more generally: there would be no reason for the Governor General to consider the preferences of the general public, because there would be no means to know which MP the general public (not MPs) wants to see appointed its Prime Minister.
  • Were there no requirement that MPs defer to the preferences and directives of their respective parties, political parties would have no influence over the laws made in the House of Commons, and no influence over the decisions made by government. More precisely: the governed would have no control over such laws or decisions, because they would have no control over the decisions made by MPs.
  • Were there no requirement that MPs defer to the preferences and directives of the party’s members – as expressed by their chosen party leader – MPs would not be accountable to anyone except themselves between elections. Free from party constitutions and obligations to tow any party’s line, the influence of a voter would be reduced and limited to election day: one day every four years. Moreover, that one day of influence would involve no influence over laws and government decisions: that influence would include only the power to choose which candidate becomes MP for a term.

In other words: an MP’s loyalty and deference to their party leader’s decisions and directives is the only thing that gives the governed influence over what happens in the little club of MPs that otherwise serves only the Queen. Political parties and party discipline temper and democratize what would otherwise be a rather matronizing system of government. Parties and party discipline make MPs the servants of the public, in a system that otherwise would make MPs the bosses of the public. Parties and party discipline ensure that the principles, aims, and policy preferences of the governed trump those of the small handful of “members” that otherwise would be free to ignore the principles, aims, and policy preferences of the governed.

Mr. Chong’s proposed “Reform Act, 2013”

Journalist Andrew Coyne has summarized the effects of Mr. Chong’s bill (Bill C-559) thusly:

  1. A leadership review vote could be triggered at any time on the receipt of written notice bearing the signatures of at least 15% of the members of caucus. A majority of [a party’s] caucus [i.e., MPs who are also members of given political party], voting by secret ballot, would be sufficient to remove [their own political party’s] leader.
  2. It would similarly empower [a political party’s] caucus to decide whether an MP should be permitted to sit amongst their number. A vote to expel (or to readmit) would be held under the same rules as a leadership review.
  3. It would remove the current provision in the Elections Act requiring any candidate for election to have his nomination papers signed by the party leader. Instead, the required endorsement would come from a “nomination officer,” elected by the members of the riding association. There would be no leader’s veto.

Consider Mr. Chong’s bill in the context set out above (i.e., under the headings “Parliament and Government” and “Political Parties”).

What would be the effect of allowing a party’s MP’s to jettison the leader, even if he is also the Prime Minister? The effect would be to jettison the power that governed individuals, through their political parties, have over MPs, over law-making, and over government decision-making. If a small number of a party’s MPs did not like the policies and directives that the party members’ chosen party leader made on their behalf, they essentially could over-ride the party members’ decision, and eject the leader that the party members chose.

What would be the effect of giving MPs the power to decide which MPs get to sit as members of the party? The effect would be to jettison the power that governed individuals, through their political parties, have over MPs, over law-making, and over government decision making. If a small number of a party’s MPs did not like the fact that party members endorsed and support a given MP – an MP who they trust to tow the party line that they, the members, have created – those MPs could essentially over-ride the party members’ decision, and eject the member-favoured MP from the party, rendering him free of any obligation to tow the party line.

What would be the effect of eliminating the requirement that the party leader’s signature is required before a given candidate can obtain the party’s endorsement and support in an election? The effect would be to undermine entirely the concept whereby Canadians across the country come together voluntarily to pursue in Parliament and government a common set of aims, principles, values, and policies. A small subset of members – those comprising the membership in each riding – would essentially be free to decide what is in the interests of the party as a whole. Yet the whole purpose of choosing a leader is to ensure that all members – no matter where they live – are united as one association, unified by a common set of aims, principles, values, policies, and interests. A party that speaks with 308 mouths is not a party: it is 308 parties. This aspect of Mr. Chong’s bill would undermine the ability of Canadians to co-ordinate and act as one in the pursuit of a common agenda.

Mr. Chong’s method, in all three cases, is to give MPs the legal right to dishonour the conditions pursuant to which they obtained a party’s endorsement and support in the first place. All three aspects of Mr. Chong’s bill would have the effect of depriving the governed of the influence they have over the decisions made by MPs in Parliament and in government. Combined, they would break the chain with which the governed keep Parliamentarians in their service. Most essentially, the bill would undermine democracy itself: it would undermine the principle that the source of Parliament’s power is the governed.

Like men who want to be married, but do not want to become monogamous as a result, MPs who support Mr. Chong’s bill implicitly want the electoral advantage of a party’s endorsement, but do not want to owe the party’s members any consideration or deference in exchange. From the perspective of MPs, Mr. Chong’s bill is a bill suited only for something-for-nothingers; for individuals who want to have their cake and eat it too; for self-interested, self-serving loose cannons; for cheaters.

From the perspective of single-issue fringe groups, Mr. Chong’s bill presents an opportunity to stack party nomination meetings and get their crusaders a party nomination without being subjected to the scrutiny and veto of the party as a whole. Without the safeguard of requiring the party leader’s signature, mere tens of individuals in each riding – co-ordinated by a religious organization, by a union, by a corporation, by the police, etc. – could buy party memberships, get their representatives nominated, and then cause Parliament and government to pursue their own organization’s aims without regard for the aims of the party that endorsed them, even in the face of the party’s objections.

Those who share Mr. Chong’s apparent disregard for the views of the members of the parties who endorsed their candidacy do not need to attack democracy to preserve their independence. They simply have to do the honourable thing, and neither seek nor accept the endorsement of a political party. In other words, they can run in all future elections as the autocratic independents that they apparently wish to be.


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