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Ben Woodfinden: Reform Act allows MPs to assert true independence

Commentary

The Conservative Party caucus made a little bit of history last week when they voted for the entirety of Michael Chong’s Reform Act for the first time. The bill, passed in 2014 with overwhelming support from parliamentarians, 260-17, was intended to empower parliamentary caucuses and help rebalance the relationship between parliamentary caucuses and party leaders. The act requires that members of parliament from each parliamentary caucus hold a vote at their first meeting after a general election on the four key aspects of the legislation. These are:

  1. Whether caucus membership is determined by caucus.
  2. Whether the caucus chair is chosen by the caucus.
  3. Whether the caucus has the power to trigger a leadership review of the party leader and remove the leader.
  4. Whether the caucus has the power to choose the interim party leader should there be a need for one.

So far, only the Conservative caucus and the Bloc Quebecois caucus have adopted any aspect of the Reform Act. In the 2015 and 2019 caucus votes the Conservative caucus chose to only adopt the first and second parts of the legislation. Last week the caucus decided for the first time to adopt all four aspects, including most importantly the power to trigger a leadership review. They also chose Scott Reid, who it’s fair to describe as an independently minded parliamentarian committed to the institution he serves, to be the caucus chair.

What all this points to is a caucus determined to do precisely what the Reform Act was drafted to do, namely to rebalance the relationship between caucus and the party leader. We can speculate on why the Conservative caucus might have decided to make this move in the aftermath of the recent election, but that is not the purpose of this column. Instead, it’s worth considering whether the goals of the Reform Act and empowering parliamentary caucuses is worthwhile, and if the Reform Act is actually an effective means to do this. While the Reform Act will not single handedly achieve this, it is still a big step in the right direction.

The widespread perception, both in academic scholarship and in popular and media discussions, is that Canada’s parliamentary system is characterized by the extreme centralization of power in the hands of party leaders and prime ministers. Political scientist Donald Savoie once described the prime minister as “the Sun King around whom all revolves and to whom all must pay homage.” In academic literature this trend is often referred to as “presidentialization,” where autonomous leaders govern with the help of a powerful cadre of professional staff and advisors and with minimal need for support from cabinet or caucus peers.

At the heart of this problem is a complete lack of accountability of political leaders to the parties, and more importantly the caucuses they lead. Leaders are chosen in leadership elections that supposedly represent the grassroots of the party. It may be unpopular to point this out to partisans, but these leadership elections are much less about convincing committed long term members to vote for leaders, and are instead about signing up as many people as possible from various special interest groups and communities. These members are often ephemeral and don’t remain committed to the party once a leader is selected.

Canada has a long tradition of membership driven election of leaders, it isn’t going anywhere, but we shouldn’t idealize what these leadership elections actually are. It’s also important to remember how small the segment of the population is that actually participates in these elections. Just 154,000 people voted in the Conservative leadership election that elected Erin O’Toole. A little over 5.7 million people voted for the Conservatives in the most recent election. The membership selectorate is a tiny fraction of not just the voting population but the Conservative vote base, and these leadership electorates are far from representative of the broader segment of the population that consistently vote for the party.

Just 154,000 people voted in the Conservative leadership election that elected Erin O’Toole.

Once a leader is elected, the accountability of these leaders to the people who chose them is minimal. Leadership reviews take place every few years, but beyond this there are very few direct accountability mechanisms that can actually restrain a leader or hold them to their word. This may in fact help further enhance the autonomous power of the leader as it enables them to claim personal mandates not just to lead parties, but to bend parties to their will with minimal supervision from the people who elected them. How was Erin O’Toole able to run a leadership campaign as a true blue and then pivot to something else, including writing a platform that seems to have taken many in the party by surprise? Because he can. Once he was elected leader he had the power to do so and no one could really stop him.

But more importantly, party leaders are first and foremost parliamentary leaders. Canada’s Westminster parliamentary system is one in which party leaders lead caucuses in parliament, whether in government or opposition. Party government is now at the core of responsible government in virtually all representative democracies, and the central institution here is parliament. Responsible government as it has evolved in Canada is one in which executive power is now in reality wielded by a cabinet and prime minister who reside in and are directly accountable to parliament. Our form of government is worth celebrating and defending precisely because it allows for both efficient government that isn’t gridlocked and a direct accountability mechanism whereby the government has to answer to and retain the confidence of the house to wield power.

But this requires a parliament, and caucuses, who actually understand their crucial role in ensuring accountable and responsible government. The academic and layperson perception of parliament is one in which party discipline is so strong that in majorities, prime ministers wield near absolute power, and caucuses and cabinets are nothing but glorified focus groups. This is not the consensus view, and Ian Brodie’s excellent recent book At the Centre of Government offers a compelling counterargument against this common view. One key part of his account of how government in Canada actually works is that caucuses especially are not just focus groups, and they do play an important role behind closed doors in guiding and restraining leaders.

Party discipline is undoubtedly strong in Canada, but we hear news and gossip all the times about grumblings in caucuses, and any MP will tell you that caucuses are places where MPs can speak out. Caucus meetings are black boxes to the rest of us and this caucus confidentiality is a key to actually ensuring open and frank discussions can take place. But caucus playing an active role in restraining and guiding party leaders is vital to ensure our Westminster parliamentary system works properly. Caucus power is something we should be seeking to strengthen.

We can disagree over the extent to which party leaders act as autonomous dictators and the extent to which caucuses do actually restrain leaders. But what we should be able to agree on is that caucus power and independence is vital to our democracy and that Canadian democracy would benefit from stronger caucuses. This means giving MPs more independence from their parties so that caucuses are both more robust, and parliament more broadly is able to hold the government responsible.

Which brings us back to the Reform Act. Caucus control over its own membership and electing its own chair are both good. Though as long as party leaders can veto nominations by refusing to sign nomination papers, this caucus power still comes with an asterix. However, caucus retaining this formal control still sends an important signal to leaders and should at the very least make them think twice before unilaterally dumping MPs if the caucus disagrees. This is a good first step in this rebalancing process.

But the most important step is the one that the Conservative caucus made moves towards using the Reform Act—leadership selection. The caucus doesn’t now have power to choose a leader, but it does now have a formal mechanism by which it can impeach a leader if it feels the need to do so. This is important. Serious accountability requires formal mechanisms that can be used when necessary to actually hold leaders accountable.

A leader that completely loses the confidence of their caucus will likely not be able to hold on for long (ask plenty of former Alberta premiers or Patrick Brown about this) but the point of a formal mechanism like this is precisely that it forces an adjustment from leadership precisely so that they govern or lead in a way that brings the caucus in and prevents top down autocracy. Talk can be backed up with action. This changes the nature of the relationship between a caucus and a leader and helps move the dial towards the rebalancing that the Reform Act aims at.

Leadership elections probably aren’t going anywhere, and a caucus voting to remove a leader might hypothetically lead to a scenario where the removed leader in question manages to win a subsequent leadership election and come back with an emboldened independent mandate. Something similar to this happened to Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, who was elected leader of the Labour Party in Britain in 2015 as an outsider and populist candidate and had an extremely sour relationship with the parliamentary Labour caucus. The caucus eventually voted 172-40 against Corbyn in a non-confidence vote, but Corbyn went on to subsequently win a leadership review voted on by party members by a slightly bigger margin than he had originally won the leadership on. Corbyn came back emboldened and went on to perform surprisingly well in the UK general election in 2017 when he knocked the Conservatives down to a minority despite starting the election some 20 points down in the polls.

A caucus in Canada is unlikely to use this power to remove a leader anytime soon, but a formal mechanism that ensures a leader has to retain the confidence of the caucus they lead is a vital step in rebalancing the one-sided relationship between caucuses and leaders. A caucus adopting the entirety of the Reform Act is a big step in the right direction in helping to revitalize and strengthen Canadian parliamentary democracy.

Formal mechanisms like those set out in the Reform Act are important precisely because they provide actual mechanisms by which caucus can assert independence and MPs can hold their leaders accountable. But the key to rebalancing this relationship long term is that these formal mechanisms help to over time reshape the political culture so that new norms and expectations can emerge that empower caucuses and bring leaders into a more accountable and collaborative relationship with the caucuses they lead. This will help improve both the quality and the robustness of our democracy, and while the Reform Act will not solve these problems single handedly, it is still a valuable tool in helping to rebalance this relationship.

Karamveer Lalh: O’Toole’s pivot to the working class worked, but it wasn’t enough

Commentary

Erin O’Toole justified his pivot of the Conservative Party into a more progressive “Red Tory” party, believing that winning over non-traditional Conservative voters is the most effective way to grow the Conservative tent and win government.

However, the 2021 election is now over, and the Parliament of 2021 looks very similar to the Parliament of 2019. Erin O’Toole’s pivot was therefore insufficient to deliver the votes required to win an election. However, Conservatives eager to blame the loss on a so-called “leftward shift” are missing the mark — the Conservative party’s shift did deliver working-class votes. What it failed to do was undermine the Liberal Party’s pre-existing and growing demographic advantage.

After the 2015 defeat, the common refrain among Conservatives was that Canadians had grown tired of “Harper-style” politics and wanted a different approach.

The team behind Andrew Scheer’s campaign assumed that Canadians (particularly the coveted middle-class suburbanites) liked Harper policies but they just did not like the Harper Approach™. So, Scheer pitched himself as an affable “Harper with a smile.”

That didn’t work for Scheer and Erin O’Toole, for his part, took a different approach because his team concluded that the demographics and politics of the country had changed since the 2011 majority victory. Considering the electoral map over the past two decades, we can draw a few general rules: Liberals win in downtown cores, Tories win in rural Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the rest is up for grabs. The question is then: how can a party win ‘the rest’?

While Canada is a diverse country, the demographics of “the rest” compared to the downtown cores do bear out a few patterns, “the rest” typically is lower-income, has a lower rate of post-secondary educational attainment, and tends to be less racially diverse.

However, the suburbs of our major centres tend to have attributes of both the downtown cores and “the rest.” They have a broad range of incomes, educational attainment, and significant local variations in racial diversity as different racialized communities tend to settle in different places.

Considering recent voter patterns in the United States and the United Kingdom, it should not surprise us that much has been written about the so-called “global realignment.” White working-class voters, typically reliable voters for centre-left parties, have shifted to parties on the right side of the spectrum. It is, therefore, an easy conclusion to draw that if the Conservatives are to win, they need to align the party towards working-class voters, traditionally the domain of the Liberals and the NDP.

The intellectual underpinnings of this movement have been discussed at length by many commentators in this country, including the former prime minister whose own work expanded on David Goodhart’s work in the United Kingdom. Donald Trump won his victory in the 2016 presidential election on the backs of working-class white voters in northern, traditionally Democratic, states.

So why is it then that the Conservative Party failed to win the dramatic victories won by Boris Johnson and Donald Trump? As a case study, let us consider the neighbouring ridings of King—Vaughan and Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill.

While the swing was not large enough to discount local factors completely, a few interesting observations jump out to me while examining the census profile of King—Vaughan and Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill.

Despite having similar incomes in each electoral district, the better educated and less white district of Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill swung towards the Liberals, whereas King—Vaughan swung towards the Conservatives.

Outside of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), two other ridings held by the Liberals in 2019 swung from the Liberals to the Conservatives in Ontario: Bay of Quinte and Peterborough—Kawartha. Notable for their comparatively whiter, more working-class demographics as opposed to GTA ridings.

In Northern Ontario, despite failing to flip seats, the Conservatives maintained or improved their performance in working-class districts: +9 percent in Kenora, +5 percent in Sault Ste. Marie, +7 percent in Sudbury, and +6 percent in Nickel Belt. In Hamilton, traditionally a blue-collar town, the Conservatives improved in all seats except for Hamilton Mountain.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the NDP’s performance in the GTA as their presence reveals important dynamics. For example, the City of Brampton, located within the GTA, is majority-minority. In the 2016 Census, 73 percent of Brampton residents indicated that they were a visible minority. Federally, Brampton is represented by five seats. Compared to 2019, the NDP declined on average –4 percent per riding. The Conservatives improved in Brampton on average +4 percent per riding. The Liberals, for their part, improved on average +3 percent.

These results suggest that while the Conservative successfully pivoted to working-class voters, the pivot was effectively checked by Liberal gains among visible minority communities, particularly in the suburbs. The 2011 Harper campaign and the 2018 Ford Campaign both were won by sweeping the suburbs around Toronto proper. Those seats are distinct precisely because of their high concentration of visible minorities.

Between the 2011 and 2015 elections, 30 additional seats were added to the House of Commons. Fifteen of those seats were in Ontario and, of the 15 seats added, most of those seats were in the Toronto suburbs. Heading into the 2015 election, almost all of the new Conservative seats were notionally Conservative-held.

The 2015 election reversed all those previous actual and notional gains in the GTA. Most commentators pointed to the niqab ban, the barbaric cultural practices hotline, and revocation of citizenship for dual citizens convicted of certain offences as playing a role in eroding trust between Conservatives and visible minority communities. In the 2021 Election, Conservative support among the Chinese communities plunged, potentially because of a reaction to the party’s tough-on-China stance.

The choices made in the respective lead-ups to the 2015 and 2021 elections have resulted in a Conservative party that is whiter and more working-class than the Conservative Party of 2011. While this was enough to deny the Liberals a majority in 2021, the chances of winning government on the backs of white working-class voters will become even smaller in the future. With the completion of the 2021 census, even more seats will be added to the Toronto suburbs, given that the Toronto suburbs are Canada’s fastest-growing areas.

Whether the Conservatives maintain their working-class pivot, their policy choices, direction, and outreach efforts need to include visible minority communities. A failure to do so will only make overcoming the Liberal’s current demographic advantage even more difficult.