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Hub Dialogue: MP Michael Chong responds to the Reform Act’s critics

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Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Michael Chong, the MP for Wellington-Halton Hills and the author of the 2015 Reform Act, which, among other things, gives a parliamentary caucus the ability to remove its party leader.

This conversation with The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer follows a series of Viewpoints published at The Hub in recent days on the case for and against the Reform Act in light of the Conservative Party caucus’ use of the act’s provisions to affirm the ongoing leadership of party leader Erin O’Toole.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

We are honoured to be joined by MP Chong to discuss the Reform Act and respond to some of the comments and criticisms reflected in The Hub’s recent essay series. Thanks for speaking to me, Michael.

MP Michael Chong

Thanks for having me.

Sean Speer

One of the essays that we published this week expressed support for the Reform Act provisions with respect to the expulsion of caucus members, the appointment of the caucus chairs, and even the appointment of interim leaders, but argued that the removal of party leaders should be limited to political party processes since the party leader’s role extends beyond his or her role in parliament. How would you respond to the view that the removal of party leaders ought to be the sole domain of political parties and their own internal process?

MP Michael Chong

That’s a great question. I think the starting point is to first acknowledge that there are two separate and distinct parties in Canada. There are parties outside of Parliament that are registered under the Canada Elections Act. They do not exist on Parliament Hill—in fact, they are banned from Parliament Hill. We have a whole series of ethics rules and other laws that ban those registered political parties from Parliament Hill, including using the resources of the House of Commons or the Senate. The purposes of these registered political parties are for voting, and it is these forms of political parties that people most often think of when we talk about political parties in Canada.

There is a second distinct type of party in Canada. It is a far more ancient party, a far more, in some respects, important party, and that is the parliamentary party. In other words, party caucuses. Political parties that operate on Parliament Hill are not registered political parties; they are parties that are recognized under the Parliament of Canada Act and operate exclusively on Parliament Hill.

These two separate and distinct parties do not interact with each other directly. They are governed by different sets of rules and different sets of laws, and are effectively firewalled from each other through a series of pieces of legislation, conventions and other rules that have been put in place over many decades. So, to suggest that only the members of a registered political party outside of Parliament Hill should have the say in who the party leader is fails to acknowledge the important role that the second party plays on Parliament Hill.

Parliamentary parties on Parliament Hill have always had unwritten rules that required party leaders in the House of Commons to be accountable to their caucus members. All the Reform Act has done is codified these rules in writing in order to make them clear and available for all to understand and to use if and when the need arises to remove a party leader in the House of Commons.

We have countless examples of party leaders being removed by caucuses over decades, and even more in recent years. But usually the process is ad hoc and chaotic. It usually starts with one or two members of caucus declaring that they’ve lost confidence in the leader. A series of other members follow suit, which takes place over many weeks, if not months, and in some cases, years. That just leads to chaos. All the Reform Act has done is said that we need to have a process that’s clearly laid out in writing, so that when there is a crisis in leadership in the parliamentary party, there are clear rules on how to deal with it, how to review, and how to remove the party leader.

Sean Speer

Another critique reflected in the essays is that existing caucus members represent the ridings in which a political party is successful, but are not, by definition, representative of the places in which the party needs to grow, and therefore may not be best placed to fully assess the party’s interests. What might you say to the idea that the process of removing party leaders exclude the places and voices that parties need in order to win future elections?

MP Michael Chong

I’d say that line of argument similarly fails to acknowledge the separate and distinct nature of parliamentary parties in Parliament Hill from the registered political parties that operate outside of Parliament Hill. These parliamentary parties have long had the requirement that the party leader in the House of Commons have the confidence of the caucus members in the House of Commons. That’s woven through the unwritten conventions that long governed the commons. No party leader in the House of Commons can maintain their leadership if they’ve lost the support of the majority of MPs in the House. That process has long been governed by unwritten convention.

I think it’s time that these rules to be codified in writing so that there’s a clear process to follow when there is a crisis in leadership. If you look back at the last couple of decades, we’ve seen countless examples, both at the federal and provincial level, of leaders that have lost the confidence of their caucus. You think of Stéphane Dion in December 2008, who lost the confidence of his caucus and had to be immediately replaced—which he was by Michael Ignatieff. Think about leaders at the provincial level, like Patrick Brown in Ontario or Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador who were replaced because of a lack of confidence of caucus members. There are dozens of examples of this in recent decades. This is a long-standing convention that party leaders cannot continue on in their role if they’ve lost the confidence of the majority of their caucus members.

Sean Speer

A final consideration reflected in this week’s essays is the relative role of formal mechanisms versus norms and culture in terms of rebalancing power between parliamentarians and the party leader. Would you say that the Reform Act’s real goal is ultimately to shape the norms and culture on Parliament Hill in favour of greater MP autonomy and a healthier, less centralized relationship between MPs and party leader?

MP Michael Chong

Absolutely. The whole purpose of the Reform Act was to strengthen Canada’s democratic institutions by restoring the role of elected members of parliament in the House of Commons. In essence, by rebalancing power between party leaders, particularly the prime minister, who have too much power, by providing greater powers to individual MPs.

Much of our parliamentary democracy is governed by unwritten conventions, especially party caucuses and parliamentary parties on Parliament Hill. For decades, these unwritten conventions have evolved, but they have evolved in a way that has further concentrated power in party leaders. That has been to the detriment of the constitutional role of the individually-elected member of parliament.

And so, the Reform Act was an attempt to try to rebalance power away from the party leader to individual MPs. In doing so, my hope is that there’s also a cultural shift on Parliament Hill, and there’s evidence that there is a cultural shift taking place.

In the Conservative caucus, over the last three parliaments, an ever-increasing number of these Reform Act rules have been enacted with ever-increasing majorities. So, it seems clear to me that there is a cultural shift represented by the partial adoption of the act by the Conservative caucus in 2016 with a great deal of trepidation, to now being enthusiastically adopted by the Conservative caucus in the most recent parliament.

There is, in other words, a cultural shift that’s taking place among Conservative MPs on the Hill who have decided to empower themselves. In doing so, it has strengthened democracy on the Hill, strengthened the party itself, and also strengthened the role and stability of parliamentary caucuses. We haven’t had the chaotic caucus expulsions that we’ve seen in other party caucuses. Only one member has been expelled from our caucus in the last three parliaments and that was former MP Derek Sloan. That was done in a very orderly fashion under a Reform Act rule. That is in contrast to the way MPs like Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott were expelled from the Liberal caucus, which was done not under Reform Act rules, but under an opaque process that ultimately was the prime minister’s decision. So, I think it has led to a good, cultural shift that strengthened the Conservative parliamentary party and strengthened the role of individual Conservative MPs.

Sean Speer

One final question. As we recently marked the Reform Act’s sixth anniversary, are there any changes or reforms that you’d like to see to the law now that you’ve seen in practice over different parliaments?

MP Michael Chong

There are no changes that I have in mind to the Reform Act. I’d like to see it adopted by the other parliamentary parties on Parliament Hill. I think that would be helpful for strengthening democracy and those caucuses. Whether they adopt the rules as they’re outlined in the Parliament of Canada Act, or they adopt modified versions of the rule, I think it’s important. I would like to see all parties on the Hill adopt codified rules about their governance and conduct.

We’re long past the days of parliament being an old boys club of the 19th century that governed itself largely on unwritten rules, and on a gentleman’s code of conduct. We’re a modern democracy with a diverse population, and a diversity of MPs in the House of Commons. I think it would be good for our democracy to take it out of the kind of opaque backrooms of the 19th century into the modern era, where the rules are clear, transparent, and available for all to use.

There are further reforms I’d like to see in the House of Commons more broadly, such as getting rid of the speaker’s lists that are currently controlled by the party, and restoring the right of the speaker to recognized members in the House. It’s a low-hanging fruit that we should definitely take a look at implementing. There are also a series of other reforms to parliamentary committees, for example, that could be enacted. I think committee membership should no longer be decided by party whips, and I think committee chairs should no longer be selected by party leaders. Rather, both committee members and committee chairs should be elected by secret ballot votes by members of the House. I think that would strengthen the role and independence of parliamentary committees, and strengthen their oversight function when it comes to holding the government accountable.

Sean Speer

Well, this was just a fascinating conversation, and a great culmination of the series of essays in dialogue with one another about the Reform Act at The Hub this week. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MP Michael Chong

It’s great to be here.

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