Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Thought's On Chong's Reform Bill

Michael Chong's Bill C-559 is a relatively short piece of work, but it has taken me a bit of time to go through it and start to understand the implications of the changes being proposed, mostly because it contains a series of small changes to much larger acts - in particular the Canada Elections Act, but also the Parliament of Canada Act.

As I read through the proposed changes (which required a lot of flipping back and forth to the current Acts to fully understand), I started to come to the conclusion that in some respects this bill is a resurrection of a piece of the original Reform party wish list.

At its core, it creates an environment which removes from the party executives direct control over the nomination of candidates.  In doing so, it removes from party leaders one of the bigger levers used to maintain control over their respective caucuses - namely the threat of the leader refusing to sign their nomination papers for the next election.

Consider the following changes:

Current Canada Elections Act S.67(4)(c):
  • (c) if applicable, an instrument in writing, signed by the leader of the political party or by a person referred to in subsection 383(2), that states that the prospective candidate is endorsed by the party in accordance with section 68.
Proposed Amendment in Bill C-559:
(c) if applicable, an instrument in writing, signed by the nomination officer of the political party’s electoral district association for the electoral district that states that the prospective candidate is endorsed by the party.
You do have to read this a couple of times before it becomes clear what Chong's legislation does.  It completely removes the party executive from the nominations decision making process.  It creates a position at the riding association level called a 'Nomination Officer' who essentially has the final say over who the party nominee is going to be.

Superficially, this is not entirely a bad thing.  It hands a level of control to the riding association level in each party that has been constrained historically by the need for the party executive to "sign off" on candidates.

Is it a good thing?  That's a little more subtle and difficult to ascertain.  The Reform Party was big on "direct democracy" back in the day.  Then they started to discover that having things concentrated at the riding level meant that they got a fair number of candidates that were unelectable.  The PCs in Alberta ran smack into this a few years ago when one Craig Chandler engineered a takeover of a local riding association by his supporters and got himself nominated.  Even Ed Stelmach could see that was a good way to lose a seat, and killed Chandler's nomination.

This does create a problem to consider for party apparatus people to consider.  Can you deal with the inevitable selection of candidates at the riding level that are for one reason or another "bad news"?  If one looks at the candidates as part of the party's "marketing image", this could be seen as a significant problem.

The second part of Chong's bill is more interesting - it basically creates a mechanism through which MPs could trigger a leadership review process within a party.
(k) the extract of the party by-laws that provides that 
(i) a leadership review may be initiated by the submission of a written notice to the caucus chair signed by at least 15% of the members of the party’s caucus, 
(ii) a leadership review is to be conducted by secret ballot, with the result to be determined by a majority vote of the caucus members present at a meeting of the caucus, and 
(iii) if a majority of caucus members present at the meeting referred to in subparagraph (ii) vote to replace the leader of the party, a second vote of the caucus shall be conducted immediately by secret ballot to appoint a person to serve as the interim leader of the party until a new leader has been duly elected by the party.
MPs (or MLAs, come to that) are the people who have to work with the party executive on a day to day basis outside of elections.  The idea of MPs being able to trigger a leadership review based on the  actual work of the leadership team is not entirely bad.

However, I do think that Chong's legislation has some very fundamental problems here.

First, its threshold value is far too low.  15% of a party caucus could probably be found at any time - even when things are going well for the party.  This will create an environment where the focus is constantly on "finding enough supporters" to advance one's favoured leadership candidate, rather than handing MPs a set of tools which can be brought to bear when serious issues are found with party leadership.

The second problem I see is that there is no time fuse on when the leadership review has to take place.  The lack of a time fuse on the matter is problematic, as the leadership can then delay things as long as they choose.

The last problem, and perhaps the one that is most fatal to this proposal is that it effectively hands control over the party leadership to the MPs.  While triggering a leadership review seems like an effective tool for MPs to have access to, I do not think they should have the right to depose a leader without the consent of the party membership at large.

While I can appreciate Chong's frustration with the leadership of the CPC these days, and the overbearing control that the party discipline mechanisms are exerting on MPs, I am less than convinced that this legislation will actually have the effect that he is seeking.

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