Michael Chong’s Reform Act, 2013

Michael Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, introduced a Private Member’s Bill (PMB) in the House of Commons on December 3rd. The bill proposes to change the way the party leader interacts with his or her caucus essentially providing the caucus with more power and authority as a collective entity.

Whereas in the current context, ordinary MPs have only as much influence over their party’s agenda as an individual leader allows, the new bill would ensure that the party leader retains the confidence or his or her MPs. If they cannot, caucus would have the power to bring about a vote to remove the leader [1]. Britain and Australia already has something similar in place [2].

The bill has generated an usual amount of buzz given that most people pay little to no attention to PMBs.This is because such bills typically introduce or amend (change) existing legislation or deal with obscure matters, particularly those which affect the representative’s riding. Such bills usually have little chance of passing into law as they don’t typically enjoy the government sponsorship or support which would ensure passage. They also take a long time to go to second reading, never mind making it to a committee for study.

This one is different though, not just because of what the bill would do if passed. But because of the type of parliamentarian Mr. Chong is – well-liked and respected, with a set of principles the likes of which are rarely displayed for all to see.

Prior to his political career, Mr. Chong helped found the Dominion Institute (now the Historica Dominion Institute). One of the younger members of the Conservative party, he was appointed to Cabinet once the Tories formed government, in February 2006, as the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. He would resign from Cabinet in November that same year over irreconcilable difference with the Conservative government over its motion recognizing Quebec as a nation in a united Canada [3].

(Keener’s Aside:  The principle of ministerial responsibility (both individual and collective)- see below. Mr. Chong’s resignation is a good example of collective ministerial responsibility: he disagreed with the motion and could not publicly defend it thereby keeping with the pretense of Cabinet solidarity, because he disagreed with the motion fundamentally. So, he chose to resign because as he said, he believes “in one nation, undivided, called Canada” and the motion in his view did not support that idea [4].

Collective Ministerial/Cabinet Responsibility (also known as cabinet solidarity): An example of a convention. This is the practice that a minister must vote for and/or publicly defend all government decisions made by cabinet. They may disagree with the decision privately, but they must show solidarity in public. Moreover, if the government is defeated in a vote of no-confidence in the legislature, all ministers, including the prime minister, must resign.

Individual Ministerial Responsibility: An example of a constitution convention. This refers to the fact that ministers alone are responsible for the goings-on in their individual departments or ministries, and must answer for the actions (or in some cases, in-action) of the ministry to the legislature. They are held accountable for the actions of their department and are expected to resign, if, typically, there is some egregious occurrence.

As I mentioned in a post on leadership conventions, party leaders used to be chosen from among members of the elected party caucus rather than by delegates at leadership conventions. This implied that party leaders were somewhat indebted or beholden to their caucus mates for their power. That changed with the advent of delegated leadership elections: party leaders were no longer in danger of losing their leadership if MPs were upset with their leadership.

With the new bill, a party caucus could vote to remove their leader. The expectation is that by empowering the backbench – those member’s of parliament, specifically of the governing party without a ministry portfolio – a party leader would be required to listen and to give the opinions of their colleagues serious consideration, in order to retain or keep the support of caucus. This instead of ignoring the views as some party leaders (especially those in power) are said to have done. The idea is to “strengthening caucus as decision-making body, and reinforcing the accountability of party leaders to their caucuses” [5].

Further, the bill proposes to provide local district or riding associations with more say in the selection of their local candidate rather than having it dictated by the party leader. This better ensures that our elected representatives can speak freely, without fear of reprisal or punishment from the party leader. That is to say, fear that the party will not sign their nomination papers et cetera for the next election.

What this does is decentralize some power away from the party leader and towards individual MPs.

At the moment, there is the appearance of bi-partisan support (multi-party support), at least from among those MPs without Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet responsibilities. The true test will come when the bills goes for second reading which is expected to come in February or March [6].

1. Canadian Press.”Michael Chong’s Bill Would Give MPs Power to Eject their Leader.” CBC News. November 29, 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/michael-chong-s-bill-would-give-mps-power-to-eject-their-leader-1.2445411 (Accessed December 3, 2013)
2. Ibid.
3. CanWest NewsService.”Quebec’s Nation Status Costs Harper His First Cabinet Minister” National Post. November 27,2006. http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=692b134e-c712-44c5-83ae-bff78fc1a071&k=49129 (Accessed December 13, 2013)
4. Ibid.
5. Chong, Michael. “Chong Introduces Reform Act, 2013” Michael Chong MP for Wellington-Halton Hills. December 3, 2013. http://michaelchong.ca/2013/12/03/chong-introduces-reform-act-2013/ (Accessed December 11, 2013).
6. Canadian Press.”Michael Chong’s Bill Would Give MPs Power to Eject their Leader.” CBC News. November 29, 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/michael-chong-s-bill-would-give-mps-power-to-eject-their-leader-1.2445411 (Accessed December 3, 2013).


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