Are the winds of democracy blowing through Ottawa?

Michael Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills | Photo courtesy of Michael Chong

Michael Chong, MP for Wellington-Halton Hills | Photo courtesy of Michael Chong

Will there be a democratic revolution in Ottawa? On Dec. 3, Conservative backbencher Michael Chong tabled a private members’ bill in the House of Commons that would give MPs and party caucuses more power.

Before I go any further, allow me to answer the question I put forth in the opening line: no! Mind you, this takes nothing away from the Ontario MP’s well-founded move. In fact, he has made democratic reforms of the House of Commons’ practices one of his favorite subjects.

It is not the first time Chong has tried to tip the balance in favour of MPs in the House of Commons. In 2010, he tabled a motion to reform Question Period. He wanted, for example, Wednesdays to be focused exclusively on questions to the Prime Minister. He also wanted to break away from the usual convention of party whips assigning their respective MPs questions, instead allowing at least half the questions to be asked by MPs whose names would be called out randomly.

Now, he is at it again. His quest for an institution that would reflect first and foremost the MPs that form it goes on with his latest proposals. From what I have read of his proposed changes, the almost total control of political leaders over their party members would be greatly reduced.

Of course, he is not the first MP to bemoan the fact that regular MPs have very little influence, especially those whose party is in power. Former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau once mildly intimated that 50 meters away from Parliament, nobody knew what an MP was. But in hindsight, we can see that he was wrong. In fact, many believe that it is only inside Parliament that MPs are ignored, the reason being that the majority of them must follow the script handed to them by their respective party leaders.

MPs who would rashly try to march to their own beat need to watch out because the Election Act gives party leaders the last word when it comes to MPs’ candidacy in general elections. It requires the party leader’s signature; no one can become a candidate unless sanctioned by the party leader. That alone is reminder enough to those who would want to step out of line. Not surprisingly, removing this rule is one of the changes proposed by Michael Chong.

This idea is worth serious consideration. After all, the choice of candidate in any riding during an election should be in the hands of the party members who live in that riding. It is those people who would be best at deciding who should be their party’s standard-bearer. No political party can justify its existence without its members. And, since we already trust in their judgement when it comes to choosing party leaders, shouldn’t we trust them to have to the same sense of responsibility when it comes to riding candidates?

This brings me to one of Michael Chong’s proposals I don’t agree with. He would like to see political parties’ caucus members to be able to discharge their leaders. I think he goes too far here. The choice to elect or discharge a leader is the responsibility of all the members of a given party, not only of those who sit in Parliament. If that measure were to be adopted, the balance of power would weigh too heavily in favor of MPs.

In the end, much of this debate is academic – there’s little chance Chong’s proposals will gain enough support to become law. However, they may spark some debates that will help to strengthen our democracy.

Translation Monique Kroeger