Explainer: Who is Michael Chong? And what does he want to do with our Parliament?

Aaron Wherry previews the potential revolution

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(Maclean's photo by Mitchel Raphael)

Ahead of the release of “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms)”—recently dubbed “The Reform Act”—Aaron Wherry produced this brief guide to what could be a minor revolution in our parliamentary governance.

Follow the latest updates on the story here.

Just catching up? Here’s what you need to know:

Who is Michael Chong?

Mr. Chong is the Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills.

Don’t I remember him from somewhere?

Probably. For awhile after the Conservatives formed government in 2006, Mr. Chong was the Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, but he quit cabinet in November 2006 because he could not support the Prime Minister’s motion that the Québécois formed a nation within a united Canada. He has been a backbencher ever since. In May 2010, he proposed a series of reforms to Question Period, which generated a great deal of discussion, but which have so far failed to be implemented.

What is he proposing now?
As reported on Friday, Mr. Chong is set to table a private member’s bill that would make several reforms to the way political parties and parliamentary caucuses function. First, his bill would amend the Elections Act to remove the provision that gives the party leader ultimate authority over who runs under the party’s banner. Second, it would specify that House of Commons caucus chairs must be elected, provide for how they can be reviewed and replaced, and set out rules for how MPs can be expelled from and re-admitted to caucus. Third, it will require that, for a party to be registered as a political party, party by-laws must allow for a caucus review of the party leader. The bill would come into force after the next election.

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What’s the big deal about all that?
Well, if you believe that the House of Commons is a sad, empty shell of what it could or should be, Mr. Chong’s proposals could go some way to fixing that. Each of the changes he will be proposing follow the same basic idea of shifting power from the party leader to the individual MP. And it is the current imbalance of power—in which the party leaders and their offices seems to be able to control much of what occurs in the legislature—that is arguably at the root of our current malaise.

Mr. Chong raised the possibility of amending the Elections Act in an interview with this magazine three years ago. He explained the significance as follows. “The current situation is at the root of the imbalance between not just the executive branch and the legislature, but also the root of the imbalance between party leaders and their caucuses. If you know that the leader may not sign your papers in the next election or may in fact kick you out of caucus, that’s going to colour your judgment about whether or not you’re going to support the party line on a particular vote.”

As I suggested at the time, “The theory follows that moving the power to authorize candidates from the party leader to the constituency or a regional authority would leave the MP less beholden to the leader and more likely to speak freely. If MPs were more likely to speak freely, more free votes would have to result. And if fewer votes were preordained by party lines, debate would become more meaningful, both as an expression of individual views and as a means of influencing others. At once, the individual MP and the House as an institution would become more relevant.”

What happens now?
Mr. Chong’s bill was to be tabled on Thursday, but due to sudden interest in its contents, he’s decided to table it tomorrow, shortly after the House convenes at 10 a.m. At that point, we’ll get a better sense of precisely what these changes will involve and the focus will shift to the other 307 MPs in the House: Will they support his legislation? If not, why not? We’ll also then get a sense of where the party leaders stand.

The system will thus be put on trial. This was probably a long time coming, but in the year of Brent Rathgeber and the Backbench Spring and the Duffy-Wright affair, this is probably precisely the conversation that needed to be had.