Are we better off without the Reform Act?

Maybe we are. Unless we aren’t.

<p>Conservative MP Michael Chong holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Chong is introducing a bill that would give party caucuses significant powers &#8211; including the ability to vote out their leader. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick</p>

Conservative MP Michael Chong holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Tuesday, December 3, 2013. Chong is introducing a bill that would give party caucuses significant powers – including the ability to vote out their leader. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

So the Reform Act should not pass because it would empower “each party’s most irresponsible and refractory MPs” and drive our politics toward “factionalism,” while also possibly endangering our status as the best governed country in the world.

There is something to this. The control that party leaders currently attempt to exert has not grown by accident or without purpose. Discipline is prized because it seems important to achieving and holding power. A prime minister is better off being accused of having too much control than not enough. Possibly we have even come to expect it of our political leaders. Perhaps our MPs function effectively now as internal focus groups and partisan soldiers to be consulted and dispatched by their leaders.

We could even attempt to go further to ensure that party leaders have as much power and discretion as possible. The Reform Act could be replaced with a bill that eliminates MPs. Or at least the 307 of them who are not Prime Minister. For the sake of coherence and tamping down humanity’s worst impulses, we could scrap Parliament entirely and move to a system whereby a CEO is elected every four years for a term during which he or she is entitled to run the government as he or she would a business, responsible and accountable to shareholders and customers, but otherwise unencumbered by anything like a House of Commons.

There is, after all, something to be said for stream-lined governance. I hear, for instance, that China is doing some interesting things with solar energy.

But then again we did go to some expense to build Centre Block and then went to some expense to rebuild it after the fire in 1916, and now we’re spending a fair amount of money to make sure the building doesn’t collapse in the near future, so perhaps we might put the place to some use. At least the half of it that contains the House of Commons. (The Senate side we could still convert into condos or an upscale dance club called Red Velvet.)

And to that end, we might see about trying to make all 308 MPs, and the institution they collectively form, as useful as possible.

And doing that might require loosening the reigns of authority that party leaders currently possess.

This would, undoubtedly, increase the possibility for certain things to happen that presently might be otherwise controlled by the current balance of power. In the most wide-open of scenarios, riding associations could be stormed by fringe extremists seeking to hijack parties with their crazy ideas. Say, for instance, there were three or four Liberal riding associations in Alberta that were small and disorganized. And say a radical group of individuals who believed that all men should have to grow moustaches, regardless of ability or current fashion, decided to target those ridings and ensure that pro-moustache candidates were nominated under the Liberal banner. Let’s say they were even somehow successful and that in 2015, the Liberal party and Justin Trudeau were compelled to explain why four of their 338 candidates were moustachioed extremists.

Possibly this would not happen because, as Radical Centrist notes, the parties might set up processes that would, while removing the leader’s signature as a prerequisite, still allow some apparatus for screening candidates. But let’s say the moustachios managed to get four of theirs on the party slate. What would happen then? Well, if any of the moustachios won enough votes in their riding to be elected, they would be entitled to a seat in the House, though the Liberal caucus could then vote to expel them. Would Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals suffer regardless for the fact that four objectionable candidates were running under the party banner? Probably somewhat. But then it wouldn’t be Mr. Trudeau who endorsed their candidacies. And there would be some onus on party members and, if so interested, the general public to see different candidates chosen—not by counting on the party leader to intervene, but by organizing and getting involved to select nominees who cared about issues other than facial hair.

That might be said to be the answer to attempts at factionalism: greater and wider participation.

A new system might also require voters to better appreciate nuance. Frum suggests “voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between the ‘government’ on the front benches and the government members behind them.” I’m not sure that would be so hard to understand, at least so long as our collectively feeble minds were given time to adjust to a new system. If we do boast the strictest party discipline among similar Westminster parliaments, we might imagine loosening the binds just a tad. Other countries seem to have survived the resulting chaos.

(There would seem to be some number of rebellions in Britain, particularly with the current coalition government, though this would seem to be something of a trend over the last decade. Of course, the Brits also have more MPs and so a full analysis would require sorting out what percentage of MPs, what percentage of votes and what percentage of backbenchers dissent from their parties and how often, both here and there. It’s at least fascinating to think that MPs might actually vote against their own party every so often.)

(Frum’s entire paragraph here reads as follows: “To pluck an example out of thin air: If a prime minister has pledged that his government won’t take action on abortion during its next mandate — and a backbencher insists on trying anyway — that action makes liars out of the whole government. Voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between the “government” on the front benches and the government members behind them.” To pluck the example of this actually happening, the Prime Minister himself might be asked why, if he didn’t want any Conservative MP ever moving forward with anything related to abortion, he didn’t then explicitly threaten to have any MP who did so booted from the caucus and barred from running? Or why Mr. Warawa’s motion might’ve crossed some line that two previous initiatives didn’t? If you really want to argue that the leader should have total control, then you might have to argue Mr. Harper didn’t exert enough control in the case of Mr. Warawa. As it is, you have to argue that the parliamentary committee that blocked Mr. Warawa’s motion did so on justifiable grounds. And that might be a difficult argument to make. And probably we could all be agreed that parliamentary committees should not be unjustifiably ruling the motions and bills of individual MPs out of order.)

There is, for sure, a practical wisdom to control. You could even argue, if you wanted to get ambitious, that parties tightly controlled by party leaders, with some internal input from MPs and party members, somehow results in a more coherent and easily understood political system. But it isn’t much of a democracy—or perhaps not quite as robust a democracy as we might imagine for a modern nation. And so long as we have 308 MPs, we might wonder what we could do with them. Could we hope to have a full accounting of how the federal government spends public funds? Could House committees be independent of the executive and able to properly scrutinize bills, issues and ministers? Could the House of Commons be more thorough in its vetting of legislation? Could greater demands be made of the government to explain and justify itself? Could House debates be more meaningful? Could House votes be something other than perfunctory? Could MPs on all sides be able to stand on their own volition during Question Period and raise questions of the government? Could MPs on all sides be free during the time reserved for statements by members to stand and speak without first getting the clearance of their party whip? Could MPs generally be more relevant? Could there generally be less concern about putting a word wrong?

I tend to believe that all of these questions could be answered with something like yes.

Radical Centrist argues that a better Parliament might actually result in an even better government. That’s at least an idea worth considering. That our democracy might not only be made more interesting, but also more effective.

Would the Reform Act result in all these good things? If we agree that we would like our House of Commons to be somewhat more in line with the ideas I’ve put forward here, the next discussion becomes what Michael Chong’s proposals might do to get us closer to that. Removing the veto over an individual’s candidacy might slightly weaken the leader’s power and setting out the ability of the caucus to challenge the leader might offer MPs a cudgel to be brandished, even if mostly only ever in theory, by MPs (whereas presently the leader seems to be in possession of all the cudgels). The Reform Act could be a nudge in the right direction of the sort that might lead to other changes that would get us closer to an ideal sort of Parliament.

Would the Reform Act result in madness and anarchy? I suppose we should at least consider the possibility that it might, even if I’m not sure how real that threat is. Would it at least allow for a greater possibility of a wider range of things happening? I suspect that is almost definitely true, even if you regard the resulting possibility as altogether small.

The precise value and wording of the Reform Act are live questions that need be debated—I think I could still be persuaded by either side of the discussion. For now I might say this: surrendering control can be rather scary, but we might have to take some kind of chance that it might be for the better.