Justin Trudeau’s democratic reforms

The Liberal leadership candidate promises fewer free votes than the Conservatives did in 2006
Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters outside a hotel in Vancouver, on Friday November 23, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Richard Lam

Over the weekend, the Liberal leadership frontrunner released his democratic reform platform, including measures to “loosen the grip of the Prime Minister’s Office on Parliament.”

Members of a Liberal government caucus led by me would be required to vote with the Cabinet on only three categories of bills: those that implement the 2015 Liberal platform; those that enable budget or significant money measures; and those that speak to the shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I further believe that prorogation and omnibus legislation have become means for governments to evade scrutiny and democratic accountability. In the case of prorogation, it should never be used to abet governments in their avoidance of difficult political circumstances. As for omnibus bills, they are a simple affront to Parliament and the people who are represented there, and we will not use them.

We will also strengthen the committee system, both in Cabinet and in Parliament. In Cabinet, we will appoint non-Cabinet MPs to committees to ensure that a wider variety of voices are heard as policy is developed. In Parliament, we will strengthen the role of committee chairs and create a more robust system of oversight and review for members from all parties in the House and Senate. Specifically, Parliamentary committees should be given more resources to acquire independent, expert analysis of proposed legislation.

In terms of free votes, Mr. Trudeau is actually promising less freedom than the Conservatives promised in 2006: the Harper government took office with a promise that it would “make all votes in Parliament, except the budget and main estimates, ‘free votes’ for ordinary Members of Parliament.” Of course, what matters is what actually gets done. In that regard, Mr. Trudeau’s first category—bills to implement the Liberal platform—depends on how specific the platform is and how closely Prime Minister Trudeau would define a platform promise. Once you include budget bills and platform promises, you’re conceivably covering a lot of the legislation a government is going to introduce. That said, at this point, any commitment that transfers power from the leader’s office to the MP is basically a good one.

Saying you won’t abuse prorogation and omnibus legislation is also good. But it’d better if the promise involved codifying restrictions on their use—tricky tasks in both cases, but worth pursuing. Mr. Trudeau also promises open nominations in all riding, but, again, he could go further: amend the Elections Act to remove the requirement of the leader’s endorsement to run for a party. Put the principle into law.

(Also of note: Mr. Trudeau joins Adrian Dix in promising to institute the Ontario model for government advertising.)