The reformed Reform Act

Michael Chong offers to amend his bill

<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

Michael Chong talks to Postmedia about several amendments he’s ready to make to the Reform Act—including the suggestion he floated earlier this month about making provincial nomination officers responsible for signing off on a party’s candidates—and the Globe looks at the machinations on the Conservative side.

There’s one other change Mr. Chong is prepared to table: the power of party leaders to deregister riding associations as set out in subsection 403.2(2) of the Elections Act, will be retained. (The Reform Act would have repealed subsection 403.2(2).)

The Reform Act’s original design included three measures aimed at riding nominations—removing the requirement of the party leader’s signature from nomination forms, removing the party leader’s power to deregister a riding association and giving riding associations the power to determine the time, date and rules of nomination contests.

A reformed Reform Act would keep that third part, but give the final sign-off on candidates to a provincial nomination officer and retain the party leader’s power to deregister.

Why does this matter? In the current situation, the party leader ultimately has two hammers he or she can hold over a riding association: the signature on a nomination form and the power to deregister (effectively dissolve and reconstitute) a riding association. The Reform Act 1.0 would have removed those cudgels entirely and made explicit that the timing and rules of a nomination contest would be for these newly liberated riding associations to decide. The Reform Act 2.0 offers a compromise position wherein one cudgel remains, one cudgel is moved and one new power remains with the riding association.

Before these changes were put forward, I consulted Jack Siegel, a lawyer with experience at various levels of the Liberal party (legal counsel, Ontario campaign co-chair, returning officer at nomination meetings, officer at two provincial leadership conventions, etc), who is currently chair of the party’s greenlight committee, about how the Reform Act would have impacted riding nominations, at least from a party perspective. So, for the sake argument, here is his take on the Reform Act’s original proposal to give riding associations the final sign-off as candidates, as well as the bill’s measures to eliminate the party’s ability to dissolve and reconstitute a riding association and give individual riding association’s the purview to set the timing and rules of a nomination contest.

On their face, these provisions could conceivably convert a national campaign, with 338 local campaigns, into 338 local campaigns, with a national campaign. (Subject to what I suggest as a response below) each riding association could conceivably act autonomously, and approve the candidates it wants, so national vetting would be gone. Accountability to the National party is gone with the loss of the power to deregister, so if an EDA goes dormant (PC’s after 1993, LPC after 2011), the party could not step in to revive, but would instead have to wait for rigor mortis to set in and for Elections Canada to get around to deregistering after defaults and second chances run out. Local EDA’s could time their own nomination meetings to favour the current dominant clique’s candidate, and special interest groups would again see EDA’s as a prime targets to take over, both to try to elect single issue true believers and to give them a higher profile, using the party’s label, win or lose, during election time. There could be no enforceable means of ensuring that a party’s candidates adhere to ANY of its core values. All of the candidates for the next election would have been nominated by now, and would fall into two primary categories—those who ran last time, and those who took over the association early and forced an early nomination process before anyone else got out of the starting gate.

The central parties do a lot of things, arguably favourable and unfavourable, and media folks talk about all of those things but one. The central party is also the referee. By no means achieving a standard of perfection, ALL PARTIES do their best to establish a fair process that balances interests as diverse as those, on the one hand,  of incumbents who can’t be expected to spend all their time in the riding fighting a full time opponent when they’re supposed to be in Parliament, and on the other, to those of newcomers getting an initial taste of free world politics. Far too often, as a party official, I have been brought in to chair, or act as returning officer in a riding where the riding president is as committed to a particular candidate as is that candidate’s campaign manager. I don’t even think it is fair to expect large numbers of people at the EDA level to maintain neutrality. They’re political for a reason, and very few seek to wear that striped shirt.

So what might I try to do if this were adopted?

I’d discuss amending the Party’s Constitution to require EDA constitutions to adopt a number of requirements:

-The “nomination officer” would have to be someone who has signed a declaration of neutrality and who can be removed by a party tribunal if that neutrality is violated;

-The “rules established by the association” would require that certain criteria be met, such as a neutral candidate vetting process, central clearance of meeting dates, voting eligibility requirements (an entrenched old guard would otherwise immediately change the cut-off date from a number of days or weeks, to years), and criteria for officiating at meetings, and with a dispute resolution mechanism that is quasi-judicial and party-wide.

In short, my reaction to this, and the resultant inability to maintain the due process that we administer as a party today, would be to advocate for an exceptionally lengthy package of rules that would have to be deemed to be part of every EDA constitution with no power of amendment.

Somehow, I fail to see how this would be an improvement for anyone.