How the Reform Act will limit the power of Canada’s Prime Minister

Conservative MP Michael Chong speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons following question period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In the face of political scandal in the Prime Minister’s Office, Michael Chong, a Conservative MP from Wellington—Halton Hills, has proposed a bill that would reduce the power of a leader of Canada’s political parties.

In Canada, party leaders have a considerable amount of control over elected members. As it stands, the party leader’s signature is required for a candidate to be nominated and a leader can eject an MP from caucus at will. Also, there is no formal mechanism for MPs to get rid of an unpopular leader. Chong’s bill would allow local riding associations alone to nominate a candidate, and, with a simple majority vote, MPs in caucus could remove a sitting leader. This would represent a significant shift in power from the leader to MPs.

Canadians should weigh the pros and cons of supporting the proposed Reform Act (pdf). On the one hand, empowering MPs would make them more responsive to their constituents. They would be freer to introduce legislation without fear of retribution from the party leader. Also, similar to Australia and the United Kingdom, MPs could dismiss an unpopular leader who has become a liability to the party. Even Margaret Thatcher in 1990 lost a caucus vote and was replaced. It would provide an incentive for a party leader to be more attentive to the demands of MPs.

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WATCH: Wellington-Halton MP Michael Chong speaks with reporters regarding his private members bill

On the other hand, MPs would be able to introduce bills that have local or regional support, but may be controversial. For example, Conservative MP Mark Warawa pushed for a vote on sex-selective abortion, but was quickly silenced by the Tory leadership. Similarly, Bev Desjarlais of the NDP was kicked out of the party for voting against the bill that legalized same-sex marriage. It is entirely conceivable if the Reform Act is passed that MPs will be more vocal about contentious social issues.

However, despite these potential drawbacks, unquestionably reform is needed. Canada’s Prime Ministers, particularly during a majority government, have little institutional accountability to their caucus.

Mr. Chong’s bill may be the first step to a longer, much needed conversation among Canadians about changes to strengthen our democracy, such as adoption of some form of proportional representation, and a Senate that is either elected or abolished.

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Canadians have grown more disillusioned with the democratic process, with only 61.4 per cent voting in the 2011 federal election. The Reform Act is far from a solution to all that ails our political system, but it’s a step towards limiting the power of the Prime Minister and potentially strengthening Canadian democracy.

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