May 02, 2012

Political parties need a democratic shake-up

As published in The Erin Advocate

Canada's political system needs a good shake-up to make party leaders more accountable to elected members and the constituents they represent.

The reforms to question period proposed by Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong would be a good start. They would remove the right of leaders to completely control who asks questions, and encourage a more intelligent exchange of ideas in parliament, as detailed in last week's column.

People with power, of course, will want to retain it. More drastic changes will take some serious pressure from those who ultimately hold it and delegate it to politicians – Canadian voters.

Chong may be a Conservative, but his proposals for change are radical in the best sense of the word. They would help restore faith in a system that has fallen into disrepute.

He is seeking a change in law to remove the requirement that party leaders give written approval for every election candidate.

"We are the only western democracy to have that provision," said Chong during last year's election campaign. "We need to take that power away from party leaders and give it to the local riding associations to restore grassroots democracy."

That comment touched a nerve, earning him an outburst of applause from an otherwise quiet crowd at an all-candidates meeting in Erin.

If ordinary members of a party felt they had more power over policy and candidate selection, it would encourage participation in the political system. Precautions would have to be put in place, however, to ensure that a local nomination could not be hijacked by a last-minute surge of new members.

Once MPs are elected, they deserve the protections of democracy within their parties. Under the current system, if an MP behaves poorly or does not follow the party line, the leader can decide to eject them from the caucus. If forced to sit as an independent, an MP's participation in parliament is severely limited.

"Caucus membership should be a determination of the whole caucus on a secret ballot vote, and not of one leader," said Chong. He also believes caucuses should have the right to trigger a leadership race by a secret ballot vote.

"When you know that the leader no longer has the power to kick you out of your caucus, when you as a group of backbench members have significant say over the leadership of your caucus, and when you know that the leader can't deny you your party nomination in an election, it empowers you to vote much more freely on many bills," he said in an interview.

Chong also supports reform to create an elected Senate, but it is not his priority: "Before we introduce democracy into the Senate, we ought to restore it to the House of Commons."

He will continue to promote these reforms to fellow MPs in the coming years, but what he really needs is the support of the prime minister and cabinet.

"If you put these three reforms into place, you are restoring our parliamentary system of government to what it once was in Canada – these are not revolutionary reforms," he said. "You're not stripping the leaders of their power, you are simply rebalancing. The unwritten aspects of our constitution have been abused too often in the last half century, to the benefit of the party leadership and to the detriment of democracy."

Leaders such as Preston Manning and Paul Martin have campaigned with promises of democratic reform, said Chong, but been unable to effect lasting change.

"Too often in the past, the best of intentions and the best of commitments have been made, only to fall by the wayside once the party gets into power."

If a single party attempts to reform itself by allowing more free votes for MPs and giving them greater freedom to express the views of constituents, it is often portrayed in the media as disorganized, undisciplined and off-message, thus ceding an advantage to other parties.

"The only way this is really going to work is if we make the changes in law," he said. "If you force them down on all parties, then no one party can claim advantage. The euphemism of being disciplined is really stripping MPs of their right to represent their constituents by freely expressing their views."