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Louise Cockram

The Reform Act and Parliamentary Democracy

On Tuesday Conservative MP, Michael Chong tabled a private members bill entitled An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms). The items included in the bill may seem like dry procedural changes; however, if successful, it will vastly improve the (now tepid) state of Canadian parliamentary democracy. While Chong’s description of  the bill as the “Reform Act” — with allusions to the magnitude of Britain’s Great Reform Act of 1832 — is exaggerated, it will be a step towards restoring parliament as a scrutiny and accountability body. Chong’s bill has been framed by opposition MPs and some columnists as a means to restrict the power of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but its significance is much broader. Parliamentary decline and the erosion of MPs’ rights has been a long process in Canada. It began as early as 1919, when Canadian political parties made the seemingly innocuous change of opening their leadership elections to their grassroots membership, and has culminated in the “elected dictatorships” of PMs Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper. Without significant procedural change to the House of Commons, the huge power imbalance between private MPs and party leaders will remain. The executive-dominant behavior of Chrétien and Harper, including the passage of large omnibus budget bills and  the imposing of permanent censorship on MPs, will likely continue no matter which party leader becomes prime minister in the future. As a case in point, in the run-up to the 2006 federal election, the Conservative Party made several promises to improve the state of parliamentary democracy. This list included fixed election dates and loosened party discipline. The measures were hastily abandoned after the Conservative election victory. This example shows that even party leaders who make overtures towards parliamentary reform soon become “dictatorial” without institutional restraints to curb their executive power. Chong’s proposals are an example of the sort of procedural change that is sorely needed to halt the erosion of parliament. The Act proposes three main measures: First, it amends the Elections Act so that local riding associations, rather than the party leader sign off on candidate nomination papers. This measure ensures that private MPs are not muzzled out of fear that their party leaders will refuse to sign their nomination papers in future elections. Currently, the threat of not having one’s nomination papers signed is a very effective method of party control. Second, it allows party caucuses to trigger… Read More