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How Conservative MPs changed the Reform Act into the ‘Hope for Reform Act’

The following op-ed, by Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher, was published by the Globe and Mail on December 12, 2014, by the and on December 15, 2014, and by the Hill Times on December 16, 2014

Conservative MPs last week had an historic, unprecedented chance to throw off their chains and empower themselves and all MPs, and political party riding associations, to represent voters. A House Committee was reviewing Bill C-586, known as the Reform Act, which takes away many party leader powers (as a majority of voters want).

Instead, the Conservative MPs (who hold a majority of seats on the Committee) changed the bill into the “Hope for Reform Act” by taking out clear restrictions and replacing them with measures that allow MPs and parties to choose if they want to restrict any of their party leader’s powers.

Supporters of the changes, including the Reform Act’s sponsor Conservative MP Michael Chong, claim the bill now has a better chance of passing, and that parties and MPs will seize the opportunity to take away their leaders’ powers.

It’s likely true that the changed bill will be passed – why would party leaders resist it now. They know parties and MPs have always been allowed to rein leaders in (since leaders started consolidating their power 45 years ago) and haven’t done it, and they know MPs just passed up another chance to do it — so why would any leader worry they will do it in the future?

Before the changes, the Reform Act took away each federal party leader’s power to approve their party’s election candidates and gave it to a riding-association elected nomination officer in each province (and one for all the territories).

The Reform Act also took away each leader’s power to: choose the party’s caucus chair; kick an MP out of caucus (and re-admit them), and choose an interim leader if the leader resigns. Instead, the bill required a secret-ballot vote of a majority of MPs in each party to make these decisions, and it also gave 20% of any party’s MPs the power to initiate a secret-ballot vote of all the party’s MPs on whether to fire the party’s leader.

The changed “Hope for Reform Act” bill allows parties to decide — however they want — who will approve candidates (so leaders could end up keeping this power). It also allows each party’s MPs to vote after each election behind closed doors how they will choose their caucus chair, expel or re-admit an MP, and review their leader.

The NDP MPs on the Committee proposed measures to require disclosure of details of these decisions but the Conservatives rejected the proposals.

Why were the changes made? Only the Conservative MPs on the Committee know for sure. They could have passed the Reform Act without changes or even strengthened it.

They could have, but then Prime Minister Harper may have retaliated against them. Or Prime Minister Harper could have threatened all Conservative MPs with retaliation to try to force them to reject the bill when the House of Commons next votes on it (something he could still do even though the bill has been greatly weakened).

What we know for sure is that the changes mean restrictions on leader powers that a large majority of voters want have been rejected by the Conservatives. A national survey in May 2013 found that 71% of adult Canadians want restrictions on the powers of leaders to choose their party’s election candidates, to choose which MPs sit on committees, and to penalize politicians who don’t vote with their party (only 20% were opposed; 9% did not answer).

Another national survey in November 2014 found that 61% want local riding associations to choose election candidates (only 24% want the leader to do this), and 73% want a majority of MPs to decide whether to expel an MP from the party (only 17% want the leader to decide).

This survey indicated that voters wanted the Reform Act changed in only one way, as 68% want the members of the party to decide whether to fire the party leader (only 26% want the party’s MPs to decide).

The Reform Act will now go back to the House of Commons where it could still (and hopefully will) be restored to its original, stronger version or even strengthened further. However, even if it isn’t, if the House approves the Reform Act the Senate will hopefully, even in its much-weakened state, pass it before the next election.

And then, hopefully, many voters will ask election candidates how they will vote, if elected, to restrict their party leaders. And hopefully that pressure from voters will, sooner rather than later, lead MPs and parties to choose, finally, to take away power from their party leaders and give it back to themselves, and to voters, where it belongs in any country that calls itself a democracy.

Hopefully all this will happen – hopefully it really will.