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Will House Committee strengthen the Reform Act as most Canadians want, or will it weaken it into a “Hope for Reform Act”?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

OTTAWA – Today, in testimony before the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher will call for changes to strengthen the Reform Act (Bill C-586) measures that restrict the powers of party leaders, and free and empower MPs in key, reasonable ways, as a majority of Canadians want.

“The Reform Act gives MPs a rare opportunity to throw off their chains and free and empower themselves by restricting party leaders in ways that a large majority of Canadians want,” said Conacher, “Very unfortunately, there are signs the Committee may instead bend over to please party leaders by weakening the bill so much that it’s name should be changed to the ‘Hope for Reform Act’”.

Surveys show that a large majority of Canadians want clear restrictions on the powers of party leaders. 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 have this power), and 73% want a majority of MPs to decide whether to expel an MP from the party (only 17% want the leader to have this power).

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

The Reform Act as currently written takes away the power of federal party leaders to approve election candidates and gives it to a provincial nomination officer elected by a majority of the heads of riding associations in each province (and to one nomination officer elected for all the territories).

The Reform Act also takes away other federal party leader powers over MPs. It requires secret-ballot votes by a majority of MPs to choose each party’s caucus chair, and gives 20% of the MPs in each party the power to initiate a secret-ballot vote by all the MPs in the party on whether to expel an MP from the caucus (or re-admit them), and on whether to keep or fire the party’s leader. If the leader is fired by a majority of MPs, the bill requires another secret-ballot vote of MPs be held right away to elect an interim party leader.

The Reform Act’s sponsor, Conservative MP Michael Chong, has proposed weakening his bill to allow parties to decide — however they want — who will approve candidates (which could result in party leaders keeping this power), and to allow each party’s MPs to decide after each election how they will choose their caucus chair, expel or re-admit an MP, review a leader, and choose an interim leader (with MPs deciding whether to disclose publicly how they voted).

Everyone should be watching very closely for any sign of party leaders using their powers to force the MPs on the committee to change the Reform Act in ways the leaders want.

“Will the committee ensure the final version of the Reform Act takes away key powers of federal party leaders as a large majority of Canadians want or will the committee change it into a “Hope for Reform Act” that allows parties and MPs to decide if they even want to restrict their leaders’ powers?” asked Conacher.

The Liberals committed to “open, democratic nominations of candidates” and fewer “whipped” votes and more “free” votes at their 2014 policy convention.

To ensure politicians across Canada are free to say what they want about any issue, and have some freedom to represent the will of voters who elected them and/or uphold the public interest, without their party leader being able to punish them, the following changes should be made to the Reform Act:

  • political party leaders must be prohibited from appointing election candidates unless there is no party association in the riding or candidate elected by the riding association;
  • political parties must be prohibited from refusing the nomination of a candidate as long as the candidate meets minimal “character” qualifications and is selected by the riding association;
  • the elections watchdog agencies (Elections Canada etc.) must be given the mandate and power to oversee nomination races for election candidates to ensure they are run fairly;
  • the caucus of each party, not the leader, must be given the power to decide who sits in caucus;
  • if a party does not have a clear position on an issue, clearly stated in the previous election and communicated to all candidates in that election before they became a candidate, then the party should be prohibited from disciplining any politician who takes a different position on the issue in any statement they make, or in any vote (even in votes on matters of confidence);
  • the caucus of each party, not the party leader, must select the party’s members for each legislative committee;
  • the speaker of the legislature should choose who asks questions in each daily question period randomly, ensuring only that the number of questions per party matches the percentage of seats each party has in the legislature over each weekly period;
  • every member of the legislature must have the clear right to say whatever they want during their time for a member statement, and;
  • the caucus of each party, by two-thirds vote, should be empowered to initiate a review of the party leader’s leadership of the party with the members deciding by one-person, one-vote whether to fire the leader.

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Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: 613-241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443

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