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Summary Quasi-Transcript of Michael Chong at UofT Debate March 11, 2014
Inspired by all the online shares of various NGOs who are supporting the Reform Act to attend the UofT student debate on the merits of the bill and then take notes on the talk given by Michael Chong post-debate. A good speaker, with good ideas. Make sure to read the last part of it.
Summary of Michael Chong’s Keynote Address, Debate on The Reform Act, C-559, Hart House, UofT, March 11, 2014
Mr. Chong thanks the MC for the introduction and proceeds to acknowledge former parliamentarians in the audience, including Michael Wilson, former Minister of Finance and current Chancellor of the University of Toronto.
He begins by asking us to transport ourselves back in time, and into the shoes of Alexis De Tocqueville at a time when he visited “the great republic south of the border” when it was a blossoming democracy. If he were a stranger from a totalitarian country visiting Canada to discover our proudest accomplishment, our hard-fought democracy, what would be his surprise when, sitting in our House of Commons gallery watching the votes take place, and seeing 3 voting blocks of MPs representing 3 parties in the House, voting with their party almost 100% of the time? In “rare and almost unheard of circumstances”, even the most independently minded MPs, less than 1% of them, not voting with their party.
Supposing he was in another House of Parliament in England, another surprise would be that in another House of Parliament, he observed members regularly breaking rank, 5 -20% of the time.
He would see the contrast, but the puzzling thing is that one parliament produced the other, with the rules and procedures based on the former.
What would also be his surprise would be to hear the commentary from the media and commentary from political watchers from Ottawa who would say to him, “see that MP over there, he has broken rank more than any other MP in his caucus, he has broken rank 1% of the time. In other words, he’s a maverick because he votes with his party only 99% per cent of the time”. [laughter from audience]
What would be his other surprise if he were to speak to the MPs and learn that they were not robots, “that they had a diversity of views representing the vastness of the diversity of this country”, and to learn that these MPs actually didn’t agree with the vote that had just taken place.
Even more surprised would he be to learn that the reason these votes are whipped is because “11 years ago, at some party convention, on one day, about 80,000 party members voted for this leader, and since that one occurrence years ago there had not been another vote on the leader, and that this was to remain the case for another 2 to 3 years or until such time as the party is defeated in the general election”.
The people in Canada are realizing, like the foreigner, that all is not what it appears to be in Ottawa. It’s clear that “Ottawa has a democratic deficit... that decades of changes to parliament have centralized power in the party leader’s offices”.
Wanting to be clear that the problems faced are not the result of the current Prime Minister or current government but a result of decades of changes and evolving rules in Ottawa, through different parties and different leaders.
Much time and effort has already been spent on documenting this problem, from newspaper editorials to party platforms, all bemoaning the centralization of power.
After 10 years in the House of Commons, Mr. Chong believes he knows what the three fundamental problems and reasons for democratic deficit are: 1) party leaders give the final approval for party candidates, with ability to veto the candidate (no other western democracy gives the party leader that much power); 2) our unwritten constitution has evolved in a way that’s changed the nature of party caucuses within parliament....they are no longer decision-making bodies that elect their own chairs, govern themselves according commonly accepted rules of procedure; 3) the role of caucus in reviewing the leader or selecting an interim leader has never been documented on paper in Canada, thus the leaders are not accountable to their caucuses as they once were.
The Reform Act, 2013, a bill that was introduced several months ago in the HofC proposes to address these three fundamental problems in our system. It would 1) restore local control over party nomination, like it was before Oct 1970, 2) by formally defining structure of party caucuses, 3) clarifying rules for review and election of party leaders. These three together “will strengthen your elected House of Commons to a place that truly represents the diversity of views in this country”, aligning to other practices in western democracies, and restoring it to the way it once was worked for decades in Canada.
These ideas are not new ideas, nor are they original, but are based on very old principles that were laid for our modern democratic institutions in the 1840s in this country.
Mr. Chong makes reference to the arguments from the debate that was just presented and now responds to questions and critiques that have been raised. To answer why we are legislating this when New Zealand, Australia and UK have not done so..it’s true that they haven’t, “but they’ve put the rules on paper, either through their parties’ constitutions and bylaws or through other mechanisms like precedent setting documents”. The other reason, which is even more important, is that “we have been talking about this problem for more than 40 years in this country. The problems associated with the centralization of power have been decades in the making.” For the last 20 years, various leaders and parties have promised change and none have delivered it. Preston Manning in the 90s promised to introduce the democratic reform bill, but it never happened. Then, the newly merged party of the Alliance and Progressive Conservatives promised to introduce democratic reform and it hasn’t happened. Paul Martin appointed a Minister for Democratic Reform... but little has changed and the problem has worsened. That’s why it was time to introduce this legislation.
“Some people have criticized the idea of strengthening the role of the elected MP”, Mr. Chong explains, that giving MPs more power is a form of elitism and they shouldn’t be given any more power, but he disagrees because of the following: every person has only one vote at the federal level in Canada and your right as a citizen is to vote for a local member of parliament. This is a different system than exists, for example, in the USA, where a citizen gets 3 votes. One for the President, one for the Senator, one for the Congressman/woman, so that “when they want their voice to be heard in the nation’s capital, they have three avenues to pursue, they can call 3 different offices, they can lobby three different people, but in Canada, you have ONE vote, one say, and that’s a vote for a local member of parliament, and so the role of that local MP is paramount in our system of government”.
Mr. Chong went on to say that some people have wondered whether we’ll have more “crazies” if more autonomy is given, and he jokes and says “first of all, we already do”. Many people use examples from past elections to show what would happen if we loosen the rules, but we could actually take examples from the current system! Doesn’t think we’ll have any more crazy or extreme candidates under the Reform Act rules than we would under our current system. Also, “nothing prevents a local riding association from reviewing a party candidate if they’ve gone off the rails and replacing that candidate with someone else. A further question is put to the audience, but first background is given about Prime Minister Trudeau introducing an overhaul to the Elections Act in 1970 that gave party leaders this power. The history books don’t have so many stories of crazy candidates prior to that, if anything, we have more of it now than we had in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The final point is about a question of trust, Mr. Chong explains, “we have to trust that party members in each electoral district will make the right choice when it comes to a party candidate and we also then have to trust voters in that electoral district, if they pick that party candidate to be their MP, we have to trust that THEY made the right decision. And if both groups of Canadians , party members in the electoral district and Canadian voters in that electoral district pick a particular person to be their representative in Ottawa, then who are we to question their judgement. We should trust them with their vote”.
Then he quotes people who have asked him about single issue candidates, those who ask him, “well, what about single issue candidates?”, but he responds with examples of well known single issue candidates like William Wilberforce, who fought for 3 decades for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, and Tommy Douglas, who fought for universal healthcare, Agnes MacPhail, who fought for the right for women to vote.
Further, he quotes people who have asked him about what if we create instability in our system through palace coups, but Chong thinks the data is clear that, “if we empower caucus to define the rules between party leader and caucus, we actually strengthen political parties. In our system, right now, because the rules of the caucus review of the leader are so vague... we actually wipe out political parties during leadership crises that come(s) along every 10 to 15 years”. He gives examples about Stockwell Day and the destruction of the Canadian Alliance, and Martin /Chretien and going through 7 leaders in a short time, taking the party lower in the polls and number of seats. In other Westminster systems, when there is a leadership issue, it’s not a two year fight, it’s a two week fight, and the caucus comes together and makes a swift decision about whether or not to remove the leader and then moves on and the party is subsequently and shortly thereafter stabilized.
The final point is about whether this would weaken the grassroots party members but Chong disagrees. He thinks it will strengthen grassroots democracy because 1) party members still vote for the permanent leader of the party, the “caucus simply has the power to review the leadership and appoint an interim leader until the party outside parliament makes its choice.” 2) caucuses currently have the power to review the leader, and in our system, party leaders must hold the confidence of their caucuses, and if they don’t the speaker doesn’t recognize them and the party selects another leader. All this does is now put on paper the rules that party caucuses have the power to review their leader. Now people will know what to do and how to exercise their powers, and the Reform Act is simply proposing that they be put on paper.
Chong asks a question that should trouble us all, to make a point “for those who say that “caucuses have no say in the election of their leader”. The question is “predicated on one principle, that one of the most important things in a democracy is how power transitions from one government to the next, from one Prime Minister to the next, from one Ministry to the next”. He continues, “what differentiates democracy from all other forms of government is a peaceful, stable, and a rules-based system for transferring power from one head of government to the next”. ....the question: “if the Prime Minister’s plane were to crash tonight or if he were to immediately resign at midnight tonight, who is the Prime Minister tomorrow morning... what should worry you is that when I asked my colleagues this question in the House of Commons, I got six different answers, and that should worry all of us ....that’s the recipe for chaos...not one in a first-world democracy...the answer is simple, in a Westminster parliamentary democracy, in the rules of our unwritten constitution, it is members of the House of Commons and in particular, members of the government caucus that make that decision, and it’s high time we put them down on paper to make them available and transparent for all to use.”
In closing, he said “political parties are not private organizations, parliament is not a private old boys’ club. It used to be ...150 years ago, parties were private organizations, and Parliament, the House of Commons was an old boys’ club. You needed to be landed aristocracy in order to sit in the House of Commons and in Canada, you needed to have land title and be an adult male to sit in the House of Commons...we don’t have that system anymore, we have become a democracy and we have enfranchised a great number of Canadians, all Canadians over 18. Parties are public institutions. In fact, the Conservative Party of Canada, in the last 10 years, has received over $300 million dollars ....in public money ...in order to run its operations...through combination of political tax expenditures, rebates on the national and local campaigns and a per vote subsidy...that is true of the other political parties, so let know one tell you that political parties shouldn’t have rules and laws that they must conform to. The problem is that the Elections Act isn’t clear enough about their obligations within parliament and outside of parliament. What the Reform Act will do is bring these parties further into the 20th century [laughter from audience] by ensuring that the rules that govern their operations and leadership are clear and transparent for all to see. This is why this is such an important issue. Our prosperity, our institutions, our academic strength, didn’t happen as an accident...it comes as a result of good government...and it is the strength of our democratic institutions that will ensure that we sustain this prosperity...and if we can renew and restore our parliament, our children and grandchildren will thank us for it”.