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Will House Committee empower MPs, voters with Reform Act?

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

As the Procedure and House Affairs Committee reviews the Reform Act (Bill C-586) this week, Democracy Watch is calling for measures that restrict the powers of party leaders and free and empower MPs in key, reasonable ways, as a majority of Canadians want.

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 per cent 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 per cent were opposed; 9 per cent did not answer).

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

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

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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