Free our MP: support the Reform Act

Yukon MP Ryan Leef has a chance to help repair our damaged political system. But he needs some prodding in order to do it.

Yukon MP Ryan Leef has a chance to help repair our damaged political system. But he needs some prodding in order to do it.

The opportunity arises from a private member’s bill tabled this week by Michael Chong, one of Leef’s fellow Conservative backbenchers. Dubbed the Reform Act, the draft law aims to empower MPs and somewhat weaken party leaders. It could be a real game changer.

The bill would deprive party leaders of one powerful weapon they wield to keep their MPs in line – a veto over who receives the party nomination in each riding. Approval of nominations would instead revert back to individual riding associations.

The bill would also codify the rules in which a party caucus may expel and re-admit members, or give their party leader the boot. All these measures could be triggered by a petition signed by 15 per cent of caucus, followed by majority consent during a secret-ballot vote.

Chong insists his bill is not an effort to depose Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and to diffuse any such interpretation, it would not take effect until after the next election.

The aim of the bill, instead, is to restore what Chong sees as the proper workings of a Westminster parliamentary system such as our own. He points to other Westminster democracies, such as Britain, where MPs currently wield such powers.

There, prime ministers fear the real possibility of an uprising by their own backbench, and government MPs outside of cabinet aren’t afraid ask real questions of ministers in Parliament – as opposed to the canned schlock rehearsed by backbenchers like Leef.

The downfall of Leef’s predecessor, the Liberals’ Larry Bagnell, may well have played out very differently under this proposed set of rules. After voting against his party’s long-gun registry on several occasions, Bagnell eventually joined the pack, after being told that doing otherwise would result in his expulsion from caucus. Many Yukoners later cited Bagnell’s propping up of the gun registry as why they abandoned supporting him.

These new rules could also conceivably allow Leef to open his mouth without first consulting the Prime Minister’s Office – a request he’s presumably still waiting to hear back on for this matter, as his position remains unclear for now.

In fairness to Leef, some thoughtful objections to Chong’s bill have been raised. It’s inconsistent to have party leaders picked by the membership (or in the case of the Liberals, anyone who chooses to cast a vote) but expelled by caucus.

The threshold to trigger a leadership vote amounts to just a handful of MPs for small parties, like the much-diminished Liberals, creating the potential for undesirable turmoil. And parties could be vulnerable to pressure groups hijacking weak riding associations.

It’s also been noted that a majority of a party’s MPs are already empowered by parliamentary convention to oust an unwanted leader, should they choose. If our MPs are disappointing in their general spinelessness, the real solution is for the public to communicate that we expect our politicians to grow some spines.

But, given the culture of conformity within our major federal parties today, it looks like a legislative nudge may be needed for this to happen.

Leef, dutifully reading the Prime Minister’s Office talking points, notes that both the Liberals and NDP actually vote as a herd more often than the Conservatives. That may be true, but the reality is that all parties see their members vote as a bloc the overwhelming majority of the time.

Many private member’s bills fail, but the Reform Act has a real chance of becoming law, with both opposition parties making warm sounds about it, and a handful of Conservative backbenchers openly expressing their support.

Leef should, too. This is not one of those disingenuous pleas for our MP to commit political suicide by, say, voting against his government’s budget. He says he expects to be able to vote freely on the matter. He just hasn’t made up his mind.

Clear support from his constituents could help settle the matter. So if you’re unhappy with how MPs are often relegated to behaving like trained seals, with how the prime minister wields too much power, and with how party posturing tends to trump constituency concerns, take a few minutes to tell Leef to support the Reform Act.

You can reach his Ottawa office at (613) 995-9368, his Whitehorse constituency office at (867) 668-6565, or send him an email at ryan.leef@parl.gc.ca. 

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