Reform Act’s passage a beginning, not an end

It was, as far as such things go, a nail-biter of an ending. Early last week, Canada’s senators, after seriously considering the idea of overturning a democratic reform bill passed by an overwhelming majority...

It was, as far as such things go, a nail-biter of an ending.

Early last week, Canada’s senators, after seriously considering the idea of overturning a democratic reform bill passed by an overwhelming majority of our MPs and that would not have affected the Upper Chamber in any way, thought better and passed Michael Chong’s Reform Act. It wasn’t at all clear up until the final vote on the evening of June 22 how things would go, with some senators threatening to amend the bill – a move that would effectively kill it, as there wouldn’t be time for further revisions before the next election.

It’s also reassuring to see that Yukon Senator Daniel Lang voted down the amendments and in favour of passing the bill. But it remains troubling that Lang didn’t see fit to answer our repeated queries about where he stood on the bill during the weeks leading up to its passage. After all, during that same period our senator’s office saw it fit to pump out news releases that shared his views on such matters as the 30th anniversary of the Air India bombing, as well as on more recent terrorist attacks.

This refusal to communicate with his constituents only reinforces the impression that Lang is merely a lackey of the guy who appointed him – Prime Minister Stephen Harper being widely understood to not be a fan of the Reform Act’s aim of weakening the powers that party leaders wield. But what to do? You can’t exactly vote Lang out of office.

Our Conservative MP, Ryan Leef, has no such assurance, of course. And, to his credit, he and his Liberal predecessor and nemesis, Larry Bagnell, have made positive noises about voting in favour of the Reform Act’s provisions if they are elected during the upcoming autumn election.

That’s important, because, in the end, MPs must choose to liberate themselves from the heavy-handed powers that their party leaders have wielded in recent years. The Reform Act doesn’t require party caucuses to adopt new rules that give MPs newfound independence – it only offers them the opportunity to do so, through the holding of a recorded vote at the start of every term.

If a majority of a party’s MPs opt in, it would allow them, as a group, to decide by vote whether one of their peers deserves to be removed from a leadership position or booted from their caucus altogether. It would also remove from the hands of party leaders another stick used to keep members in line: a veto over each MP’s candidacy in the next election.

Taken together, it’s hoped that these measures will create an environment in which MPs are less fearful of defying their party leadership. As we’ve said before, these rules, had they previously been in place, could have created a very different situation for Bagnell when he faced a leader who told him he could either prop-up the long-gun registry or leave the party.

Leef maintains he faces no such pressure, but it’s no secret that Harper runs an especially well-disciplined political party, and our MP performed some pretty fancy footwork before finally voting in favour of a doomed NDP-sponsored motion that supported an inquiry into the matter of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

You can expect Leef to make much of this vote while trying to woo voters. He maintains Bagnell never stood up to his leadership in such a way; Bagnell, meanwhile, says he voted against his party on many occasions. For those inclined to look for some hard numbers to resolve such disputes, rather than rely on anecdotes, it happens that there is some.

J.F. Godbout, a Universite de Montreal political science professor, has made a spreadsheet that tabulates and ranks every Conservative MP by the measure of how many times they’ve voted against their party. It puts Leef at #27, having voted against the majority of his party five times in the past term.

Godbout also has the numbers for how frequently Bagnell dissented during his terms as MP. He concludes that Bagnell was the more “disobedient” of the two, in that he more frequently voted at odds with the majority of his party.

Of course, this kind of numerical comparison has its limits. Both politicians served at different times, and voted on different issues, as Godbout notes. And, of course, they belong to different parties.

At least both Leef and Bagnell seem to have gotten the message that many voters are fed up with MPs being too cowed by their leaders. Even under the Reform Act’s new rules, it will take time for a more independent culture to emerge among Canada’s parliamentarians. But we can at least hope we’re seeing a small step in the right direction.

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