Senators have no right to spike the Reform Act

If you've paid any attention to our federal representatives in recent memory, chances are you have some complaint having to do with their lack of backbone.

If you’ve paid any attention to our federal representatives in recent memory, chances are you have some complaint having to do with their lack of backbone.

Maybe it has to do with the Liberals’ Larry Bagnell caving to his leader’s wish that he help prop-up the long-gun registry, even after Bagnell had promised Yukoners he would do otherwise.

Or maybe it has to do with our present MP, Ryan Leef, rolling over on initiatives he once touted as proof he was something more than the prime minister’s ventriloquist doll, whether it’s championing a public inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women or calling for FASD to be recognized within the criminal code.

If any of this bothers you, perhaps you would have been heartened to hear there was a chance, however faint, of our MPs growing spines at some point in the future, thanks to a private member’s bill that sought to remove some of the threats that party leaders currently wield to keep MPs in line.

But now that hope, however far-fetched, looks like it’s about to be snuffed out – by a bunch of unelected, unaccountable busy-bodies, no less.

We’re talking, of course, about the Senate, where members are grumping about how they take issue with parts of Michael Chong’s Reform Act. If the Senate does decide to foot-drag or fiddle with the bill, that is effectively its death sentence, since there won’t be enough time to pass it before the upcoming autumn election.

This bill has already cleared the House of Commons, after receiving support from an overwhelming majority of MPs, including, to his credit, Leef. It deals exclusively with how MPs deal with themselves, and does not change any rules involving the Senate. That’s why the bill’s author has essentially told senators that the bill is none of their business, and they have no authority to block it.

We’d add that our senators have little moral authority to lecture our MPs about how democracy should work, for the simple reason that they, unlike our MPs, have never been elected to the office they now hold.

Senators seem unmoved. Their intransigence unwittingly makes the case for the Senate’s destruction that much stronger. It’s one thing for the upper chamber to moan about the agonies of having to eat cold camembert and broken crackers on an airplane in justifying expensive tastes that are underwritten with the public dime. It’s another thing to entirely spike a bill aimed at democratic reform, while making righteous comments about the need to protect our democracy.

We’ve yet to hear what Yukon’s senator, Daniel Lang, thinks of all this. (He didn’t return calls from the News this week on the subject.) But his Conservative colleague, Senator David Wells, for one, has been a vocal critic of the Reform Act. In an open letter, he has specifically expressed concerns about the bill’s provisions that would allow MPs to turf a leader who has lost their support.

The support of 20 per cent of a party caucus would be needed to trigger a leadership confidence vote. In the case of the federal Liberals in their present, much-diminished size, that means just eight disaffected MPs, Wells notes. He wonders how legitimate such a measure would be, given that more than 81,000 Canadians participated in picking the present Liberal leader. “To dismiss the will of the grassroots and the electorate under the cloak of ‘reform’ by a small cabal of disgruntled is an affront to democracy,” he concludes.

Aaron Wherry at Maclean’s has noted there’s something wrong with the senator’s math: namely, he doesn’t consider the votes that brought these eight theoretical rabble-rousers into office. It’s a thing called representative democracy – commonly practised in Canada during the 21st century, outside the Red Chamber.

It’s true that there is some inconsistency in having party leaders picked by the general membership, yet potentially turfed by their caucus. But this seems like a reasonable trade-off if it means that MPs will be less cowed by their leaders.

It’s worth noting that caucus would only appoint an interim leader, with a permanent replacement later picked through the party’s usual leadership convention. And, as Chong has noted, party caucuses already possess the power to depose leaders, albeit in a messy, unorganized fashion. After all, it was caucus discontent that ended the premiership of Alberta’s Alison Redford, and Stockdale Day’s leadership of the Canadian Alliance. The Reform Act would simply codify these existing powers.

Chong envisions a day when Canadian legislators behave a bit more like how they do in the U.K., where it’s far more common to see MPs vote against their party line, and discontent among a prime minister’s backbenches is sometimes considered a bigger political threat than the Opposition.

The Reform Act had to be watered down in order for it to be stomached by the party leaders. Whereas an earlier version would have handed the power to nix a candidate’s nomination from the leader, who uses this as a means of keeping members in line, to local riding associations, now this power could be delegated by a leader to a person of his or her choosing – and it’s easy to imagine that official being under the leader’s thumb.

As well, party caucuses would need to opt-in to the Reform Act’s new powers at the start of each term. It’s easy to imagine caucuses simply passing on this opportunity, if enough MPs fear that being part of a push for greater power could blow up and result in a missed opportunity for a future cabinet post.

But at least the Reform Act created some hope that change was possible, until senators decided that wasn’t to their liking.

The Senate sitting wraps up in less than a month. So if you’d like our MP to spend more time representing the interests of constituents, rather than their party leaders, you had better let Lang know.

You can reach him at 1-800-267-7362 or at daniel.lang@sen.parl.gc.ca.

He may not have been elected, but he’s still supposed to listen to you.

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