OTTAWA – A group of Conservative backbenchers is planning to do something they have only discussed in secret until now – they want to limit the Prime Minister’s power.
They are frustrated by the heavy hand of the Prime Minister’s Office, which controls how they vote, what speeches they read and which questions they ask. Sources say Ontario MP Michael Chong is expected to propose a bill next week that would remove a party leader’s ability to veto the candidature of a sitting MP in an election and give the caucus the ability to call for a leadership review.
Changes to the leadership review would kick in only after the next election, one source said. Another suggested that the bill is not an indictment of the Prime Minister, but it reflects a deep uneasiness with the increasing irrelevance of Parliament. Chong declined to be interviewed Thursday. He called The Huffington Post Canada to deny the contents of his bill. Earlier this week, however, he wrote to the Prime Minister informing him of his proposals to reform the chamber, HuffPost has learned.
The Tories are under stringent party discipline. When the NDP proposed an amendment to a bill to correct a grammar error this winter, the Conservative majority on the committee vetoed it because the suggestion came from the opposition.
Tired of being a $160,200-a-year voting machines, the group of Conservative MPs has been meeting secretly for well over a year, discussing ways to inject more democracy into the Commons.
One of the solutions they have embraced – the cause of their shackles – is the removal of the leader’s power to veto individual candidates. Because it is difficult to win an election as an independent, Harper and the other party leaders have enormous power over their MPs, since no one can run under their party’s banner without their approval.
Chong is expected to table a private members’ bill that would give veto power over a candidate to the riding association executive rather than the party leader or his designate, sources said. Chong’s riding association of Wellington–Halton Hills put forward a similar resolution at the Conservative convention in Calgary earlier this month. That resolution would have prevented the national party from appointing candidates — unless the electoral district association (EDA) failed to do so.
Wellington–Halton Hills riding president Peter Jonkman told HuffPost the party’s National Council would still have been able to vet candidates to ensure that “unsavoury characters” – those with a police record or a questionable past – would not be selected to represent the party.
“It should be held at the local level,” Jonkman said. “The grassroots people, we put in a lots of volunteer time, we put money into the EDA, it’s a long process, and we don’t want to be fluffed aside [by] people in Ottawa who might not even know what is going on in our local riding association.”
“This way, it gives us more local power, and especially at the grassroots level, because we’re always for the grassroots level, and this is what this party was built upon when the two legacy parties came together that the grassroots was the most important thing,” he said.
The Wellington–Halton Hills resolution was defeated at the Tory convention on Nov. 2. Jonkman believes, however, that confusion over two missing resolutions prevented a thorough debate, and vote. His group was nowhere near the microphone and couldn’t speak in support of its motion.
“That totally messed up our planning... [Delegates] had already voted on it before we got to the mic,” he said.
If Chong presses on with his bill, it will not be the first time a parliamentarian has suggested eliminating a section of the Elections Canada Act that grants the party leader so much power.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May has twice suggested a similar change, arguing that it would “loosen party discipline,” “end the current climate of fear in caucuses” and “ensure that MPs are not subject to the harsh sanction of being thrown out of caucus and denied the chance to stand for their constituency due to a leader's ire.”
Several Conservatives agree. The group, which numbers between five and 25 depending on whom you ask, has been meeting every second Monday off Sparks Street, a stone's throw from Parliament Hill. They call themselves “Committee 2012,” a reference to Britain’s Committee 1922.
In Britain, Conservative backbenchers use that committee to talk through issues and oversee the election of a new party leader. A leadership confidence vote can be triggered if 15 per cent of the UK's Conservative party MPs call for a review.
Canadian members of Parliament do not have that power but some in the Tory group would like it. They believe it would make the leader more accountable and responsive to their concerns.
Most of the Committee 2012 members know they are not on the fast-track to a parliamentary promotion.
None will ever be appointed to cabinet. Some have been parliamentary secretaries or committee chairs – perks that come with salary increases and title bumps – but have since been cast aside. While they range in age, Committee 2012 members are mostly white men from B.C., Alberta and Ontario. Several are social conservatives but others are just stalwarts for parliamentary democracy. None would speak openly about it.
What emerges in private conversation is that Committee 2012’s members are more disillusioned than angry. They believed they would come to Ottawa and contribute but now feel that the cost of speaking out is too great. They are staunch Conservatives, some are quite partisan. They do not want to seen as stabbing the Prime Minister in the back or kicking him when he’s down, but they want things to change.
Brent Rathgeber, the former Conservative MP from Edmonton who turned independent, told The Huffington Post Canada that, in practice, MPs are in Ottawa to prop up, support and cheer for their party leadership.
“There are MPs who are very comfortable doing that, and that’s either because they want to be promoted and they are just political animals and that is just the price that needs to be paid to move from the back, to the middle, to the front (the benches in the Commons where the ministers sit).”
“And then there are those, who, for whatever reasons, have given up. They come from Alberta, they don’t represent a demographic that is underrepresented at the cabinet table so they are unlikely to get promoted anyways, so then they decide to grow a backbone and start to stand up for themselves as members of Parliament.”
Rathgeber left the Tory caucus this summer after the PMO gutted a bill he’d proposed to make public the salaries of top bureaucrats.
Party discipline is not special to the Conservative party. The Liberals and the NDP, especially, can be as tough on their members. But for the many Tory MPs who believe in the grassroots principles of the Reform Party, taking orders from the PMO is not what they believe they should be doing.
The longstanding tradition in British parliamentary democracy by which the government is accountable to the House and the leader is accountable to the caucus is not the case in Ottawa “where everybody is accountable to the Prime Minister’s Office,” Rathgeber said.
While he believes now is the time for the backbench to act, he also thinks few MPs have the guts to stand up to the PMO.
”That type of legislation would have zero chance of passing. I don’t think there is enough of them that would balk at a whipped vote, which inevitably this would be,” Rathgeber said. “However, if ever there was a time to take a run at the power structure, it’s right now. You have a PMO that is under siege,” he said.
Incremental changes might work better, he suggested, such as permanent members on committees so the leaders cannot move people out or shuffle the chairs if they are displeased.
Chong’s proposed changes would be absolutely fundamental to any meaningful electoral reform, but “it’s a suicidal mission at this point,” Rathgeber said.
Saskatchewan Conservative MP Brad Trost is proposing incremental change. He recently introduced a motion to allow MPs, rather than the party whips, to freely decide in a preferential ballot who the committee chairs should be.
“I don’t think its necessarily the biggest change, but I think it is doable, and I think it does start freeing up the thinking around it,” he told HuffPost.
If he were going to bring forward fundamental change, Trost said he would look at the ways candidates and leaders are selected, and whether caucus should select leadership. Those two things brought Canada away from a British system towards a more presidential system, he said.
“Those were big changes in Canadian history, and they were never debated and they had big impacts on our democracy.”
Trost pointed to the botched nomination of now newly elected Conservative MP Larry Maguire in Brandon–Souris. Maguire was acclaimed because the Conservative party rejected the nominations of two other candidates, citing incomplete paperwork. The perception that Conservative party members aren’t free to choose their own representative “really rankles” the membership, Trost said.
Like Rathgeber, Trost doubts whether changes that would empower the caucus to launch a review of their leader or scrap a leader’s ability to sign nominations could occur before the next election.
“It’s sort of difficult to do,” he said.
“One of the reason that guys like me are also a little bit hesitant to get too far and too aggressive on this (is) because people will go ‘Well, you’re just looking to undercut your leader.’ No! This is about much more longer term issues, that go long past Stephen Harper,” he said. “This is about wanting to leave a better country behind. A better Parliament behind.”
“That absolute discipline or control… that is what got us into this mess in the first place,” Trost said referring to the current Senate scandal engulfing the PMO, Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright and several senators who are alleged to have meddled in an independent audit of Senator Mike Duffy’s expenses.
“If the Senators had all run the issue independently, without the input of PMO,” Trost said, “I think that PMO would be happier right now than they are. They ended up trying to do everything and have total control over an issue. I think in retrospect they are wishing they didn’t have any control over it ‘cause look where it got them.”
Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth told HuffPost that MPs themselves are responsible for how they behave.
“No one is shackled. I’m not shackled. No one has shackled me, and it would be a mischaracterization to say that anybody is shackled. One thing that comes into play is the weighing of options that a member of Parliament has to make,” Woodworth said.
“Do I expect that I will end up in cabinet? No. If I wanted to put my personal ambition ahead of what I thought was good for the country, well, you could say I’m shackled by my own personal ambition.”
Woodworth is the MP who introduced a motion calling for a Commons committee to study the question of when life begins. Some suggested that his motion was a way of reopening the abortion debate, and the House voted against it. Woodworth now has a new motion he hopes MPs will adopt calling on every law to recognize the equal worth and dignity of every human being.
He told HuffPost that he is doing this on his own volition but he has thought about whether the Prime Minister would sign his nomination papers for the next election.
“It’s a kind of pressure point and whether or not I worry about it personally, I have reservations about the system. I’m not sure it’s a good thing that a leader of a party should have that kind of ability. Certainly if a leader of a party does have that ability, it should be bounded… by some pretty clear limitations and restrictions,” he said.
“I think that’s an area where we could use some legislative reform,” he added, declining to elaborate on other reforms he has discussed with members privately.
Jonkman, Chong’s riding president, thinks his MP is pretty ballsy and will find support for his bill with colleagues from all parties. When Chong quit Harper’s cabinet in 2006 over his disagreement to recognize Quebec as a nation, membership in Chong’s riding association jumped, he said. People like having an independently minded MP, he added.
“We expect that from Mike. That’s not unusual,” Jonkman said. “It’s not something we’re worried about.”