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Duff Conacher


No Party Leader Should Have All That Power

Posted: 06/12/2013 12:26 pm

As many questions about the freedom and powers of backbench politicians swirl about in Canada, the national educational foundation Your Canada, Your Constitution (YCYC) released the results this week of the first -ever national survey of Canadians on the question of restricting the powers of political party leaders to control politicians in their party. The results show that a large majority of Canadians (71%) want legal restrictions on party leader powers to give more freedom and power to politicians in each party, while only 20% do not want these legal restrictions (9% did not answer).

The survey question described some of the key powers that party leaders now have: to choose their party's election candidates; choose which politicians in their party sit on committees, and; to penalize politicians who don't vote with their party in the legislature. Experts have concluded that political party leaders in Canada have more powers than party leaders in every other democracy worldwide.

During his successful Liberal leadership campaign, Justin Trudeau promised, among other democratic reforms, to open nominations processes in all ridings and not appoint election candidates, and to free MPs to vote against Cabinet when a bill contains an election platform, budget or Charter of Rights measure. However, he did not promise to change any laws to require himself and all party leaders to do these things.

So how could these powers be restricted? One way is to change the Constitution by adding rules that apply to all governments across the country. Alternately, at the federal level changing the Canada Elections Act to prohibit party leaders from appointing candidates (unless the riding association democratically agreed with the appointment) would be a first step. The federal Conservatives promised to make this change in their 2006 election platform, but broke their promise. Ironically, given Justin Trudeau's promise, his father Pierre Trudeau made the changes to the federal elections law in 1970 that effectively gave party leaders control over riding associations and the selection of candidates.

If this law was changed, parties would very likely continue to use "character qualifications" surveys to determine whether candidates have any personal problems (past or present) that make them ineligible or unattractive as candidates. As a result, some limits would likely have to be set on these qualifications to ensure party leaders did not use them to arbitrarily keep out independent-minded candidates.

The Parliament of Canada Act or House and Senate rules would have to be changed as a second step to give all politicians in each party caucus the power to choose who sits on which committees (instead of the party leaders), and to set out when and why committee members could be changed, etc.

Those two steps (which could also be taken in any province by changing similar provincial laws) are relatively easy compared to setting limits on when party leaders can "whip" politicians in their party (ie. force them to vote with the party). In Britain, Australia and New Zealand, what is a "vote of non-confidence" is strictly defined in a document known as the "Cabinet manual" so that it can be determined clearly whether the national government has the confidence of the legislature. Essentially, a vote of non-confidence has to say explicitly that "the legislature has no confidence in the government" - and such a rule could be implemented across Canada.

The non-confidence vote rule in these countries does not mean that MPs can vote as they like on every other measure proposed in the legislature, but it does free MPs somewhat because it effectively prohibits the Prime Minister from forcing MPs to toe the ruling party line by arbitrarily designating any bill or resolution as a vote of confidence/non-confidence.

It could be left to each party leader in Canada to decide which other votes in the legislature are "whippable" but the results of YCYC's survey indicate that a large majority of Canadians also want restrictions on party leaders in this area. As noted above, Justin Trudeau has proposed three restrictions on his powers that could be a good start, but they are so briefly summarized that they leave him a lot of wiggle room.

Requiring MPs to vote the party line only on matters "that implement the 2015 Liberal platform" sounds good but could easily mean requiring them to support very specific measures that were only vaguely promised in the platform. And promising to whip MPs only on votes "that enable budget or significant money measures" or that "speak to the shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms" also sounds reasonable. However, what does "significant" mean exactly, and what if non-budgetary measures are included in a budget (although Trudeau also promised not to use omnibus budget bills), and what is the scope of the "shared values" given that many, many bills touch on Charter values in one way or another, directly or indirectly.

As a result, more specific restrictions than those proposed by Trudeau would be needed to make votes actually free. Clear rules would also be needed on how and in what circumstances party leaders could penalize politicians who don't toe the party line -- rules that establish, for example, whether the leader should be allowed to suspend or kick someone out of the party's caucus or whether approval of a majority (or two-thirds majority) of the caucus would be needed to impose this penalty.

As well, rules would be needed to determine when a politician could justifiably leave the party to sit as an independent. Some propose that politicians who do this should always be required to resign their seat and, if they want it back, to run in a by-election. However, if a party's leader breaks all the party's election promises, or is jailed for corruption, should politicians be required to stick with the leader and the party or face a by-election, even if a large majority of voters in their riding want them to leave?

Some say even greater changes are needed to balance the powers of leaders and individual politicians, such as giving party caucuses the power to fire the leader, as in Britain and Australia. However, given that many leaders in Canada are elected by direct votes of party members, and given that politicians in each party do have some power now to collectively challenge any leader, it is unlikely that change will go this far in Canada.

There are other areas of concern about ruling party leaders that seem more ripe for change -- in another YCYC-VCVC survey released in January, 84% of Canadians supported enacting new rules about when the Prime Minister and premiers can open and close parliament; what measures can be included in bills such as budgets; whether a government has lost a vote that should cause an election; whether an election should be called just because a Prime Minister or premier wants an election, and; which political party, or parties, will be the government after an election.

Overall, given that a large majority of Canadians want these changes, how political party leaders respond is a test of whether Canada is actually a democracy. Will any leaders introduce new rules to restrict their own powers in any of the ways that 71% of Canadians want - or to put it another way, if any politician proposes new restrictions, will party leaders allow politicians in their parties to vote freely on the proposals? Given the YCYC survey results, if any party leader proposes or allows these changes they will very likely be applauded by a large majority of Canadians, as well as by politicians in their party.

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  • Prime Minister Trudeau and his then-wife Margaret leave the city's Notre Dame Basilica Sunday afternoon after the christening of their 22-day old infant Justin Pierre James, Jan. 16, 1972. Tasseled shawls kept the baby hidden from photographers and the 10-degree-below-zero weather.

  • Eleven-month-old Justin Trudeau, urged on by his mother Margaret Trudeau, crawls up the steps of an aircraft in Ottawa Dec. 5, 1972 to meet his father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau on his return from Britain.

  • Pierre Trudeau is saluted by RCMP Officer as he carries son Justin to Rideau Hall in 1973. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/14/justin-trudeau-cries-cried-photo-loyalist-college_n_2690299.html">Justin Trudeau teared up when he was presented with a framed copy while visiting Loyalist College in 2013</a>.

  • Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau delivers a right hook to his older brother Justin during a play fight in 1980 at Ottawa airport as the boys await a flight with the return of their father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. Nobody was injured. Justin was born in 1971 and Sacha in 1973 - both on Christmas day.

  • March 1979 photo of the Trudeau children: Michel (front), Alexandre (Sacha) and Justin (rear).

  • It was a big day for Dad, but a long day for the three Trudeau children. Left to right, Justin, Michel and Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau attended the swearing in ceremonies of their father Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister March 3, 1980 at Government House.

  • Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and 10 year-old son Justin walk toward a plane at CFB Ottawa on Nov. 7, 1982.

  • Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, left, watches as his 11-year-old son Justin swings on a chain during a tour of an old fort in the Omani town of Nizwa Dec. 2, 1983. Trudeau and Justin spent the day visiting the towns of Jebel and Nizwa 165 kilometres south of Muscat.

  • Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau's 11-year-old son Justin jumps off an old cannon while visiting a fort along with his father in the Omani town of Nizwa and Jebel.

  • Justin Trudeau and friend Mathieu Walker in the Sahara desert in October, 1994.

  • Justin Trudeau and friend Mathieu Walker in the Sahara desert in October, 1994.

  • Justin Trudeau with friends Mathieu Walker and Allen Steverman in Shanghai in 1994.

  • Justin Trudeau with friends Mathieu Walker (left) and Allen Steverman (centre) at the Great Wall of China in 1994.

  • Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau (L), his son, Alexandre (Sacha), ex-wife Margaret Kemper and son Justin weep as they leave a memorial service for their son Michel in Montreal in 1998. Michel Trudeau drowned after being swept into a lake during an avalanche in British Columbia.

  • Justin (left) and Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau lean out of the funeral train to show appreciation to mourners who turned out to pay their respects to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in Dorval, Que., Monday Oct. 2, 2000. Trudeau's casket was moved from Ottawa to Montreal for a state funeral. ()

  • Justin Trudeau is consoled by his mother Margaret after reading the eulogy for his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau during his state funeral in Montreal, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000.

  • Justin Trudeau delivers a eulogy for his late father Pierre Trudeau during the state funeral for the former prime minister at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000. Trudeau first caught the public heartstrings in October 2000, when he delivered a moving, deeply felt eulogy for his legendary father, weaving an emotional spell from inside the cavernous Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal.

  • Justin Trudeau breaks down on his father's casket after reading the eulogy during the state funeral for former prime minister Pierre Trudeau Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2000 in Montreal.

  • Justin Trudeau gives a rose to a young girl, one of thousands of mourners who stood outside Notre-Dame Basillica in Montreal Tuesday, October 3, 2000 during a state funeral for his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

  • An enthusiastic Justin Trudeau talks to reporters during a news conference to promote avalanche awareness in West Vancouver Thursday Jan. 25, 2001.

  • Justin Trudeau stands at the base of a mountain near the evidence of a controlled avalanche at Lake Louise, Alberta, Friday January 12, 2002.

  • Trudeau with adviser and friend Gerald Butts in July 2003 at Virginia Falls, Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories.

  • Justin Trudeau carves through a gate during a celebrity slalom race in Mont Tremblant, Que. Friday, Dec. 12, 2003. Trudeau was taking part in a 24-hour ski-a-thon for charity organized by Jacques Villeneuve and Villeneuve's manager Craig Pollock.

  • Justin Trudeau spoke to students as Sisler High School about the benefits of joining the Katimavik Project on March 9, 2004

  • Justin Trudeau, son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, leaves with his new bride Sophie Gregoire in his father's 1959 Mercedes 300 SEL after their marriage ceremony in Montreal Saturday, May 28, 2005.

  • Sophie Gregoire waves to the crowd as she arrives for her wedding to Justin Trudeau, son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in Montreal Saturday, May 28, 2005.

  • Then-leadership candidate Stéphane Dion crosses paths with Justin Trudeau, a supporter of Gerard Kennedy, at the Liberal Leadership Convention on Nov. 30, 2006 in Montreal. The day after he won the leadership, Dion told Trudeau he needed his help and urged him to run.

  • Former prime minister Jean Chretien meets Justin Trudeau at the Liberal leadership convention, Friday, Dec. 1, 2006, in Montreal.

  • Justin Trudeau poses in London, Ont., on Tuesday, June 5, 2007 with a group of youth who participated in the Katimavik national youth service program that he has been actively involved in. The funny faces came from a request by a parent taking a photograph.

  • Justin Trudeau raises his arms in victory after being voted in as the Liberal representative in Montreal's Papineau riding, on April 29, 2007.

  • Justin Trudeau, then Liberal candidate for the riding of Papineau, on the campaign trail with his mother, Margaret, in Montreal on Sept. 23, 2008. Trudeau snatched the riding from the Bloc Québécois by 1,189 votes.

  • Liberal Justin Trudeau, then a candidate in the riding of Papineau, on the campaign trail in Montreal, Tuesday Sept. 23, 2008 with his mother, Margaret.

  • Then-Liberal Leader Stephane Dion chats with Justin Trudeau in Vancouver before boarding the campaign plane to fly to Ontario, Oct. 7, 2008.

  • Justin Trudeau apologizes for swearing at Environment Minister Peter Kent in the House of Commons Dec. 14, 2011.

  • Justin Trudeau poses in this official photo for his boxing match with Senator Patrick Brazeau.

  • Senator Patrick Brazeau, right, and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau take part in a weigh-in for a upcoming boxing match Wednesday March 28, 2012.

  • Senator Patrick Brazeau, right, and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau take part in a weigh-in for a upcoming boxing match Wednesday March 28, 2012, in Ottawa.

  • Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, left, fights Senator Patrick Brazeau during charity boxing match for cancer research Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Ottawa.

  • Senator Patrick Brazeau, right, and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau take part in a charity boxing match for cancer research Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Ottawa .

  • Liberal MP Justin Trudeau celebrates after he defeated Senator Patrick Brazeau during charity boxing match for cancer research Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Ottawa .

  • Liberal MP Justin Trudeau kisses his wife Sophie Grégoire after winning a boxing match against Senator Patrick Brazeau on Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Ottawa.

  • Liberal MPs, including Justin Trudeau, look on as Senator Patrick Brazeau holds a Liberal hockey sweater on Parliament Hill Ottawa, Monday April 2, 2012.

  • Liberal MP Justin Trudeau trims the end of Senator Patrick Brazeau's pony tail out of respect in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill Ottawa, Monday April 2, 2012.

  • Liberal MP Justin Trudeau announces he will seek the leadership of the party at a news conference, Tuesday, October 2, 2012 in Montreal.

  • Liberal MP Justin Trudeau waves to the crowd of supporters as he holds his son Xavier and his wife Sophie Gregoire holds their daughter Ella-Grace after announcing he will seek the leadership of the party Tuesday, October 2, 2012 in Montreal.

  • Justin Trudeau, right, chats to his chief advisor Gerald Butts after taking part in the the Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Saturday, February 16, 2013.

  • Marc Garneau, left, and Justin Trudeau take part in the Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Feb. 16, 2013.


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