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Canada, Don't Let Dissatisfaction with Democracy Excuse Michael Chong's Terrible Ideas

12/06/2013 08:24 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Michael Chong is a politician who's hard to hate. In many ways, in fact, he seems like a underdog hero straight out of some HBO political drama: young, clean-cut, unspecifically ethnic, spurnned by his party for the crime of being too principled and, most of all, passionately devoted to the cause of "fixing the system."

So widespread is distrust of Canada's archaic way of doing politics that merely claiming to be "pro reform" is usually enough to get you a relatively free ride from the press, no matter how unimpressive your reforms are in practice. Witness Elizabeth May, for instance, a woman widely regarded as a champion of democracy despite the fact that the entirety of her reform agenda, near as I can tell, consists solely of making it easier for Elizabeth May to get elected, and giving Elizabeth May more speaking time in Parliament.

Michael Chong's not quite that bad, granted, but his ideas are also far more unambitious and establishment-friendly than his great crusader reputation implies. His much-ballyhooed 2010 clean-up Question Period motion, which died when the 2011 election was called, dealt mostly with scheduling, and the Speaker's process for recognizing MPs to speak, and didn't do much to address what I think most ordinary Canadians consider the larger flaw of the daily ritual -- the appalling rudeness and evasiveness our politicians display during it. (I spent an evening with Chong in 2010 and asked him about this."Parliament is not a knitting circle," he replied defensively.) And so too is his latest parliamentary reform bill, which immodestly wants to be known as the "Reform Act" of 2013, a mostly Ottawa-friendly attempt to redistribute power among those who already have it, rather than delegate any new authority to voters.

As I discussed on Monday, Chong's bill is notable mostly in that it would grant a 50-percent-plus-one majority of any party's House caucus the authority to impeach its leader and install a new one, even if that leader happens to be the prime minister of Canada who was just elected with a public mandate of five million. It would also give the power to appoint MP candidates exclusively to political parties' local riding associations (and not the party leader), though the full text of the bill has since revealed that this plan also entails creating new characters known as "riding nomination officers," basically mini-party leaders with final say over all nominees, including vetoing the results of nomination elections.

Though these are all, frankly, terrible ideas, Chong's golden-boy status initially insulated him from too much press criticism. Many pundits seemed inclined to swallow his circular logic that anything he dreams up is an improvement on the status quo simply because he's Michael Chong and Michael Chong is always on the side of democratic improvement. Thankfully, some more recent columns have begun to raise doubts.

Take Tim Harper at the Toronto Star. He's willing to question the narrative that opposing Chong is akin to "also opposing motherhood and apple pie." He's got a few bones to pick with the Reform Act, including how a party leader with no candidate hiring/firing powers is supposed to deal with party nominees who "die, or deal with past indiscretions or criminality, or start spouting contrary policy during the campaign." He also suggests that Chong's metric for deciding when a party can begin the process of impeaching its own leader might be set a little low (15 per cent of caucus members). In Justin Trudeau's tiny caucus, that would mean it would only take "six disgruntled Liberals to trigger a review" of his status as head of the party -- a particularly slim slice when one considers the 81,389 party members who voted to grant him that title last April.

Paul Wells at Macleans' meanwhile, sees a solution to a nonexistent problem.

When, he writes, was "the last time a parliamentary caucus in Ottawa failed to dispatch a leader it didn't like? I'm going to tentatively pencil in 'never.'" Likewise, while the traditional press narrative frames passively obedient MPs as "a morose lot," helpless and emasculated by the party bosses, Wells notes that in his experience, "life as an MP in a large party caucus is a global bargain willingly and continually consummated." Which is to say, MPs tend to be more willing team players than we give them credit for, with their reasons for slavishly obeying the every whims of their party leader having more to do with wanting that party leader to win elections and pursue a policy agenda they broadly support (and perhaps maybe earn a cabinet seat in the process) than out of unmitigated fear for the back of his hand.

Exactly, agrees Chris Selley at the National Post. If our MP's are powerless, it's "true only because they accept it as such." Does anyone genuinely believe that if the majority of members of the Conservative caucus wanted Stephen Harper out, they couldn't figure out some way to make that happen under the present system? After they "retrieve their gonads from the cryogenics lab," of course.

To be sure, Chong's critics in the mainstream press don't question his Reform Act on many of its more substantial conclusions. A great many pundits, including those cited above, don't seem to have any problem in theory with Chong's enormously regressive idea that a small group of MPs should have the right to unilaterally depose a party leader democratically-elected by thousands of party members (or a prime minister elected by millions) -- they merely doubt that this "right" needs to be codified. The fine Liberal blogger Dan Arnold likewise notes that this whole business of creating 308 powerful "nomination officers" to micromanage the nominations of MPs has unjustifiably "received the least attention" of all analysis of the Chong bill, despite the fact that such positions would pose a dramatic threat to existing democratic traditions at the riding level.

Yet it's nice to see Chong get some editorial comeuppance just the same. Dissatisfaction with Canadian democracy should not numb our ability to detect false messiahs.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story included a confusingly worded sentence that implied that Michael Chong supported recognizing Quebec as a nation. Chong opposed granting "nation" status to Quebec.

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