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We Don't Need a Reform Bill That Only Shifts Power From One Clique to Another

12/02/2013 12:35 EST | Updated 02/01/2014 05:59 EST

In our last federal election, a grand total of 5,835,270 Canadians elected the prime minister. A new bill before parliament will give a mere 81 the power to remove him. That might be dramatic political reform, but certainly not in the direction of more democracy.

Now, before some fuss-budget rushes in, yes, I know that, technically speaking, Canadians don't really "elect the prime minister." We merely elect MPs on the understanding that if we vote in enough from one party, that party's boss will run the country. Technically speaking, Americans don't elect their president either, they just elect members of the electoral college on the understanding those guys will install whoever wins the popular vote (in most cases). In both countries, political systems that were initially designed to be exceedingly complex have now streamlined their operations to uphold a single simple principle: what the voters want, they get.

A motion to be introduced by Tory backbench MP Michael Chong, however, proposes giving the inner elite of Canada's political parties the power to overturn the public's clearly expressed preference for who should be PM. Under the terms of his redundantly-named Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act, if, at any moment, just over 50 per cent of the MPs of the prime minister's party vote to turf a democratically-elected PM, out he goes. Though the bill wouldn't take effect until after the next federal election, just to give a sense of the numbers we're talking here, 50 per cent-plus-one of all current Conservative MPs is just 81 people.

The intended purpose of this reform is to recalibrate Ottawa's power imbalance by ensuring, in the excited words of the National Post's Andrew Coyne, "party leaders would serve at the pleasure of caucus, and not the other way around." As in, if the PM could be impeached by his own MPs at any time, maybe he wouldn't be quite so mean and bossy to them, dictating which abortion bills they can and can't introduce and whatnot. That's a noble motive. The degree to which MPs are routinely bullied, humiliated, and puppeteered by the PM -- to the point where even the supposed "most independent" MP still votes with his government 99% of the time -- is indeed a national outrage, and a stain on Canadian democracy. But it would only be spreading the stain further to allow MPs, in the pursuit of humbling their boss in Ottawa, to effectively veto the wishes of their bosses back home: the voters.

It really says something about the unambitious nature of so-called "democratic reform" movements in Canada that the only scheme a supposed crusader like Chong can devise to lessen the power concentrated in the hands of a small clique -- in this case, the courtiers of the Prime Minister's Office -- is to concentrate power in the hands of a different small clique -- in this case, a tiny gang of MPs.

The same sort of small thinking is present in the second half of Chong's reform proposal -- this idea that MP candidates should be exclusively nominated by their party's riding association, and not merely installed lightbulb-like by the party leader, as is so often the case today.

A party leader is one guy. The candidate selection committee of your standard party riding association comprises around six. In the event the committee decides to bring a contested nomination to a vote of all party members within the riding, the number of eligible voters will usually be a couple hundred at best -- and many of these will simply be the friends, staff, and family of the candidates themselves (and perhaps a hoard of so-called "insta-members" wrangled from some ethnic or religious community presumed to be good at bloc-voting). In any case, formal membership in political parties is so rare in this country it's been estimated that only about 1 per cent of Canadians could even vote in riding elections if they wanted to. So it's one man or one percent, take your pick.

There are better options. Canadians shouldn't have to chose between tyrannical prime ministers whipping submissive MPs on the one hand, or the stupid madness of Australia -- where voters have no idea who they're electing to run the country because it's so easy for ruling parties to change the prime minister mid-term -- on the other. Nor should we have to pick between having our MP candidates parachuted in by Ottawa versus having them selected by a couple dozen third-cousins in some $40-an-hour banquet hall.

What the Canadian political system actually needs is what Canadians constantly tell the pollsters they want -- a comprehensive weakening of Ottawa's smothering party system, full stop. My favoured method of achieving this, as I outlined in a previous column, would be to turn Canada's parties into open, public utilities rather than closed, private corporations, and thereby grant all citizens -- not just card-carrying "party members" -- the right to vote in their local MP nomination elections and national party leadership races, just as Americans do in Congressional and presidential primaries. If the goal is to liberate MPs from the party bosses while also ensuring those party bosses are democratically accountable, this strikes me as the most sensible solution -- simply remove the partisan middlemen between our politicians and the public they serve, not merely swap one style of middleman for another, as Mr. Chong suggests.

Such Americanizations might represent a break with how our parliamentary system is "supposed to work," according to those Anglophilic nostalgists who refuse to contemplate any political reform that some other white Commonwealth country didn't dream up first. But chances are reforms of this sort would work for Canada, and that's probably what's most important.

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