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Reform Act Not Needed, Says Tory House Leader Peter Van Loan

OTTAWA — Opposition parties and some Conservative members may decry the government’s methods of curtailing debate and whipping votes, but the party is simply offering stable government and fulfilling its electoral promises, the Tory House Leader says.

Peter Van Loan sat down with The Huffington Post Canada this week to reflect on 2013, a year marked by the Senate scandal and an insurrection of the Conservative backbench.

Tory Ontario MP Michael Chong’s Reform Act, which seeks to empower the backbench by stripping many of the party leader’s powers, is receiving much attention from his colleagues. The government is no fan of the bill, however, and Van Loan offered a staunch defense of the status quo.

Van Loan believes there are “real problems” with the Reform Act. He says the bill may be well-intentioned but it isn’t needed and doesn’t provide for sufficient vetting of potential candidates. Chong has suggested riding associations have the final say over selection of candidates, rather than a party leader.

“I don’t want to be on the same team as people who have been convicted of fraud, charged with influence peddling or are holocaust deniers,” Van Loan said.

Several backbenchers say they feel unable to speak or vote freely because they fear Prime Minister Stephen Harper won’t sign off on their re-election forms.

Van Loan is dismissive of their complaints.

“I don’t think that’s been a problem in our government.”

He said he’s open to changing his mind, “if someone could show me where it has been abused.”

“Otherwise, I just haven’t seen that,” he said after a long pause.

The Huffington Post has spoken to some Conservative MPs who say that if they felt they could speak out, they would join the chorus of opposition members who feel the Tories often rule with an iron fist.

Despite obtaining a majority, the government is still tabling omnibus bills, rushing legislation through the House, whipping votes, limiting debate, and heading in-camera to defeat opposition motions.

Van Loan defends the government’s actions in limiting debate by saying the Tories are only trying to “schedule things so that decisions could be made after adequate debate and there is certainty about the process.”

He points out there are "a lot of countries where you continue to see political gridlock, uncertainty and instability to make important decisions on the economy.”

“Folks from other countries say how lucky we are to be able to make decisions and get things done.”

Chong’s bill, he warns, could slow the system down. “It might affect the stability of the government if you have a faction as small as 15 per cent who can put the leadership in constant turmoil,” he said.

The Reform Act establishes a process by which 15 per cent of a party’s caucus members could call for a leadership review vote, and boot out the leader with a simple majority.

“(Former Progressive Conservative prime minister) Joe Clark faced a situation with a minority significantly greater than that, it significantly impaired his ability to carry on as leader of his party. Parties have tended to work these things out in the past, I’m not sure that there is a need… I really don’t see the benefit,” Van Loan said.

The greatest problem the political system currently faces, he said, is parties being unwilling or unable to follow through on their promises.

“When a political party commits to do things, promises to get things done and then actually doesn’t deliver on them and can’t actually get them done — that’s what I think really erodes public confidence in the political system.”

He proudly notes that this year, the Conservatives have passed 40 bills through Parliament — that’s more than any other year since Harper came to power in 2006, he said. The vast majority of the legislation, however, was passed before Parliament prorogued in June. Only three bills — two budget implementation bills and the renaming of the Canadian Museum of History — were completed during the fall session.

When Parliament resumes in late January, Van Loan said he hopes the opposition and the media will have moved on from the Senate scandal to other topics he believes most people care about more.

There were plenty of topics to talk about this fall, Van Loan said, pointing to the signing of the free trade deal with Europe and the Conservatives’ crime bills. But he says the NDP focused on the Senate scandal because it didn’t want to draw attention to the fact their party opposes the government’s efforts.

“I don’t think they want Canadians to understand really how extreme their positions are on these issues so that is why they have chosen to talk about other subjects, which frankly I can tell you my constituents have not found that to be compelling,” he said.

Van Loan said his constituents only cared about ensuring misbehaving senators faced consequences and “all that was taken care of sometime ago.” (The Conservatives in the Senate suspended three senators alleged to have abused their expense claims.)

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair received rave reviews this year for his interrogating style in the House of Commons, asking Harper pointed questions about the Senate scandal.

Sometimes Harper responded. Other times it was up to his new stand-in, Ontario MP Paul Calandra, to dodge Mulcair’s pointed attacks. Calandra was lambasted by critics for invoking anything from his daughter’s lemonade stand to pizzas to deflect the opposition’s questions.

Van Loan told HuffPost he thinks Calandra did a “really good job at a really challenging task.”

“I’ve been there,” he said, “There is a great desire to want to try to say something different but when you are asked essentially the same questions over and over and over again.”

“Everyone has their own style.”

Van Loan predicts next year will bring a continued focus on the economy and job growth, as well as at least two commitments made in the Throne Speech: the introduction of the Election Reform bill and the Victims’ Bill of Rights.

He said he expects 2014 to be quite partisan and aggressive as the parties sharpen their tone and look for partisan differences or advantages in the lead up to the next federal election, scheduled for the fall of 2015.

“I expect you’ll see a ramp-up of partisanship over the next two years, but from our government’s perspective we will continue to on track with our agenda,” Van Loan said.

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