12/09/2013 11:23 EST | Updated 02/08/2014 05:59 EST

A First Look at the Reform Act

The Act to Amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act (Reforms), already dubbed "The Reform Act," was only introduced in the House of Commons last week, but that didn't stop the preceding week's worth of speculation and gossip about what "might" be in the bill.

Now we know.

Bill C-559, introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong, would, as Andrew Coyne rightly points out, fundamentally change Canada's Parliament forever, drastically reshaping Canada's parliamentary system, the party system, and electoral processes.

The bill proposes:

• Creating a "nomination officer" "who is appointed by the electoral district association of a political party to endorse the prospective candidate for the party in that electoral district." This removes the ability of the party leader to certify candidates, and instead brings it down to the EDA level.

• Legislating that nomination contests are initiated at the time and place of the EDA's choosing.

• A leadership review upon the written request of 15 per cent of caucus.

• A member may only be expelled from caucus if a majority of caucus agree to it by secret ballot, after being requested by 15 per cent of caucus.

• A member may be re-admitted to caucus if: a) they win re-election where they ran as that party's candidate; or b) if a majority of caucus agree to it by secret ballot, after being requested by 15 per cent of caucus.

• The caucus chair may only be removed as caucus chair if a majority of caucus agree to it by secret ballot, after being requested by 15 per cent of caucus.

The bill raises a number of questions: does the bill aim to combat systemic issues affecting all political parties, or are they aimed at enacting legislation to correct the (right or wrong) behaviour of a single political party?

Why are internal party policies insufficient? For example, the bill proposes that the Canada Elections Act state that every political party must have a leadership review clause in their party's constitution. The three major parties already do, and it didn't take a law to force them into compliance: for the Conservatives it's section 10, for the NDP it's section 3(a), and for the Liberals it's section 61.

The Reform Act places a lot of emphasis on EDA-elected nomination officers. Just think about it: the authority of Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau, and Stephen Harper and their headquarters staff to choose their 308 (or 338 in 2015) candidates would be suddenly delegated to 308 (or 338) nominations officers.

If these nominations officers are to be paid staff, can that cost be borne? If they are to be volunteers, can they be relied upon to exact the same judgment and utmost discretion as would be expected of a party leader choosing his slate of candidates? Do political parties even have viable EDAs in all 308 ridings?

All three party leaders should rightly be concerned about this: national campaigns require national branding, a national platform, and a national message. Like it or not, politics is as much now as it ever was about selling a brand: we constantly hear about the Harper Brand, the Trudeau Brand, and the Mulcair brand. Each have created these brands through careful coordination of marketing, events, announcements, speeches, and proposals. This coordination occurs at the national level, in the leaders' offices, because they're selling a national product.

Just imagine if tomorrow Coca Cola decided that each distributor would be allowed to create its own brand image while still using the Coca Cola name. The brand reputation and reliability would suffer instantly.

Unfortunately, the party leader needs the ability to ensure the success of his brand, and remove potential candidates who don't fit the bill. Instantly devolving the authority to approve candidates into the hands of 338 volunteers would seriously harm every party's ability to wage a national campaign.

This doesn't mean party leaders should parachute in star candidates or refuse to listen to their grassroots: they already do listen by signing the nomination papers of the candidate who was successful in the riding's nomination contest. But it does mean that party leaders need to have the final say in whether a particular candidate fits the party's brand.

Michelle Rempel, the Conservative MP from Calgary Centre-North and minister for Western Economic Diversification, took only a cursory look over the bill and had several questions she shared on Twitter. Here's a relatively simple example of how this legislation could go terribly wrong: a special interest group hijacks an EDA and elects its nomination officer from the same special interest group. The nomination officer refuses to sign the nomination papers of any candidate who refuses to support Policy A. What power does the central party have to boot the nomination officer? What power does the EDA have to regain its power and elect a new nomination officer?

Or how about this example: A group of NDP members overthrows a Liberal EDA and elects an NDP member as its nomination officer. The nomination officer purposely approves an NDP member as its Liberal candidate, who proceeds to act like an idiot and embarrass the national brand. Is the national party expected to sit idly by?

The power being invested in each individual nomination officer is simply too great, which is ironic considering the purpose of this bill is to defuse and decentralize power.

Fifteen percent is all that's needed to trigger a leadership review. What would stop just 25 of Harper's MPs or 15 of Mulcair's MPs from engaging in perpetual leadership reviews to harass the leader or prove a point? Is there a time limit between such reviews? One month? A year? Five years?

Furthermore, why is caucus given the final (and only) vote on firing the party leader? It would seem if this bill is focused on increasing the involvement of grassroots EDA-level members, then a leadership review should be decided upon by party members at large, not just sitting MPs. Certainly, some parties could further describe the circumstances in which they would like to engage their leadership review or leadership selection processes, but this business should be left to party members to decide, not government.

The Reform Act would enact fundamental changes to Canada's parliamentary and political party systems. It creates government regulations that delegate authority from party leaders' offices and places that authority in the hands of 338 EDA-elected officers. The question is firstly whether these reforms are needed at all, and secondly, if they are, if the government is the right body to address them.