12/07/2014 10:49 EST | Updated 02/06/2015 05:59 EST

Will MPs Empower Themselves and Restrict Their Powers?

parliament of canada on...
parliament of canada on...

A committee of MPs is considering important and unprecedented changes that will either restrict the power of federal party leaders and empower MPs to represent voters, or not, and will also either make MPs much more accountable for their conduct, or not.

What the committee decides, which MPs protest those decisions (if any), and what happens to those MPs, will reveal a lot about the state of democracy in Canada.

First, the Procedure and House Affairs Committee is reviewing Bill C-586 (known as the Reform Act) which takes away the power of federal party leaders to approve election candidates and gives it to a provincial nomination officer elected by a majority of the heads of riding associations in each province (and to one nomination officer elected for all the territories).

The Reform Act also takes away other federal party leader powers over MPs. It requires secret-ballot votes by a majority of MPs to choose each party's caucus chair, and gives 20 per cent of the MPs in each party the power to initiate a secret-ballot vote by all the MPs in the party on whether to expel an MP from the caucus (or re-admit them), and on whether to keep or fire the party's leader. If the leader is fired by a majority of MPs, the bill requires another secret-ballot vote of MPs be held right away to elect an interim party leader.

The Reform Act's sponsor, Conservative MP Michael Chong, has proposed weakening his bill to allow parties to decide -- however they want -- who will approve candidates (which could result in party leaders keeping this power), and to allow each party's MPs to decide after each election how they will choose their caucus chair, expel or re-admit an MP, review a leader, and choose an interim leader (with MPs deciding whether to disclose publicly how they voted).

Surveys show that a large majority of Canadians want clear restrictions on the powers of party leaders. A national survey in May 2013 found that 71 per cent of adult Canadians want restrictions on the powers of leaders to choose their party's election candidates, to choose which MPs sit on committees, and to penalize politicians who don't vote with their party (only 20 per cent were opposed; 9 per cent did not answer).

Another national survey in November 2014 found that 61 per cent want local riding associations to choose election candidates (only 24 per cent want the leader to have this power), and 73 per cent want a majority of MPs to decide whether to expel an MP from the party (only 17 per cent want the leader to have this power).

This survey indicated that the Reform Act should be changed in only one way, as 68 per cent want the members of the party to decide whether to fire the party leader (26 per cent want the party's MPs to decide).

Everyone should be watching very closely for any sign of party leaders using their powers to force the MPs on the committee to change the Reform Act in ways the leaders want.

The key questions are will the committee ensure the final version of the Reform Act takes away key powers of federal party leaders as a large majority of Canadians want? Or will the committee change it into a "Hope for Reform Act" that allows parties and MPs to decide if they even want to restrict their leaders' powers?

Secondly, in the wake of allegations against two Liberal MPs that led to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau suspending them from the party's caucus, MPs on the same committee, and on the secretive House of Commons Board of Internal Economy, are considering what new, clear rules and process to put in place to ensure impartial, independent, private investigations of misconduct by MPs.

That the House of Commons has existed without such rules and process for 147 years shows how little interest MPs have in their own accountability. It also speaks volumes that the Board's initial response was to circle the wagons and try to keep the House a closed club that writes and enforces rules in secret however a majority of MPs wants.

In other words, the Board continued to operate like the kangaroo court that it (and every committee of MPs) is -- making decisions based on politics instead of facts and law.

The simple solution is for MPs to take their existing ethics code and: add some broad conduct rules to it (based on the broad Values and Ethics conduct code MPs imposed on government employees 20 years ago); extend it to apply to everyone who works or volunteers in every MPs office (because it now only covers MPs); require the Ethics Commissioner (who already enforces the code) to investigate and rule publicly on every complaint (no matter who files it); empower and require the Ethics Commissioner to impose set penalties for violations, and; add in an appeal to the courts if the Ethics Commissioner makes a factual or legal error in her ruling.

These changes, which MPs could make in a few days, would effectively increase the accountability of MPs and everyone in their offices for a wide range of types of misconduct without creating a new bureaucracy or significantly increasing costs. The changes would also close loopholes and correct flaws in the current federal ethics enforcement system.

As well, MPs should, as soon as possible: designate the Auditor General as the watchdog over spending by them and their offices, and; extend the federal whistleblower protection law and access-to-information law to cover their offices.

Until these changes are made, MPs will continue to watch and judge themselves, their staff and their offices through secretive, ineffective partisan processes rife with conflicts of interest, processes that only perpetuate abuses that have marred federal politics, and ruined the collective reputation of almost all politicians, since 1867.

Hopefully, the latest fiascos will convince MPs, finally, to make these needed changes to clean things up on Parliament Hill, and ensure MPs are both empowered and accountable in effective, sensible ways.


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