Response to David Wells’ Reform Act op-ed

It seems that the Senate’s journey from relatively harmless anachronism to active obstacle of democratic governance continues apace. After weeks of speculation that the red chamber would allow Michael Chong’s Reform Act to die a quiet death at the end of Parliament, this week we heard an argument from one of the Senators opposed, Conservative David Wells, as to why the bill deserves such a fate.

The glimpse into senatorial thinking was… well, disappointing might be the best word. The arguments include inconsistencies and red herrings. Taken together, they give no basis to conclude that unelected Senators are justified in opposing a bill that the elected House of Commons approved overwhelmingly, with 260 yeas and just 17 opposed.

Wells dismisses much of the bill as inconsequential, quickly zeroing in on the provision to allow a party’s caucus to trigger and conduct a leadership review.  In an impressive bit of sophistry, he claims that this privileges “the wishes of a few” over the expressed will of the thousands of convention delegates who chose the leader.  By “the few” he means MPs elected to represent the will of Canadians in Parliament.

This, of course, is exactly backwards.  A central feature of the Westminster system is that voters selected MPs to exercise good judgement on their behalf. They are precisely the people who should be exercising oversight on leaders in Parliament.

It is the role of Parliament to exercise a check on the Prime Minister and cabinet; likewise, it is in part the role of caucus to exercise oversight on its leader. Those are separate elements of review, and both are important. Wells is implicitly—and wrongly—conflating the two, arguing that the only way for MPs to challenge their leader ought to be a votes of confidence. Essentially, if MPs in government don’t like their leader, their only choice is to bring down their own Prime Minister and trigger an election. Opposition MPs don’t even have this option; they’re stuck until the next convention leadership review rolls around.

There are good reasons a party caucus might challenge their leaders, and ought to be able to do so without bringing down the government and triggering an election—an act almost certain to spell defeat. A caucus review can be a much smoother process, ensuring continued governance by the party in power, while addressing significant issues that come up between elections and conventions. As likely as not, such a review would rarely be used—simply knowing that caucus could turf them out, leaders would be more likely to listen to caucus, forced to listen to the people’s representatives in their party, and not just the unelected staff that surrounds the PM and opposition leaders, wielding power without responsibility to all but the leader.

To justify his argument, Wells invokes the “private club” status of political parties. Effectively, he says, they’re just like any other club. Parliament has no more right to legislate their inner workings than they do your local curling club. If a political party wants to prevent MPs from reviewing their caucus leadership, if it wants to render leaders immune to challenge outside of conventions and indirectly through elections, then they can do just that.

This, of course, is nonsense on stilts. Your typical curling club dreams of ruling over the upcoming bonspiel or, failing that, winning the commanding heights offered by the seats near the TV at the bar. Political parties play a crucial organizing role in our politics. In order to carry out that function effectively, we have granted them certain rights under legislation, access to funds, broadcast time, information, and so on. Parliament has every right, and indeed the duty to place on them responsibilities as well to ensure the continued good governance of the dominion.

Having picked up the private club shield, he promptly drops it like a hot poker to make his next point regarding representativeness. Here, he argues that conventions are more representative than caucuses, because parties bring in delegates from all parts of the country. If the Conservative caucus were to challenge Stephen Harper’s leadership, Newfoundland, lacking in Conservative MPs, would get no say. Likewise, Alberta would be left voiceless in a caucus review of Trudeau’s stewardship of the Liberal party.

Again, this is nonsense. Just think of the example of the Bloc Quebecois to see how problematic the argument is. There is nothing in the Canadian political system demanding that we seek to achieve maximal representativeness in the selection of party and caucus leaders. The good people of Newfoundland and Alberta had their say in electing their MP. It is up to the MPs to act on their behalf in Parliament.  Prime Ministers are not presidents; opposition party leaders are not presidential candidates.  Their primary function is to organize government and opposition in Parliament, and to do so they must maintain the support. It is precisely this principle that Michael Chong’s bill, weakened as it was via the House amendment process, still seeks to reinforce.

More charitably, the confusion here perhaps lies in the fact that parties and their leaders have both internal party roles and functions, but also public roles and functions as well. Party leaders are also the heads of caucus, and it is caucus in Parliament, not the party membership across the country, that matters in terms of governance. Caucus, working side by side with the leader on the Hill, are far better position to hold the latter to account. They are far more likely to know when there is a problem, and are in a position to actually act in a timely matter.

In the Westminster system, grounded in representative government, we trust our MPs to act on our behalf.  To privilege parties and their workings over the functioning of Parliament is exactly backwards. It is Parliament and its governance that matters most. Providing caucus with the explicit ability to review its leadership reinforces a crucial layer of government oversight, one that arguably has atrophied in the Canadian version of the Westminster system, unlike many others—Australia being an obvious example.

In reality, a call to protect the primacy of party institutions is to further reinforce the sway of the party leader. Party members get one biennial review during party conventions, and voters get a shot at making their voices heard every four years or so. Outside of that, party leaders rule virtually unchecked by anything but statute. If we bemoan the increasing role of the courts in checking the government, I would suggest that they are doing so in part because so political checks—including caucus oversight of party leaders—no longer operates as it should. Political problems fester until they become legal ones, as there is no one with the political power to effectively challenge established leaders when they make bad decisions.

The Reform Act in its amended form does little enough to stop all this, but it is a start. Beyond its substantive impact, its passage would provide a template for future, more comprehensive attempts at change. It provides evidence that, even in the context of today’s extreme political polarization, parties could work together and change our institutions, however modestly, for the better.

It’s not too late. The bill is at Senate committee right now, after an outpouring of letters imploring the Senate to take it up again. Another avalanche might convince the Senate to actually pass the thing.

If it does die though, the cause of political reform will go on. Next time, the Senate may find itself near the top of the to-do list.

Photo courtesy Mightydrake via wikimedia.

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