Reform Act: opening a window on democratic reform

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Leadership Monday, September 22, 2014 View Count = 2543

Reform Act: opening a window on democratic reform

Parliament schematic no. 10

Today's blog comes to us from Brodie Conley, a former policy analyst with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. To learn more about the Reform Act, head to our page all about it.

Last week, Conservative MP Michael Chong’s highly touted Private Members Bill, C-586, the Reform Act, underwent second reading debate in the House of Commons (did you catch Samara’s debate-viewing party?). If passed the bill would see changes to the balance of power between individual MPs and party leaders.

Since its introduction last December, advocates for and against the bill have argued over its substantive details and more recently, over the prospective impact of amendments to the bill’s original text. While this debate is enlightening and crucial to ensuring the passage of the best possible legislation, it is also essential that the Reform Act be evaluated in the context of other recent democratic reform proposals.

In many ways Chong’s bill was anticipated in a speech Paul Martin delivered in late 2002 titled “The Democratic Deficit”. The speech, later transcribed into an oft-cited Policy Options article, laments the decline of Parliament as a place where “the public will must be heard, articulated and exercised”. In it, Martin outlines six simple reforms to Parliament that he believed might improve Canadian democracy. As debate on Chong’s Reform Act continues and likely migrates to committee, one simple way to take stock of its importance is by considering our current parliamentary system relative to those minimal reforms envisioned by Martin. Ten years later, what might we learn from the recent history of democratic reform in Canada?

Martin’s proposed reforms included: (1) a loosening of party discipline through the implementation of a three line whip system akin to that used in the UK, where votes are ranked according to their importance to the government’s mandate and MPs are allowed to vote freely on less important matters; (2) encouraging MPs to shape legislation prior to it receiving approval in principle; (3) an overhaul of the Private Member’s Business (PMB) process to allow for increased ability for individual members to effect legislative change; (4) standing committee reform; (5) increased transparency in senior government appointments; and (6) the creation of an Independent Ethics Commissioner. Of the six reforms proposed, one could charitably give a mark of 1.5 on a ten-year democratic reform report card. The creation of the Office of the Independent Ethics Commissioner stands out as the singular success in Martin’s list. Elsewhere, rules for PMB have been slightly modified since Martin’s speech, but it is unclear whether these minor changes have had a significant impact on the policy influence of MPs. 

Other than these two instances the state of affairs with respect to democratic reform is rather bleak. MPs today are expected not only to vote with their party, but also to unfailingly parrot the party line. Further, individual Member’s have significantly less input in shaping legislation—a malaise aggravated by the rise of omnibus bills, the use of procedural tools to limit debate, and more recently, a move to limit the ability of independent MPs to present formal amendments to legislation. With respect to government appointments, the creation of a new Public Appointments Commission Secretariat in 2006 was quickly derailed by the politics of appointing a commissioner.

Standing Committee reform, Martin’s fourth recommendation, is perhaps the most distressing area ten years on. Committees are the legislative workhorses of Parliament—they are where the majority of substantive debate over, and amendment to, prospective legislation occurs. Regrettably, they are continually plagued by partisan infighting. Party leaders dangle committee positions over the heads of MPs so as to incentivize “good behavior” and MPs take the bait by holding the party line in committee.

Setting aside the failure of progress on Martin’s proposed reforms, one might point to the 2006 Federal Accountability Act (FAA) as evidence that democratic renewal is alive and well in Canada. Indeed, despite it’s apparent flaws and oversights, the FAA represents meaningful reform. Nevertheless, the presence of the FAA does not take away from the larger point that achieving democratic reform is difficult. In fact, it bolsters this claim. The passage of the FAA was ensured only by momentum that had been building for years and peaked with the sponsorship scandal—a classic example of ‘right place, right time’.

Democratic reform is a policy area that suffers disproportionately under the weight of political incentives—that is, the rules of the game significantly impact the overall distribution of political power. Altering the rules or retaining the status quo, then, is often less about furthering the public interest, and more about the individual, rational calculation of those seeking to gain or retain power. This effect is amplified in the case of Chong’s proposed reforms, as they seek to limit the power of the party leaders, while also requiring the support of MPs who are incentivized by the current arrangement to support the wishes of party leadership. As a result, the Reform Act has already undergone substantial amendment, to mixed reviews, and will likely endure further revision in committee, in order to reflect the preferences of party leadership.

I could stop here and make a substantive argument that the newest amendments significantly weaken the likelihood that Chong’s legislation will meet its original objectives, and that we should abandon all hope of meaningful democratic reform. Indeed, some commentators have already followed this line of thinking. However, this type of argument misses a broader point about the process of reform. We know from the academic literature that policy change often comes at critical junctures, when specific events focus significant public attention on an issue, forcing legislators to consider policy reform. Academics even have an expression for this phenomenon—they call these openings ‘policy windows’. Like the amendments or not, it is difficult to deny the fact that Chong’s bill has received significant public and media attention, and sparked an important conversation on the state of our democratic institutions. The Reform Act, whether in it’s original or in a compromise form, can and should act as a focusing event and momentum builder for policy advocates to put forward other prospective reforms. To write it off simply because it is no longer a policy silver bullet is to miss its potential as a rallying point for advocates of further democratic reform.

A decade later, we can look to the lack of progress on Paul Martin’s simple proposals as evidence that achieving meaningful democratic reform is difficult, if not impossible. The momentum behind the Reform Act may signal the policy window on democratic reform is opening. Let us not wait another ten years to begin.

Brodie Conley
Brodie Conley recently graduated with an MA in political science from the University of Guelph, where he held a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Since graduating, Brodie has spent time working as a policy analyst with the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. You can follow him on Twitter@brodieconley.

 This isn’t Brodie’s first guest post on our site. Check out his 3-part series on the socialization of youth into politics here.

(top image cred: Wiki Commons)

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