The Reform Act Revisited

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Leadership Tuesday, September 10, 2019 View Count = 411

The Reform Act Revisited

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Canada’s Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected to represent their constituents by debating and voting on proposed legislation in the House of Commons.

But before the House of Commons sits for the first time following the next federal election, the 2014 Reform Act requires them to cast four votes that will fundamentally shape the relationship between MPs and the parties to which they belong. These measures were introduced in response to fears that the party leader had gained too much power over MPs’ actions and were threatening their ability to represent their constituents.

The problem: discipline creep

Officially, Canada’s MPs are elected as individuals, and each has the freedom to decide how to cast their vote on every item of business in Parliament. In reality, however, over 99% of the MPs who served in Parliament in the last two decades were first elected as candidates for a political party.

Within Parliament, each party’s MPs vote together on almost every issue. In fact, this voting unity is so absolute that when MPs break with their parties in parliamentary votes, they are described as “rebelling” against the party line.

It’s not surprising that MPs from the same party would vote together much of the time. But given the range of issues that MPs deal with, and the diversity of the communities they represent, there are many times when MPs find themselves supporting a different position than their party colleagues.

To ensure unity in these situations, parties engage in “discipline” and “whipping” to pressure potentially rebellious MPs to stay in line. Parties have several tools available to enforce discipline, including limiting MPs’ ability to speak in Parliament, removing MPs from committees or leadership positions, and even removing MPs from a party entirely.

Originally, the number of “whipped votes” where MPs were expected to follow the party line was comparatively limited, with MPs having more freedom to express their own opinions on issues that weren’t in the political spotlight. But over time, parties began to expect unity on a wider range of issues, and now even expect MPs to keep to the party’s messaging in their public statements and social media posts.

This creeping expansion of party discipline has led to growing concerns among the public and MPs themselves that the quality of parliamentary representation was being eroded, with more and more power going to the party leaders instead.

The Reform Act, 2014

In 2014, MP Michael Chong introduced a private members’ bill called The Reform Act in hopes of beginning to rebalance the relationship between MPs and their parties. The Act requires the MPs from each party to hold four votes at the first meeting of their party’s caucus following a general election to set out how the caucus will govern itself and its leader.

Specially, the MPs in each caucus must vote to decide:

  1. Whether membership in the caucus (and hence the party) should be controlled through votes by caucus members themselves;
  2. Whether the position of the caucus chair should be determined through a vote of caucus members themselves;
  3. Whether the caucus members should have the right to trigger a leadership review of the party leader; and
  4. Whether the caucus members should have the right to choose the interim party leader should the position become vacant.

The Reform Act specifies that the longest serving MP in each party must conduct the vote, and that the results should be recorded and reported to the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Small, but powerful

At first glance these might seem like bureaucratic changes that wouldn’t do much to rebalance the relationship between MPs and their respective party leaders. But together, they can go a long way to ensuring that party leaders are accountable to their caucuses, and not the other way around.

For instance, if MPs give themselves the power over who is or is not a member of caucus, then the party leader can no longer threaten to expel MPs who vote against the party line. The leader would also know that failing to listen to MPs’ concerns could eventually result in the launch of a leadership review – a power that caucus members would be unlikely to ever use, but that would remain a useful “nuclear option.”

Conversely, if MPs choose not to give themselves these powers, then the prevailing arrangements in each party will continue. In most cases, this means that the party leader will be able to unilaterally remove dissenting MPs and appoint a caucus chair who supports their decisions. MPs will also have no capacity to review their leader’s performance, and any interim leader would most likely be selected by the party’s executive. In short, MPs would remain beholden to party, with less freedom to stand up for their constituents.

Further reading:

  • Flip the Script describes how excessive party discipline has eroded MPs’ abilities to do the essential work of democratic legislators.
  •  The Real House Lives looks specifically at MPs within their caucuses, and makes the case that MPs have an important responsibility to hold their leaders to account.

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