For a while it looked like the private members’ bill introduced by MP Michael Chong, aimed at giving ordinary MPs more clout was going to die at the hands of a foot-dragging senate. But the bill was quietly passed on the last Friday afternoon in June and will now come into effect. Called the Reform Act 2014 it had passed the House of Commons earlier. One of the most significant changes would remove the ability of a party leader to veto a candidate nominated by the local riding association. For years the ability of the leader to veto a candidate, including a sitting member seeking re-election, was used as a club to ensure the obedience of MPs to vote and act as the leader wished. Now the endorsement of candidates will be entrusted to a person selected by the party membership. The method of selection would be left up to each party. Chong says his changes are not revolutionary they simply return to ordinary MP’s the powers they held previously but which were gradually eroded over the years. He wrote, “In other Westminster parliaments, the leaders of political parties do not exercise this type of centralized authority. For example, in Australia’s Labor Party and Liberal Party, decisions on candidate nomination are generally made by the local party membership. In the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party and Liberal Democratic Party, candidates are generally selected by the constituency membership or constituency association. In these parties, the final decision on candidate nomination rests with the members of local constituencies.”
The second major change would increase the power of the caucus—the body of elected members of each party, particularly the power of a caucus to oust a leader. Explained Chong: “It is clear that, due to a series of changes going back decades, the ability of Members of Parliament to carry out their functions has been curtailed by caucus leadership structures. This stands in stark contrast to the significant power that members have in other Westminster parliaments, such as Australia and the United Kingdom”.
Under the Reform Act 2014 it would take a 20 percent vote to trigger a leadership review. This would be followed by a secret ballot that would determine the fate of the leader. This would bring Canada in line with the rules in the United Kingdom, where the seemingly invincible Margaret Thatcher was ousted following a caucus vote.in November 1990. This unwritten convention was used in December, 2008 when the Liberal caucus encouraged the withdrawal of their leader Stephan Dion, and internally selected Michael Ignatieff as his replacement. Chong stated that the reforms were needed to counter an increasing trend to voter disengagement. The reforms he wrote: “would restore Parliament to the way it worked in Canada for many decades. Furthermore, many of the reforms proposed in the Reform Act are similar to current practices in other Westminster parliaments. The Reform Act would, however, codify into statute practices that are currently governed by unwritten convention.
The Reform Act would also formalize the procedure for the expulsion and re-admission of caucus members. Currently, the process for expulsion and re-admission is an undefined process that can vary between caucuses and individual cases. Under the Reform Act, a caucus member may only be expelled if the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 20 per cent of the caucus members requesting that the member’s membership be reviewed and the expulsion be approved by a majority vote by secret ballot of all caucus members. Expelled caucus members may be re-admitted if one of two criteria is met. One criterion for re-admission is that the expelled member is re-elected to the House of Commons as a candidate for that party. The second criterion is that the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 20 per cent of the caucus members requesting a vote to re-admit that member, and the re-admission is approved by a majority vote by secret ballot of the caucus members present at a meeting of the caucus.