Tory MP Michael Chong’s Private Member’s bill to reduce the power of party leaders is a welcome initiative for those concerned about the increasing centralization of power around party leaders. While the most obvious target of the initiative will be Chong’s own leader, Stephen Harper, whose reputation for command and control is legendary, the measure will pose something of a threat to all major parties. The two key elements to Chong’s bill would take away the power of the party leader to reject a candidate duly nominated by the riding association; and secondly would give the parliamentary caucus the ability to vote out a leader. In the first instance, giving more powers to the riding association to select nominees is really the way things worked up until the 1970’s. It was under the Trudeau Liberals that the leader was given the power to sign or refuse to sign nomination papers, effectively vetoing the will of the riding associations. The leader’s ability to control nominations is commonly  used as a stick to keep wayward backbench MP’s in line, especially those looking to secure a parliamentary pension.  In the case of the caucus being able to vote out the leader,  Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was deposed after she saw that she was about to be voted out by her MP’s; and more recently in Australia Kevin Rudd  won a leadership ballot against Prime Minister Julia Gillard and replaced her as PM without an election. Ironically, it was three years ago that Gillard became Prime Minister when the caucus was set to vote against Rudd, who resigned before the vote could be held. :People who support the current system with regard to nominations say there are many riding associations who lack sufficient membership and capacity to make effective nomination decisions. But it could be argued that top-down interference in local decision-making is what has led to a lack of citizen engagement at the riding level. Certainly with Hamilton as an example, at the provincial level serious damage was done to the Hamilton Centre Provincial Liberal Association when the Premier overrode the wishes of locals on the nomination of a candidate to replace the late Dominic Agostino. It resulted in the defection of several  senior Liberal workers to the NDP and was a factor in the election of Andrea Horvath for the NDP. The premier’s office did the same thing in Hamilton East-Stoney Creek when Jennifer Mossop  stepped down with similar results. Readers of the late Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s diaries will see many examples of how he tried, and often failed to get candidates of his choosing nominated in various ridings—he simply lacked the power to impose his will. He was successful in Hamilton in the election of 1931 and 1935, persuading local Liberals to not field a candidate in order to elect Labourite Humphrey Mitchell. King reasoned that the riding was strongly Tory and the only hope was for Liberals and Labour to unite behind a single candidate. The result though, was to create a split in Hamilton Liberal ranks that proved costly in later elections.  Aside from some concerns about robo-calling in the last election; Canadian elections have been remarkably free of scandal. It is ironic that the nomination process which is a necessary precursor to elections can be such a source of shenanigans. Mr. Chong’s bill, if it ever should see the light of day, at least returns the responsibility for good nomination decisions or bad ones to the local riding associations where it belongs. As for the proposed empowering of caucus to depose their leader, it would clearly go a long way towards reducing the partisan rhetoric that has so corroded our parliament by allowing members the freedom to say what is really on their minds, rather than reciting talking points read from cards prepared by what Mike Duffy called the “short pants brigade.”

 

John Best had enjoyed a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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