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Why Michael Chong Is 'Optimistic' About Reforming Ottawa

Last week, maverick Conservative MP Michael Chong introduced a new version of his private member’s bill, the Reform Act 2014. His bill seeks to empower MPs by taking some powers away from the party leader and giving them them to the local riding associations, a provincial nomination officer and MPs.

The new most contentious of the new rules introduces a review of the party leader that could be called if 20 per cent of the caucus MPs sign a public letter. The leader would then be replaced if a majority of the party's MPs are in favour in a secret vote.

The Prime Minister’s Office wasn’t supportive of Chong’s first effort, Reform Act 2013. His new bill includes amendments that he hopes will address some MPs’ concerns.

Chong sat down to talk to HuffPost about the new proposed changes. Here is an abridged and edited version of that conversation.

Q: Why did you feel that these amendments were required now?

A: When the bill was introduced last December, I indicated that I was open to suggestions and amendments on how to improve the bill. So I’ve gathered all these pieces of constructive criticism, all these suggestions that people have given me. I’ve tried to address as many of them as possible and came forward with an amended version of the bill.

Q: You said during your press conference that you wanted cross-party support, but you already knew that the Liberals and the NDP support you enough to send it to second reading.

The opposition really seems to be from your own government. What is in here that you think is enough to get Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre to say: "Michael Chong, this bill is fantastic, we should implement it"?

A: I’m not sure that I have the unanimous support of the opposition benches yet. Mr. Mulcair has indicated he is voting for the bill but he has also indicated that it is a free vote for his caucus. And out of his caucus of a hundred members, only six New Democrats have told me they are voting in favour of the bill. I don’t know exactly where the rest of the caucus stands.

With the Liberal caucus, two members have indicated that they support the bill, that’s Scott Simms and Irwin Cotler. Mr. Trudeau hasn’t indicated whether he is voting for the bill or not. And I know that many Liberals have indicated concerns about the bill.

In the Conservative caucus, about three dozen members out of approximately 160 members have indicated that they are supporting the bill. Mr. Deepak Obhrai and Ms. Joy Smith have indicated that they are opposed to the bill. It’s another two or three months before the vote, it’s early days.

I introduced this new bill because I think it is important to get not just multi-party support but front-bench support for the bill. And so I listened attentively to Minister Poilievre’s concerns about the bill as well as to other MPs.

Q: And what do you think that you’ve given him that’s enough for him to say yes?

A: I think I have addressed the concerns expressed by Conservative MPs as well as by Liberal MPs who said that in their caucus of about 35 members, as few as five or six members could trigger a review vote of the leader. That change in the bill, going from 15 to 20 per cent requirement for a leadership or caucus vote, addresses that concern voiced by those members.

I think the concern about having the rules about the review of the leader in the Canada Elections Act has been addressed by moving those rules to the Parliament of Canada Act, in the second version of the bill.

Q: I had heard that Mr. Poilievre wanted a standing vote when it came to the leadership review and that you put your foot down and insisted that had to be secret. Why?

A: The secret ballot is something that we as Canadians fought hard for, over decades. It used to be that votes for or against candidates, for or against persons, were open votes and that led to a lot of intimidation and bullying. It wasn’t until 1872 that we earned the right in this country to the secret ballot.

And since then, votes for or against candidates, votes for or against leaders of parties, for or against the Speaker of the House of Commons have always been secret votes and so I strongly support that principle and the bill upholds that very principle.

Q: Are you open to further amendments?

A: I’m open to further amendments that would strengthen the bill, but I also want the bill to remain true to its underlying principles which is to rebalance the power structure in Ottawa.

Q: Conservative-turned-Independent MP Brent Rathgeber and others have said that they are concerned that allowing the names of people who want to have a leadership review to be public could dissuade some people from coming forward.

Do you agree?

A: It does increase the threshold by mandating the release of the names of the people requesting the vote. So it is another way to increase the threshold to trigger a vote without actually increasing the number beyond 20 per cent. So that is the reason why that is in the bill.

The other thing I’d say is that you have to look at the bill in its entirety. Mandating the release of a caucus member’s name in requesting a vote increases that threshold. But at the same time, the repercussions for doing so are also lowered because the party leader cannot kick you out of caucus and cannot unilaterally remove you as a party candidate.

Q: I assume that you won’t tell me what else Mr. Poilievre requested, and what else you said no to...

A: I wouldn’t describe it as a negotiation, I would consider it a consultation. We had a discussion about the bill, where his concerns lay, where I was open to changes to the bill. And frankly, off the top of my head, I can’t remember what exactly all the points he raised were. I did incorporate a lot of suggestions made, not just from Minister Poilievre but from members of my caucus, members of the Liberal caucus and members of the New Democratic caucus.

Q: What do you think the impact of your bill would be, if it were to pass unamended?

A: I think the bill would fundamentally rebalance our House of Commons, and allow MPs to more regularly break rank with their party and to vote against the party when it came to an issue of principle or when it came to an issue of great importance to their constituencies.

I still think that we have a system that would have an incredibly strong leader but it would afford an opportunity for individual MPs to express themselves, on behalf of their constituents or principle.

When you look at our system today, MPs in all the parties vote with their party more than 99 per cent of the time on average. That is not the case in systems like the UK where members often break rank, 10 per cent or more of the time. And I think that reflects the different rules that they have over there compared to here.

Q: Some of those principles - that all votes should be free except for budgetary matters and core government initiatives - are already entrenched in the Conservative party’s policy declaration.

Members have an explicit right to vote freely on matters of conscience as well. Why do we need to laws to govern this? Why aren’t MPs using the rights that they already have?

A: I think there are several answers. The first is that many of our rules are not written down for the party inside parliament. That vagueness, that opacity is actually a barrier to usage. If you’re not sure exactly what the rules are, you are less likely to use them because you are not sure exactly how they are to be executed. By writing the rules down, I think we increase the utility of them.

I think also that the current power of the party leader, in law, to remove you as a party candidate or unilaterally kick you out of caucus is an impediment to more free votes.

Q: As you know, Conservative Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai is strongly opposed to your bill. He says it would strip power from the grassroots.

What would you say to people who say that if this is something you want, you should bring forward a motion at the party’s convention and let party members decide?

A: The party leader’s power to veto a party candidate is currently law, and so the way in which to change that is through an act of parliament and not through a party convention. My bill doesn’t take anything away from members reviewing the leader as they currently do, or to elect the leader as they currently do.

All my bill says is there is currently a power within a parliamentary caucus to review the leader and to elect an interim leader. We saw two examples of this at the provincial level with Premier Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador and Premier Alison Redford in Alberta. In both cases, caucus played a role in the removal of the leader and played a role in the selection of the interim leader and the full premier of those respective provinces. So that power currently exists.

All my bill says is these rules are unwritten and it is high time we put them down on paper so they are clear and available to all.

Letter from Deepak Obhrai on the Reform Act. Story continues below.

Q: As you know the Liberals recently vetoed a candidate who wanted to run for them in a Toronto riding. Christine Innes says she was banned from running because she wouldn’t agree to the leader’s plans to prevent her from contesting a riding she wanted in 2015.

That case made me wonder if the Reform Act might lead to more more MPs who are elected under the leader’s name and under the party banner but then don't intend to be "team players".

Campaigns are so leader-driven, many Canadians don’t even know who their MP is, when we look at the last federal election in Quebec, voters cast a ballot for Jack Layton without knowing who the local candidate was. They assumed they were voting for Layton’s agenda.

Is it fair to give power from the leader to the local MP who may have gotten to Ottawa on the leader’s coattails?

A: Well I think it’s fair because at the end of the day people vote for an MP. They don't vote for the leader. Many have suggested that people vote through the MP for the leader or for the party. I’m sure that’s true in many instances. But at the end of the day when a Canadian is facing a problem accessing government services or if they feel they have not been treated fairly, who do they call? They don’t call the Prime Minister’s Office. They call their local MP.

And that local MP should be empowered, should have the tools necessary to represent those people in Ottawa and that’s what this bill would do.

What will be different is that instead of the leader or the leader’s surrogates deciding who can run for the nomination, it will be up to the local riding association. Provided that the process is fair and transparent, and it is subject to a set of rules that everyone is subject to, I think that is the way to go.

It should be up to the people of that riding, both the party members and the voters to decide who gets to represent them in Ottawa.

The great frustration that many Canadians feel is that when they call their local MP, they don’t feel that that person is often equipped to represent them in Ottawa. They feel that the party whips are too heavy, the MP is unable to break party rank and vote accordingly. And so what the bill will do is it will allow MPs to better represent their constituents by allowing them to break rank with the party on certain issues. And I think it will have a profound impact on our system.

The team will still be incredibly strong up here in all the parties. the leaders will still be incredibly powerful. I think if you were to ask most MPs, in all the parties: “Do you agree with your party 100 per cent of the time?” In a quiet moment, they would say, “No I don’t.” They would say, “I agree with my party 90 percent of the time.”

Well in that 10 percent of the time, they should be allowed to represent their constituents or their conscience and vote accordingly.

Q: I want to ask you about the Fair Elections Act. Do you have any concerns with what you’ve heard so far?

A: I’m waiting to hear all the testimony, I really am. I think the bill closes a lot of loopholes that need to be closed. There was clearly a problem in the last election in Guelph. There were loopholes in the existing laws that prevented expeditious and full investigations to infractions of the election law. This bill substantially closes a lot of those loopholes.

I think the bill, in that regard, is a good bill and needs to be implemented before the next election.

Q: But in some cases it actually doesn’t do anything to enable Elections Canada to investigate cases like that. The bill doesn’t include the power to compel testimony and it doesn’t look like there will be substantial amendments that would give more power to the Commissioner.

A: Well I’m comfortable with the approach of giving the federal crown prosecutor the power to investigate these sort of infrastructures. I am comfortable with the approach taken to say we are going to give the prosecutorial power to investigate Canada Elections Act infractions to the Director of Public Prosecution.

I think that’s the right way to go. They have the legal expertise to prosecute these offences and they are arms-length.

Q: They are still going to do that. The issue is that you have police and the crown in the same office.

A: That’s right, but that capacity can be built within the federal crown prosecution office. They investigate a wide variety of federal offenses, I’m comfortable to that approach and I think it’s a good one.

Q: Do you feel that you’ve become "Captain Democracy" on the Hill and that you’re being called upon to weigh in on all matters involving democratic reform?

A: No, these are old ideas, I’ve just gathered them together.

Q: Do you really think this government will allow this bill to move forward? I keep thinking back to Brent Rathgeber’s bill -- his bill to increase the public disclosure of public servants’ salaries was gutted at committee without his approval by this government. I don’t think he saw it coming.

A: I’m optimistic. My party has had a proud tradition of democratic reform. One of the legacy parties was the Reform party, it ran on this very platform to democratize our system, to introduce reforms into the House of Commons. I think there is substantial support within my party and within the government caucus for these sort of reforms.

Q: Do you think it will become law before the next election?

A: I am optimistic. I think it is possible within the parliamentary calendar to have this become law. It should receive its first vote at second reading either in mid-June or in late September.

It’s possible that this bill could be in the Senate by next February. The Senate can deal with it as quickly as it wishes. And I would think that a bill that reforms the House of Commons and doesn’t affect the rights and privileges of senators, I think that they would be very much in favour of passing and respecting the wishes of the elected House. [Chong’s bill defines a parliament caucus as members of the House of Commons only.]

Q: Or it would look really bad if they didn’t?

A: That’s another way to put it.

Q: Anything you want to add?

A: Many of these changes have been talked about for decades but little has happened. Arguably, the problem has gotten worse. And so, we have a real opportunity here to make the change happen. And I think we should take a serious look at this.

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