Assessing The Reform Act as a tool of parliamentary reform: one step forward, one step back

Article 3 / 11 , Vol 43 No. 2 (Summer)

Assessing The Reform Act as a tool of parliamentary reform: one step forward, one step back

Two general elections have been held since the 2015 Reform Act was passed by Canada’s Parliament. In this article the authors assess its success in rebalancing the relationship between individual MPs and their parties, discuss why many MPs remain reluctant to openly challenge their leaders’ authority, and conclude that institutional or legislative changes alone will likely not change the culture that has permitted power to be concentrated in a leader’s office.

Introduction

In 2014, Conservative MP Michael Chong introduced a private member’s bill called the Reform Act with the goal of rebalancing the relationship between individual MPs and their parties. After months of debate and amendments, the final version required party caucuses to vote after each general election on whether to reclaim certain powers for caucus and party management that had been assumed by parties and party leaders. In early 2015, the Act passed the House of Commons with overwhelming cross-party support, and Mr. Chong and his supporters hoped that MPs would use these post-election votes to give themselves more independence and autonomy.

However, within less than a year, this hope had turned to dismay. Following Canada’s 2015 federal election, two of the three officially recognized party caucuses not only failed to take up the powers on offer, they did not even hold the required votes at their first post-election caucus meetings.1

Now, after two federal elections, the time has come to evaluate the Reform Act as a tool for parliamentary reform and to draw lessons from the experience. This process has not been straightforward, as much of the information publicly available on the results of the Reform Act votes is either incomplete or inaccurate. This article, therefore, draws both on media reports and on direct correspondence with current and former MPs to provide a definitive account of the votes held by each party caucus following the 2015 and 2019 elections. It also presents the results of the Samara Centre for Democracy’s survey of 2019 federal election candidates to explore whether the caucus votes reflect MPs’ true beliefs about the proper relationship between caucus members and party leaders.

This review found that compliance with the Act improved over time, with all parties holding the votes as required after the 2019 election. Yet, despite following the proper procedures, the votes still do not appear to offer MPs an effective way to empower themselves relative to their respective leaders. Although the vast majority of the 2019 election candidates who responded to our survey favoured giving themselves more independence, MPs largely failed to take up the powers when given the chance.

All told, the experience of the Reform Act highlights the difficulty of implementing parliamentary reforms using tools that require ongoing expressions of independence by MPs. No matter what MPs may personally believe, many remain reluctant to openly challenge their leaders’ authority, particularly as the votes regularly come to be interpreted in light of short-term political developments. However, before presenting these results in full, this article first explores the challenges the Reform Act sought to overcome, and the development of the Act itself.

The problem: discipline creep

For decades, observers and MPs themselves have warned that power was increasingly being concentrated in the hands of party leaders; as a result, individual MPs had less capacity to represent their constituents and to hold the government to account for its actions.2 As with other Westminster-style legislatures using the single-member plurality electoral system, Canada’s MPs are officially elected as individuals, not party members, and can theoretically choose how to vote on every item of parliamentary business. In reality, however, only one MP in the last two decades was first elected without a party affiliation.3

Within Parliament, MPs from the same party vote together over 99 per cent of the time on average.4 While it is not surprising that MPs from the same party have similar views on most things, this level of unity is not spontaneous. Given the range of issues that MPs debate and the diverse communities they represent, there are many times when MPs in the same party will disagree. To ensure unity in these situations, parties “whip” potentially rebellious MPs to make sure they stay in line. MPs who fail to conform face discipline, including limits on their ability to speak in Parliament, removal from committees, and even expulsion from the party.

The number of “whipped votes”—where parties require their MPs to vote together—used to be comparatively limited, and parties were more accepting when MPs did vote against the party line.5 Now, however, parties expect unity on nearly every issue. Moreover, this uniformity is increasingly demanded outside of Parliament as well, with MPs expected to promote their parties’ messages in communications with constituents and social media posts.6 This creeping expansion of party discipline has led to growing concerns among the public and MPs themselves that the quality of parliamentary representation is being eroded, with more and more power going to the party leaders instead.

What enabled party discipline to expand in this way? While researchers identify several factors that contributed to the increasing influence of party leaders at the expense of MPs since Confederation (for example, the rise of national television news), there are two institutional changes that greatly tilted the balance of power in favour of party leaders. The first was the change from having party leaders chosen solely by the parliamentary caucuses to having them elected by party members. While theoretically increasing internal party democracy, this move reduced leaders’ accountability to caucus since they could claim to have a broader mandate. Caucuses also lost the ability to remove or launch a review of leaders, removing the threat of sanction or caucus revolt.

The second change was the 1974 amendment to the Canada Elections Act that gave party leaders the final sign-off on who could run for the party in a given constituency. Party leaders now had the ability to override the result of local candidate nominations and to veto the candidacy of any MP who challenged their leadership. Together, these changes meant that instead of MPs having the power to choose the party leader, the leader effectively had the power to choose who could serve as the party’s MPs.

The Reform Act: a compromise (or compromised?) solution

The Reform Act seeks to empower MPs by countering the institutional changes described above. To do so, it amended the Parliament of Canada Act to require the MPs in each officially recognized party caucus to hold four votes on caucus and party management at their first meeting following a general election.7 Specifically, the MPs must choose:

  1. Whether membership in the caucus should be controlled through votes by caucus members themselves;
  2. Whether caucus members should choose who serves as caucus chair;
  3. Whether caucus members should have the right to trigger a review of the party leader; and
  4. Whether caucus members should have the right to choose the interim party leader, should the position become vacant
  5. .

If MPs choose not to give themselves these powers, then control over caucus membership and the selection of the caucus chairs generally falls to the party leaders (although several parties observe an uncodified practice of electing caucus chairs), while leadership reviews are confined to votes by delegates at biennial party conventions, and interim leaders are selected by party executives.

The Reform Act measures might seem like minor administrative changes, but adopting them could go a long way towards giving MPs more independence to represent the communities that elected them. For instance, if caucus membership is controlled by MPs themselves, then party leaders can no longer threaten to expel those who vote against the party line. An independent caucus chair is also more likely to foster an environment where MPs can voice their concerns about party decisions. Moreover, leaders would know that failing to listen to such concerns could eventually result in the launch of a leadership review.

Some critics may also contend that MPs already possess some of the powers the Reform Act spells out. Even before it was adopted, several parties already allowed caucuses to elect their own chairs. Likewise, the experiences of former Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien and former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day make it clear that party leaders who have lost significant caucus support find it difficult to remain in office. Yet the prolonged internal conflict needed to achieve the removal of those leaders, and the divisions that continued afterwards, also demonstrate the benefits of providing a clear mechanism for such challenges to take place. Moreover, the Reform Act provides a mechanism to ensure all parties at least have the opportunity to adopt similar measures of internal democracy, instead of relying on ambiguous or neglected conventions.

But if the Reform Act’s provisions are potentially so powerful, why make them optional? As originally introduced, the Act would have automatically applied the four rules to each party caucus. However, several MPs objected to this approach on the basis that the Act would limit internal party democracy by imposing a “one-sized fits all” solution on every caucus. Consequently, the Act was amended so that each caucus is instead required to vote after each election on whether to opt in or out of the various provisions. The votes must be held under the direction of each caucus’ longest serving member at its first post-election meeting. The results must then be reported to the Speaker of the House of Commons.

From the beginning, then, the Reform Act was a compromise between some MPs’ desire to achieve greater independence from their parties, and other MPs’ desire to maintain flexibility in the way that caucuses operate.

No independence for me, thanks—I’m an MP

So how has the Reform Act performed in practice? Table 1 records the outcome of votes held under the Act after the 2015 and 2019 elections.

As can be seen, only the Conservative caucus held the 2015 votes as required. Despite Parliament adopting the law just months earlier with support from 88% of New Democrats and 83% of Liberals, both parties delayed their votes on the basis that they needed more time to study the issue.8 The NDP eventually held its votes in January 2016, long after its first caucus meeting. However, the Liberals ignored the law altogether by apparently not conducting the votes.

Much like compliance with the Act, the outcome of the 2015 votes was also mixed. While the Conservatives adopted all of the powers on offer except the ability to launch a leadership review, the NDP opted out of each rule.

Fast forwarding to 2019, all four officially recognized parties obeyed the law by holding the votes as required following the election. Yet despite the jump in compliance, MPs still showed little appetite to embrace the democratizing provisions that the Reform Act offers. Most notably, the Liberals and NDP voted against taking up any of the measures. While each has its own provisions for MPs to elect their own caucus chair, the votes left power over caucus membership squarely under the control of their party leader. This choice is surprising given that, in the previous Parliament, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh each expelled MPs from their respective parties without consulting their wider caucus.

As for the other two parties, the Conservative caucus took up one fewer power than in 2015, opting against the right to select an interim leader. Interestingly, the Bloc Québécois embraced the provisions of the Reform Act most enthusiastically, taking up three of the four powers. However, to date, no caucus has ever adopted the authority to force a leadership review—the most significant provision for decentralizing power within the party.

What happens in caucus stays in caucus?

In addition to the parties’ compliance with the Reform Act and the results of the votes, assessing the impact and potential of the Act requires an examination of the manner in which parties managed the voting process. Although the Act states that the vote results must be reported to the Speaker of the Commons, no party proactively released the information to the public. Nevertheless, on both occasions, the Conservative party readily provided the results of the votes to journalists, who reported them on the day they took place. Similarly, the Bloc and NDP Caucus Chairs provided the Samara Centre with the results of their 2019 votes after we inquired. As such, it was highly surprising to find that the Liberal party sought to keep the outcomes of its 2019 votes from the public, citing caucus confidentiality (although caucus members eventually leaked the information to the media).16 With three of four party caucuses openly sharing the results of their votes and the fourth’s eventually leaking out anyway, we hope that the precedent is now established that Caucus chairs should willingly disclose the results of the Reform Act votes to the public.

Importantly, the secrecy surrounding the Reform Act votes also confounded media attempts to report the outcomes, leading to some competing and incorrect claims.17 At the same time, the media also misrepresented the nature of the votes. For instance, many articles after the 2019 election framed Conservative MPs’ vote on whether they should have the power to launch a leadership review as a referendum of Andrew Scheer’s leadership of the party.18 In reality, the vote determined only if MPs should have the power to launch a leadership review at a later point.

Tell us what you really think

The results described thus far present a puzzle: how did MPs move from overwhelming support for the Reform Act during its passage in early 2015 to largely opting out of the most meaningful powers? Had MPs’ views on party discipline and the relationship between MPs and their leaders changed over that period?

To explore these issues, the Samara Centre surveyed candidates for Canada’s 2019 federal election regarding their views on representation and the appropriate balance of power between MPs, party leaders, and other party actors. The survey was conducted online, with invitations sent to the candidate email addresses listed on the various party websites. Invitations were sent on October 4, and each candidate received two reminder messages. After initially planning to close the survey on election day, we extended the submission window to October 31 in response to requests from candidates who indicated they were too busy to complete the questions while campaigning.

Table 2 summarizes the responses received from the four parties that achieved official party status in the 2019 election.19 While over 20 percent of NDP candidates took part, the response rate was uneven across the parties. Moreover, the low number of Bloc and Conservative responses mean that weighting the data to equalize the parties could yield unrealistic results. As such, all respondents are grouped together for the results presented in Figures 1 to 4 below. Given that respondents were self-selecting, it is also not possible to provide confidence intervals or margins of error for the data.

Despite these limitations, the figures show that respondents overwhelmingly believed that MPs should take the powers offered by the Reform Act. The only exception was on the question of whether MPs should be able to launch a leadership review, with just a bare majority supporting the idea. Importantly, this was the only question where there was any disagreement among the majority of the respondents from each party: while nearly 60 percent or more of Bloc, Conservative, and NDP respondents replied that MPs should have the power to launch a leadership review, over 50 percent of Liberal respondents were opposed.

It is certainly possible that candidates who supported the Reform Act were more likely to respond to the survey. However, there may be a less significant skew in the sample than would otherwise be assumed, given that just 54% of respondents indicated they were aware of the Act before the survey. Therefore, while the uneven response rate prevents us from drawing precise conclusions about each party except perhaps the NDP, we can safely assume that a substantial proportion of candidates in Canada’s 2019 federal election believed that MPs should give themselves most, if not all, of the powers available under the Reform Act.21

This situation where 2019 election candidates appeared supportive of the Reform Act and yet failed to take up the powers mirrors that from 2015, when MPs first passed the Act before the election but then largely failed to comply with its provisions afterwards. How can we account for this repeated disconnect between MPs’ apparent preferences and their subsequent actions?

Overall, MPs’ engagement with the Reform Act since 2015 would suggest that no matter their personal views, MPs are reluctant to support the provisions of the Act out of the fear that such support will be seen as challenging the authority of their party leader. In particular, such reluctance would help to explain why the provision that would most effectively curtail the leaders’ power (starting a leadership review) is the only one that no caucus has ever voted to take. However, further research, including interviews with MPs, is needed to confirm what led to this disconnect between MPs’ views and their actions.

Where to next?

The Reform Act may not be totally dead. Compliance with the law is at least up, even if there has been no discernible movement on the part of MPs toward seizing the democratizing powers. One bright spot is that the presence of the Act does at least provide for a moment following each election to encourage MPs to think about their relationship with their party. It’s a small counterbalance to a process—the orientation of new MPs, the convening of a new caucus—that is heavily led by the party leadership. But in isolation, it is unlikely to drive significant change.

Those of us who concern ourselves with parliamentary reform should look for lessons in the Reform Act experience. The major one may be that culture can prevail over institutional and legislative reforms. In this case, strong norms about the subservience of caucus to the leadership—or fear of retribution from the leader—interacted with the weakness in the law (requiring votes rather than simply applying the provisions), resulting in little effective change. Given the power of culture, fixing Parliament’s problems will likely require action on many fronts—including trying to embolden MPs, and to engender new or stronger norms among Members about what their job is and what their relationship to the party should be.

We’ve also learned that acceptable can be the enemy of good. The version of the Reform Act that ultimately passed was weakened, and party leaders have exploited that weakness. Its ultimate legacy is not yet decided. But when the next reformers look to democratize parties, they will have to confront difficult strategic questions, like whether losing on principle is preferable to winning on a palatable (but compromised) measure.

Notes

  1. Lee Berthiaume, “Liberals, NDP Delay Vote on Much-Debated Caucus Reforms,” Ottawa Citizen (blog), November 6, 2015, https://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/liberals-ndp-delay-vote-on-much-debated-caucus-reforms.
  2. Jeffrey Simpson, The Friendly Dictatorship (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2001); Donald Savoie, Governing from the Centre: The Concentration of Power in Canadian Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999); Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy (Toronto: Random House, 2014).
  3. André Arthur served as the independent MP for Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier from 2006 to 2011.
  4. Paul EJ Thomas, Adelina Petit-Vouriot, and Michael Morden, House Inspection: A Retrospective of the 42nd Parliament (Toronto: Samara Centre for Democracy, 2020).
  5. Jean-François Godbout and Bjørn Høyland, “Unity in Diversity? The Development of Political Parties in the Parliament of Canada, 1867–2011,” British Journal of Political Science 47, no. 03 (July 2017): 545–69, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123415000368.
  6. Alex Marland, Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (Vancouver ; Toronto: UBC Press, 2016).
  7. The Parliament of Canada Act defines a recognized caucus as one with at least 12 Members of Parliament.
  8. Berthiaume, “Liberals, NDP Delay Vote on Much-Debated Caucus Reforms.”
  9. Kady O’Malley, “Process Nerd: Did Liberals Break the Law by Not Voting on Caucus Expulsions?,” IPolitics, April 10, 2019, https://ipolitics.ca/2019/04/10/process-nerd-did-liberals-break-the-law-by-not-voting-on-caucus-expulsions/.
  10. Berthiaume, “Liberals, NDP Delay Vote on Much-Debated Caucus Reforms.”
  11. Correspondence with former NDP caucus member.
  12. Campbell Clark, “Liberal MPs Still Seem to Think They Operate like a Private Club,” The Globe and Mail, December 11, 2019, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-liberal-mps-still-seem-to-think-they-operate-like-a-private-club/.
  13. Rachel Aiello, “Scheer Says Caucus United after Conservative MPs Decide against Leadership Vote,” CTV News, November 6, 2019, https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/scheer-says-caucus-united-after-conservative-mps-decide-against-leadership-vote-1.4672597.
  14. Correspondence with current Bloc Québécois caucus member. Note: the Bloc did not hold the votes in 2015 since it did not have official status.
  15. Correspondence with current NDP caucus member.
  16. Clark, “Liberal MPs Still Seem to Think They Operate like a Private Club.”
  17. For instance, some articles reported that the NDP did not hold the Reform Act votes after the 2015 election, when they did in fact eventually hold them in early 2016. For an example, see Chris Selley, “The Reform Act Is Back, and Ready for More Abuse, Thanks to SNC-Lavalin Affair,” National Post, April 9, 2019, https://nationalpost.com/opinion/chris-selley-the-final-humiliation-for-michael-chongs-reform-act.
  18. Aiello, “Scheer Says Caucus United after Conservative MPs Decide against Leadership Vote.”
  19. An additional 94 Green Party and 60 People’s Party candidates also completed the survey.
  20. Some respondents completed the demographic information but then failed to answer the substantive sections of the survey.
  21. At least 60 percent of the 70 NDP candidates who responded favoured opting in to each of the powers available, but the party’s MPs failed to take up any of the powers when they conducted the Reform Act votes after the election.