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Reforming Political InstitutionsReforming Political Institutions

Reforming Political Institutions

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Reforming Political Institutions December 4, 2013  |  By Ray Pennings
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Tuesday morning, Wellington-Dufferin MP Michael Chong introduced his Private Members' Bill to reform the relationship of MPs to their parties and leaders, and to embed caucus rights within the processes of the House of Commons.

It is said that in politics, it isn't as much the merit of an idea as the timing that determines its success. That gives this #ReformAct a brighter prospect for success than Mr. Chong’s similarly motivated but ill-fated proposals for Question Period reform in 2010.

Why now? The Senate scandal; less-than forthcoming explanations regarding the activities of the Prime Minister's office; a growing disregard and neglect of Parliament by both the politicians and the public ... these are just a few reasons for the widespread support this bill is receiving from the punditry world. Andrew Coyne went so far as to suggest this bill "contains the seeds of a revolution."

As a few critics have rightly cautioned, most of the changes simply codify unwritten conventions that already exist. They argue that the challenge of our current system is not the powers that MPs have, but the backbone that MPs demonstrate in being willing to utilize those powers. The caution is a valid one, although as Mr. Chong rightly points out, other Westminster models—including Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand—have similar rules that achieve favourable results. In those jurisdictions, MPs more readily vote independently from their party's front bench without disruption or instability.

To see this happen in Canada, however, will require more than the adoption of a Private Members bill. Both the public and the media will also need to step up to the plate if these changes are to get beyond the arcane world of parliamentary procedure.

First, voters will have to behave more like conscious citizens, less like mindless shoppers. Mr. Chong proposes more authority and accountability for local candidates—but will those candidates be held accountable by their constituents? Local candidates who are freed from the party machinery are free to raise dissonant voices, but this only matters if voters pay attention to the local candidates. The inherent impulse of electoral practices—starting with the way elections focus mostly on leaders and national party brands—is for the local candidate to avoid all controversy and sing from the party song sheet.

Susan Delacourt's book Shopping for Votes documents how voters behave more like consumers than citizens, with parties reduced to basic brands. When fewer than two percent of the population participate in the activities of local riding associations, their functions naturally become irrelevant. I know, it's naïve to try to revive the days when participating in policy conferences and convention resolutions could be meaningfully linked to organizational change, but something besides polling and marketing strategies needs to replace this. And that requires not just MP backbone, but voter engagement. It means that voters actually care enough to go to local all-candidates meetings and seriously engage the local process.

But that process will continue to be difficult as long as the media continue to cover politics only in terms of controversy and disagreement rather than substance. Mr. Chong took pains in introducing his bill to highlight how his think tank activity before being elected demonstrates his interest in democratic reform issues, and why his bill (timed to take effect only after the next election) is intended to depoliticize the questions and separate them from the present context.

What did those pains amount to? Nothing. The media still focused their questions on current controversies rather than the substance of the bill. Mr. Chong deftly avoided the traps set for him but as long as political coverage is reduced to making heroes out of mavericks, celebrating when any MP has something original or unique to say, and framing independent as attacks on party leadership, all the reform in the world won’t change who is really held accountable.

Are Mr. Chong's proposals worthy of the vigorous debate he has asked for? Absolutely. If some version of them ultimately passes, is it likely to be a prod in the right direction for our Canadian political discourse? For sure.

But to make a real difference, Mr. Chong's proposals will need media to behave differently (or Canadians to find ways outside of the mainstream media to engage it), and will need voters to recognize that citizenship requires more than the purchase of a political brand.

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