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Meet the three MPs who want to turn Parliament ‘inside out’

By Christopher Guly      

Liberal MP Scott Simms, Conservative MP Michael Chong, and NDP MP Kennedy Stewart want to fix Question Period, empower backbench MPs, reform House committees, and overhaul their own political parties, once and for all. So they wrote a book about it.

Liberal MP Scott Simms, Conservative MP Michael Chong, and NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, pictured last week on Parliament Hill. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

PARLIAMENT HILL—Conservative Member of Parliament Michael Chong has been independent-minded for most of the 13 years he has spent in the House.

Nine months after his appointment as the Conservative government’s intergovernmental affairs minister in February 2006, Mr. Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) resigned from cabinet over his opposition to then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s decision to recognize the Québécois as “a nation within a united Canada.”

More recently, in his unsuccessful bid to succeed Mr. Harper as federal Conservative leader, Mr. Chong stood apart from the other 12 candidates in his environmental policy that proposed the use of carbon-tax revenues to reduce personal income taxes.

In both cases, he demonstrated his belief that everyone running for or holding public office should have their views and opinions respected and recognized—and he put that position in a private member’s bill that passed both the House and the Senate two years ago.

Mr. Chong’s Reform Act (Bill C-586) amended the Parliament of Canada Act to require all party caucus members vote on such provisions as MP expulsion from caucus, reviewing or removing the leader, and electing their national caucus chairs. None of the three major parties in the House adopted all the measures.

But Mr. Chong remains undaunted and determined to give MPs a stronger voice, and is making his latest pitch through a recently published book he edited along with fellow reform-minded Commons colleagues NDP MP Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby South, B.C.), and Liberal MP Scott Simms (Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, Nfld.).

Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy, published by Douglas & McIntyre, features chapters by all three MPs, along with those written by others, including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.), who outlines a detailed case regarding “the ongoing erosion of the rights of individual MPs” and believes the “single most important reform” to ensure that MP rights are “respected and equal” would be to implement a “consensus-based voting system, under some form of proportionality,” to both reduce the “adversarial nature of Parliament” and “the excesses of prime ministerial power” and “enhance cross-party cooperation.”

In an interview with The Hill Times, Mr. Chong said, despite the Liberal government “reneging” on its commitment to ending the first-past-the-post voting system after the last federal election, “millions of new voters voted on the belief that there would be reforms to our electoral system.”

But before there is a change in the way Canadians choose their MPs, Mr. Chong advocates for an overhaul of the political parties most MPs represent.

“In any alternative voting system, the proportion of seats are given to political parties, which give the party leader final approval of candidates,” he said.

“That exacerbates the problem in Ottawa, which is the concentration of power in party leaders and, particularly, with the prime minister.”

In Mr. Chong’s opinion, political reform begins inside the House of Commons, and a good starting point is at the standing committee level where the usual membership of 10 MPs on each of the 24 committees decides whether or not to amend legislation, approve government spending and taxation, and hold ministers and their departments to account. But the party leaders pick which MPs chair committees and serve on them, and remove them when MPs “don’t toe the party line,” said Mr. Chong, who would like that to end.

In Turning Parliament Inside Out, he proposes in his chapter, titled “Rebalancing Power in Ottawa,” that at the beginning of a new parliamentary session, MPs would vote by secret ballot to select which colleagues from their caucus sit on what committees as is done in the British Parliament. Committee members would also choose a chair by secret ballot, and not the prime minister and official opposition leader.

The change would only require a motion to be passed in the Commons to amend the relevant standing orders, Mr. Chong argues.

He told The Hill Times that he would also support the inclusion in committees of MPs from parties that don’t hold official standing in the House or are independents. But their selection would require a different process and committee seats, currently allocated in proportion to the recognized party standings in the House, would need to be changed too.

Mr. Stewart helped Mr. Chong gain support for the Reform Act from the NDP caucus, and in turn Mr. Chong backed Mr. Stewart’s private member’s motion (M-428) to bring electronic petitioning to Canada.

That cross-party collegiality stretched to seven other Conservative backbenchers who voted “yea” to Mr. Stewart’s motion on Jan. 29, 2014.

When M-428 passed by a razor-thin 142-140 margin, Mr. Stewart heard prime minister Harper turn to his House leader, Peter Van Loan (York-Simcoe, Ont.), and say in disbelief, “What the fuck happened?”

It was, as Mr. Stewart wrote in his “Empowering the Backbench” chapter in the book, the only time Mr. Harper lost a vote during his four-year majority government. The adoption of Mr. Stewart’s motion has resulted in nearly one million names affixed to e-petitions to Parliament on subjects ranging from the safe transportation of farm animals to allowing teenagers to become legal members of not-for-profit corporations.

Mr. Stewart’s e-petition exercise also illustrated how parliamentarians can collaborate across the aisle and more of that is occurring outside the House. He and his fellow MP authors have been meeting informally on how to establish an all-party democracy Commons caucus to push for reforms, perhaps along the lines of the Hansard Society in the United Kingdom or in concert with Samara Canada, an eight-year-old, non-profit organization that promotes civic engagement in politics and which is receiving the proceeds from the sale of Turning Parliament Inside Out.

But renegades run risks, and backbenchers resisting whipped votes and voting with their consciences can be stripped of any chances of becoming Cabinet ministers, holding front-bench critic roles in opposition, or even asking questions in the House, according to Mr. Stewart.

He has experience as an outlier.

Despite winning his riding in 2011, Mr. Stewart—a tenured political science professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy who holds a PhD in government from the London School of Economics (his thesis was on democratic reform)—acknowledged in an interview that he was not the NDP’s “chosen candidate” and jokingly described his current role as the party’s science critic in the House “as close to not having a critic’s position.”

It was the same deal when he became the official opposition critic for western diversification when he first arrived on Parliament Hill six years ago after then-NDP leader Jack Layton asked him what file he wanted.

“I said I’d like to be the finance critic [former MP Peggy Nash got the job],” laughed Mr. Stewart. “I’m an academic, I’m a giant egomaniac, and didn’t understand, first of all, that I was a rookie, and that there were people in caucus with tons more experience than me, and that there are regional and gender considerations.”

However, he said he sees his role as “fighting from the outside” to give voice to MPs like himself unafraid to challenge their party’s status quo.

“Everybody who wrote a chapter in the book believes there has to be more freedom to represent our constituents and debate issues, and not just repeat lines written for us,” Mr. Stewart said.

Mr. Simms said he would like that freedom extended to provincial and territorial legislators given a platform on Parliament Hill through an idea he floats in the book.

The East Coast MP proposes an “Assembly of the Federation,” modelled after the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe that meets four times a year in Strasbourg, France, which in Canada would be composed of 105 backbenchers from parties represented in the 10 provincial and three territorial legislatures and who would convene a few times a year in the Senate Chamber. The assembly would serve as the “House of Sober First Thought” and present motions to the House of Commons in the time now reserved for business of supply opposition day motions.

Mr. Simms said that rather than just relying on councils of ministers to hold discussions on matters emerging from their jurisdictions, the assembly of the federation would allow MLAs, MPPs, MNAs and MHAs to present MPs with their perspective on such key issues as healthcare and education that they deal with regularly.

“I’m so tired that every time a provincial issue comes up in Ottawa, everyone runs away from it like it’s the plague and they can’t touch it,” said Mr. Simms in an interview.

“Provincial politicians are more in your life, so why can’t they be part of the national discussion?”

Turning Parliament Inside Out: Practical Ideas For Reforming Canada’s Democracy, edited by Michael Chong, Scott Simms, and Kennedy Stewart, Douglas & McIntyre, 160 pp., $22.95. 

The Hill Times 

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