12.07.2013 07:49 PM

In Sunday’s Sun: in which I become the only person in Canada to dislike Chong’s bill

Look, I like Michael Chong, too. In fact, I’ve probably liked the Conservative MP longer than anyone else.

Way back in November 2006, when we were being urged by elites to recognize Quebec as a “nation,” Chong objected, and resigned his cabinet seat. In another newspaper, I called him an “anti-nationalist hero.”

A bit later, in December 2008, I ran into Chong at the Sikh wedding of a mutual friend. I opined that he was still “very impressive.”

In recent days, lots of other folks have been lauding him as a hero, too. They like him. In particular, they like his democratic reform bill.

Chong wants elected party leaders to have less power. He wants leaders to lose the power to approve candidates in elections. He wants committee bosses elected by MPs. And he wants leaders to hold their jobs at the pleasure of MPs, not party members. There are some other things in there, but you get the drift.

Essentially, he wants to denude party leaders of their ability to be, you know, leaders.

So, to reiterate: Michael Chong is likeable. But his bill is not.

It is, instead, a prescription for precisely the sort of undemocratic chaos he professes to oppose.

We know whereof we speak. In 2000, after several million registered voters gave him a bigger majority government than he had previously enjoyed, Jean Chretien was the target of a caucus mutiny led by his defeated leadership rival, Paul Martin.

Depending who you are talking to, Martin was fired or resigned from cabinet in June 2002. What is not in dispute, though, was what happened next: Martin’s supporters — who had previously contented themselves with wearing black armbands to protest Chretien’s leadership, hissing “Judas” at him in public, or passing around rumours that he was dying — dramatically accelerated their campaign to dispose of the duly elected Liberal prime minister.

To them, it did not matter that Liberal party members had overwhelmingly voted to make Chretien leader in 1990, and more than 90% of them had ratified his leadership twice thereafter. It did not matter that more than five million voters had re-elected him in 2000. It did not matter that about 60% of Canadians approved of Chretien’s leadership in serial public opinion polls.

No, what mattered to Martin’s mutineers was getting “P.C.” appended to their name. That is, they all wanted to be in cabinet, and get ferried about in limousines.

Led by luminaries like Joe Fontana — the mayor now facing fraud charges in London, Ont. — Martin’s people agitated to drive Chretien out. Peace, order and good government effectively went by the wayside.

With Chong’s bill, this sort of constitutional chaos will be rendered permanent. It will render garden-variety MPs — who most Canadians could not identify in a police lineup — as the bosses. And it will render the bosses eunuchs.

Whether Michael Chong and his editorial board cheerleader squad approve or not, the fact is this: Most Canadians make important political choices based upon who the leader is.

Not policy, and certainly not backbench nobodies. The leader.

Some will argue the position of prime minister is not referred to in the Constitution, and that is true. Some will say party leaders are not elected directly by the people, and that is also true.

But leadership, and leaders, are the things that mostly determine how they vote.

So, if Michael Chong doesn’t have confidence in Stephen Harper, there is nothing stopping him from getting up in caucus next Wednesday — nothing — and asking for a leadership confidence vote. He won’t.

Like the Martinites, Chong wants to do indirectly what he apparently lacks the nerve to do directly.

That makes his bill eminently dislikeable.

And (sadly) it makes Michael Chong a little less likeable, too.


  1. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    Yup, agreed. Two kettles of fish here: if caucus want Harper out, let them stand up and tell the boss. If not, let ’em sit down and shut the hell up.

    People vote Harper, Trudeau or Mulcair, period. Nothing else matters. Either voters want the individual in or out. Voters size up leadership and make a judgment call. This isn’t a team Olympics and never will be.

  2. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    Look, all we did was make jackasses of ourselves when we moved against Harper in 2005. We were stupid fools. Even at his low point — post 2004 election — the guy wiped the floor with us.

    Chong needs to remember how the leader once in place is close to invincible.

  3. Iris Mclean says:

    Could the bill not be tweaked?

  4. Brad Young says:

    I agree 100%. The existing system works fine. It’s Harper that is taking advantage of it.

    He is the problem.

  5. Swervin' Merv says:

    One of your best pieces, Warren, for both content and style. Well argued and written.

    I liked Paul Martin, if not his crew–for which a leader must take responsibility, as with Michael Ignatieff (and Stephen Harper).

  6. Robin says:

    Two perspectives on Chong’s Reform Bill:

    First, Clarity helps. In 1980 and 1995 Quebec held referendums on independence. In both cases, the rules were unclear. In 1995, the OUI Campaign in Quebec came within 50,000 votes of winning 50 percent plus one with an ambiguous question. The Clarity Act was passed afterwards to set out the rules for the next referendum, should there be another one. Chong’s Reform Bill attempts to establish clear rules for challenging a Party Leader, especially a Prime Minister. It makes sense. A tone deaf and stubborn Leader, especially a Prime Minister, may simply choose to ignore a small contingent of detractors in Caucus while a majority of nervous nellies (sycophants and fart catchers) and Cabinet Ministers prefer to ingratiate themselves to the Leader in order to avoid risk and to maintain privileges and perks. The proposed rules in Chong’s Reform Bill set out a process. Once it is initiated then the dominos must fall one way or the other. Initiating an open revolt in writing, that is, 15 percent of Caucus, doesn’t ensure success. However, it does compel detractors to grow a spine and express their dissent openly rather than by stealth and proxy. The fact that 50 percent of Caucus must vote by secret ballot to force a leadership contest doesn’t automatically make it a sure thing. Nevertheless, the clear rules and process gives the Leader and his supporters a stick with which to taunt any detractors in Caucus: “Get 15 signatures or STFU!” Instead of a long period of skullduggery, there can be a relatively short and decisive process. Maybe an amendment could be that a Caucus can only use this mechanism once during a Parliament; therefore, it should use it wisely.

    Second, a Trojan Horse; we may be duped. Having a non-threatening, principled, honourable, and well-meaning backbench MP like Michael Chong (naïve and malleable, as well) introduce a bill to amend the Canada Elections Act and Parliament of Canada Act could result in another Rathgeber experience only much, much more devastating for our democratic institutions. We are assuming that the proposed Bill is innocuous and well-intended, however, it could be manipulated by the PMO to eviscerate the Canada Election Act and the Parliament of Canada Act in the same way the Harper Government used is majority to eviscerate the Fisheries Act and Navigable Waters Act; it begins with one intent and becomes an instrument for something nefarious.

    Think about it: if a Bill was introduced by someone like Pierre Poilievre, Peter Van Loan, or Vic Toews to Amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act would we be so nonchalant about its purpose, the motives, and potential outcomes? Regardless of its genesis and who introduces the Bill, once it is in the system then the sharks can move in; what may have started as an innocent and sincere attempt to improve our democracy actually opens up legislation to others who may have less noble aspirations. Remember: in human history, noblemen were sacrificed on the altar of political ambition and the pursuit of absolute power. Is Chong inadvertently opening a Pandora’s Box that will make interference with Rathgeber’s Bill and the Senate audit look like practise.

    Let sleeping dogs lie. The system may not be perfect; however, it still has checks and balances. If we open up Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act, we may regret it under this Prime Minister.

    The Chong Reform Act should be stopped, rescinded, pulled, and defeated. However, it may be too late. Make sure your passport is valid, you may need it.

  7. Steve T says:

    One interesting part of your commentary is the following characterization: “…garden-variety MPs — who most Canadians could not identify in a police lineup…”

    This is one of the key problems with our Parliamentary system. MPs are basically irrelevant, as (by and large) they toe the party line and don’t really conduct any free-thinking themselves. You might as well elect a trained monkey as your local MP.

    So, when my local candidate circulates their brochure, telling me all about themselves and their personal accomplishments, my first thought is “So what? You are irrelevant. I am voting for your party, not you.”

    For all the blemishes of the U.S. system, at least Congressmen have the balls to vote their conscience some of the time, and not just act like robots.

  8. Brammer says:

    “..leadership, and leaders, are the things that mostly determine how [the electorate] vote.”

    Agreed. However, the appeal of Chong’s bill is that it gives our elected pols the opportunity to hold the leader’s feet to the fire and his post-election behaviour challenged, if the need arises.

    Current Canadian parliamentary tradition and the party system essentially allow us to elect a dictator. However, after witnessing Harper’s manipulation and disrespect for the system, Chong’s approach strongly appeals. UK and Australia have this check in place, why not Canada?

    Given the current modus operandi of this government, I also agree with Robin’s concern that Chong’s bill not be bundled with e.g., an act to reduce harm to puppies. “if you are against this bill, then you support kicking puppies”, omnibus bills being another form of system abuse, courtesy of Harper.

  9. dave says:

    Both provincially and federally we have a system in which the executive and legislative powers are pretty well all in the one office, the premier’s or prime minister’ office. Look at the increases in budgets of these offices in the past couple of decades.
    Legislation comes form the PMO, where lobbyists(who have e access) and unelected appointees write the legislation. The same office sends out the orders to execute, or ignore legislation.

    So if everyone is satisfied with this system, then save us all a few bucks: Let’s just elect one person. We don’t need all those expensive MP’s or MLA’s. For example, why are we adding a bunch of MP’s in the next election when they just do what their PMO tells them to do anyway. My MP, my MLA, and yours are less my rep as they are reps of the PMO.

    Our overall history with democracy is very short, compared to our history with kings, one big patriarchal boss. But it seems to me we could look at other, more modern democracies where they have made an effort to separate the exec and legislative functions.

    I’m not sure why we want to cling to a system for the sake of saving political parties from having ‘politics’ happen within their ranks.

    (On the other hand, MP’s do have votes and most are capable people, and if they are allowing themselves to be muzzled by appointed party commissars then maybe they should look in the mirror. Cut the PMO budget, they have the votes if they want to do something for themselves. That job seeking commissariat won’t be around if they are not getting paid.)

  10. Sean says:

    Very interesting. I actually hadn’t thought about it this way and I have a better understanding of what Warren is getting at. As I mentioned in another post, M.P.s already have the power to dump their leader at any time for any reason.

    • Elisabeth Lindsay says:

      Thank you, Sean. Yes….they can, and DO, dump their leader at any time for any reason. As they did to Dion in order to get Ignatieff. How quickly they forgot THAT!!

  11. po'd says:

    Canadians didn’t so much elect Chretien as they voted out the much despised Mulroney Conservatives. They didn’t re-elected him so much because of good governance or popularity as they did because the Conservatives set upon each other in a civil war of sorts and the memories of Mulroney being fresh. I suspect any competent person chosen to lead the Liberals would have achieved the same results.

    Besides, Chretien lied to get elected the first time. That in combination with Provincial government shenanigans in my home Province, turned me off politics completely for over a decade. What brought me back was the memories of Conservatives in power, particularly in a majority government position.

    The only potential danger I see in Chong’s move is a rise in populism as some newly empowered MP’s may be drawn to greater exploitation of that. I don’t however see Chong’s proposals as set in stone, I expect he drafted them with future negotiation in mind and as he has proved to be one of a very few politicians with enough backbone to swim upstream and stand by his convictions. As such I’m inclined to have some faith in his efforts.

    Combined with preferential balloting, the word Democracy would mean something. With majority governments and whipped votes, it doesn’t.

  12. Matt says:

    It seems to me most of the people who support this bill are Harper haters who belive this will finally take him out. They seem to be letting that hate cloud their realisation that it could happen to their guy too.

    A group of NDP MP’s unhappy with the party’s slide in the polls, launch a move to remove Mulcair. Trudeau pulls a major boner of some sort, some Lib MP’s try to remove him.

    I’m just thinking this is very much a case of be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

    Like back when David Miller was Toronto Mayor. He and his supporters were pushing the province to give the Mayor far more power. Imagine what would be going on now with Ford had McGuinty given into Miller’s request.

  13. I do not think that Parliament should impose anybodies standards on a Political Party. It is up to each Party what they believe in, and how much power they wanttheir Leader to exercise. That said, any unwritten Parliamentary conventions have long gone into the dustbin, simply because our current government will not permit tradition, sentiment, or any un-formalised constraints on their power. You need look no further than the prorogation of Parliament to know this to be true. Probably not this bill, but sometime soon Parliament is going to have to open up a little, and let the public know what is happening in committees. Omnibus bills are soo very scary. A lot of ill shit is happening under our noses, but we are overwhelmed in omnibus detail, and cannot see the hidden toxins. That is a practice that could use some reform. Plus drafting legislation that has less than a 5% chance of withstanding a court challenge? What kind of stupidity id that? What a waste of public money, and an abuse of office too. Getting people riled up over activist courts by creating flawed laws is not pleasantly Macchiavellian, it is despicably wasteful.

  14. Heric says:

    What I find insufferable is that the Liberal party has changed the rules to allow for nonmembers to vote for the leader.
    Now a group of them want to support a small minority of mp’s to remove their leader.

    If this ever happened the party would be ripped apart.
    We have moved beyond the ability of the MP’s replacing their leaders.
    This happened when members could vote for the leader.

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