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Reform Bill, 2014


Bill to Amend—Third Reading—Debate Suspended

Hon. Scott Tannas  Colleagues, I rise today speak to Bill C-586, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act.

Since I gave my second reading speech, there has been even more commentary on this bill, both among senators in this chamber and in the media. We have all heard enough about the Reform Act to know what this bill is about. For that reason, I will not get into too much detail about the bill. I want to discuss the intent of the bill and some of the more controversial elements of it.

It's no secret that the power of party leaders has significantly increased over the past 50 or 60 years at the expense of individual members of Parliament. The intent of the Reform Act is to re- empower individual caucus members so that Canadians can be confident that their elected MPs are representing their constituents without being rigidly controlled by party leaders.

The question we need to ask ourselves as we review this legislation carefully is this: Will this bill accomplish the intent without any significant unintended consequences?

Senator Fraser is the critic for this bill, and I have to say she makes excellent points in her speech at second reading. However, I do take issue with a few of the points that she made.

First, Senator Fraser argued that citizens will be discouraged from engaging in politics because the increase in members' powers is effectively being traded for the power of average party members.

I don't believe this argument because I believe that citizens — and particularly those citizens that are politically engaged — understand that they elect members of Parliament specifically to represent them.

Citizens confer a certain amount of decision-making power on MPs. If MPs make decisions that do not fall in line with citizens' beliefs, then that MP does not win the riding nomination in the next election — or they are simply not re-elected.

Senator Fraser also made the point that blanket legislation that covers all political parties is concerning. To that I say that it is the nature of this kind of legislation. Any parliamentary reform legislation must cover all political parties to ensure that no party gains any advantage as a result.

Changing the legal requirement of party leaders to sign off on party candidates was another concern of Senator Fraser's. She explained that this change was "an illusory one" because party leaders will simply control the people who do make the decision on who is approved as a candidate.

Colleagues, I can't accept that. It's like saying that there are some people who will try to abuse the system regardless of a positive change. It's just not an adequate justification for throwing that positive change out the window.

It is a fact that no other Western democracy legally requires a party leader to approve party candidates. If this legislation passes, this will be a positive change that would bring Canada in line with other Western democracies.

Senator Fraser and others take issue with the definition of "caucus" in this bill. The only way for me to refute this conjecture is to reiterate the fact that the Senate and the House of Commons are two separate and independent chambers. To define a House of Commons caucus in a way that includes the Senate, it has been determined, would likely be unconstitutional.

Now, I will address the clause that I think senators have the biggest problem with: the 20 per cent threshold for triggering a leadership review.

Senator Fraser — and I'm sorry I keep mentioning her — and others as well have argued that this clause is destabilizing for party leaders. We all understand that party leaders have difficult decisions to make and that it is impossible for those decisions to make everyone happy. For this reason, opponents argue that this legislation will empower malcontents and the ambitious.

I have a few points to make on this. First, I would remind my colleagues that the actual threshold for a leader to be forced to step down is 50 per cent, not 20 per cent. So it is not that 20 per cent of people can overthrow a leader.

Second, I think that viewing this legislation as "empowering the malcontents" misses the point. This legislation isn't just empowering those people who have a problem with hard decisions; it's empowering all of the other MPs in the caucus as well. If the malcontents can scrape together 20 per cent of MPs to trigger the larger vote, then the 80 per cent of MPs who realize that the Prime Minister or a leader has a tough job and has to make tough decisions can clear the air and silence the critics with a vote.

On the other hand, if more than 50 per cent of MPs in a caucus believe that the Prime Minister or the leader of an opposition or the leader of a political party isn't making decisions that are in the best interest of Canadians, then there should be a mechanism for removing them. This does not mean that MPs will exercise that option every time there are disagreements in caucus. It just means that option is there for cases where the party leader is no longer acting in the best interest of Canadians.

There are times when everyone knows that a party leader needs to step down — except, seemingly, the leader himself or herself. In these situations, political parties and constituents are not in the same position that MPs are. MPs are in that moment uniquely qualified to shepherd the leader along toward the exit.

The final and perhaps most important point that I want to make about the reform act is that it is opt-in legislation. This bill is a template for how a caucus can take their unspoken, de facto rules around how their group is organized and write them down in a more transparent way.

If this legislation passes, all that a caucus has to do is vote yes or no on whether or not they want this template. If they vote no, then they can write their own rules. If they don't want to write their own rules, then they can maintain the status quo — where their rules will remain unwritten and de facto.

Given this flexibility, Bill C-586 is actually an incredibly modest attempt at bringing additional transparency to the political system. But in my view, colleagues, it's a step forward. As senators, we should welcome and support legislation that encourages even a small step towards transparency in our political system.

In closing, I want to say that I believe this legislation accomplishes its intent — to provide an optional template for writing down some of the ad hoc and unwritten rules in a more transparent way. This will grant individual MPs more power in caucus.

Surely this optional template is worth a vote in caucus at the start of every Parliament. Surely this bill is worth a vote in this chamber before we go home.

Regardless of your opinion on the quality of the template provided by this bill, surely we can all get behind the additional transparency that this bill offers to the system. Thank you, colleagues.

Hon. Larry W. Campbell: Would the honourable senator take a question?

I have been following this bill, probably not as closely as I should, but the question I asked myself is if we receive a bill from the other place that has the kind of support that this has across parties from the other place, except for the constitutional role that we play in having to pass a bill, why would we be messing in their nest? I don't understand what we have to do with this. It would seem to me that this is a House of Commons problem, even given that we don't have a national caucus to sit in on this side. I don't understand that.

Can you explain to me why we should be fighting this when we see such a huge outpouring across parties from the other place?

Some Hon. Senators: Excellent question.

Senator Tannas: An excellent question. I think we have a role, frankly the same role we have with all legislation that comes through here. From my perspective, one of the biggest reasons why I support this bill is precisely that. It has been driven by members of Parliament, specifically around the way in which they would like to conduct themselves, and it is overwhelmingly supported.

I'm with you, senator.