PARLIAMENT HILL—Conservative MP Michael Chong is not a rebel, however badly the NDP might wish he was.
He is, however, a man with a mission to reform Parliament, although his timing is questionable.
Chong has chosen to tackle how party leaders control rank-and-file MPs at a time when Prime Minister Stephen Harper is being slammed over a Senate expense scandal that has challenged his credibility.
Chong introduced the simply titled Reform Act on Tuesday. If passed, the bill would limit the power party leaders wield over who can represent a riding for the party, and codify rules for leadership reviews that would make it possible for as few as 15 MPs in any party to start a process that could oust the leader.
It’s that latter point that might be particularly hard to swallow for the embattled Harper. While there is speculation that the PM could step down before the next election, he has pledged to run again. In that context, openly calling for legislation that could be used to oust him has given the NDP one more stone to hurl.
The fact that Chong is a highly respected MP, a hard worker who shies away from the spotlight while standing firm on his principles, makes this bill noteworthy. While private member’s bills rarely pass, it looks possible Chong could rally enough Tory support to secure passage if opposition MPs are on board.
As of Wednesday, that looks to be the case. The NDP will allow a free vote and the party’s democratic reform critic, Craig Scott, has endorsed it. So has Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
Chong all but tanked his political career under Harper in 2006 when he left cabinet after the PM put forward a motion to recognize Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada. Chong called it ethnic nationalism.
At the time, Chong held three posts: Minister of Sport, Minister of intergovernmental Affairs, and President of the Queen’s Privy Council. If he’d played by the unwritten rules, he’d likely be one of the Tories’ power players today.
But for Chong, those unwritten rules are the problem.
While many of his fellow Conservative MPs have been hesitant to pledge support for the Reform Act, they’ve showed no such reservations about Chong himself.
Rick Dykstra, Parliamentary Secretary to Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, says Chong is someone he turns to when considering bills being debated.
“He has got tremendous insight,” said Dykstra. “There aren’t too many major pieces of legislation that we pass that I don’t have a conversation with him about. And whenever he puts legislation forward it’s always extremely well thought out.”
John Weston, another Conservative MP, said Chong is intelligent, articulate, and principled.
“His bill shows loyalty to the leader, support for the government, and a desire to improve Parliament and they are all principles I agree with.”
Daryl Kramp, who chairs the Public Safety and National Security committee, said Chong seems to be on the right track.
“I think he’s got a great idea, I think he’s working well with it,” said Kramp, but noted there could be unintended consequences that he wants to look at more closely.
Gerald Keddy, Parliamentary Secretary to National Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Findlay, said he had not read the bill but also vouched for Chong as an MP.
“Michael is a very wise, very astute Member of Parliament, always puts a lot of thought into things, so I will read it with deliberation,” he said.
And while the NDP want to frame Chong’s bill as a reflection of disgruntled Conservatives who’ve lost faith in their leader, Chong went to lengths to spell out that was not the case—that the problems he hopes to fix predate the current government by decades. He said Prime Minister Stephen Harper still has his full confidence.
Kramp also dismissed the suggestion that Chong is a backbencher in revolt, noting Chong has worked on parliamentary reform even prior to his time as an MP. Chong co-founded the Dominion Institute, which became the Historica Canada, an organization that works to raise awards of Canadian history and civics.
“He’s led a crusade since he’s come here and this is simply a continuation of that,” Kramp said.
Chong’s bill has been endorsed by several prominent Conservatives, three of whom—James Rajotte, Larry Miller and Stella Ambler—joined him at a press conference on Tuesday. The trio are all committee chairs. On Wednesday Ambler was seated by Harper during question period.
Chong needs only five more Conservatives to vote for the bill in order for it to pass if it receives universal support from opposition MPs.
Tories leaving the party’s caucus meeting on Wednesday said there were some mixed feelings about the bill but it has solid support within the party.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May calls it one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before the House, a sentiment echoed by independent MP Bruce Hyer.
More Power for MPs
Chong boils down the need for the Reform Act to a few simple facts. The first is that Canadians only get one chance to vote for their federal representative. They don’t directly elect the prime minister, nor do they vote for senators. That means they rely on their MP to represent their views.
The second is that party leaders have become increasingly powerful in the last 20 to 30 years, rendering individual MPs less and less effective. In that situation, Canadians are suffering a deficit of democracy and need stronger MPs to have their voice in Parliament amount to something.
Chong blames the relative ineffectual nature of MPs in part for declining voter turnout and disinterest in democracy.
“The consistent downward trend in voter engagement tells us that there is a serious disconnect between Canadians and their elected Parliament,” he said. “I’m optimistic that these reforms will reconnect Canadians to their Parliament by strengthening the role of their local elected member.”
Conservative Senator Hugh Segal said he would be lobbying for MPs to support Chong’s reforms. “I will do everything I can to encourage people to support his bill,” he said.
If passed, Chong’s bill would come into effect after the next election.