REFORM BILL MAY DO LITTLE TO LIFT POLITICAL SECRECY

What does Tory backbencher Michael Chong's bill actually do for the public? (Photograph by Parliament of Canada)

What does Tory backbencher Michael Chong’s bill actually do for the public? (Photograph by Parliament of Canada)

It has oft been said “justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”

But that 1923 legal aphorism is just as applicable to our system of political representation — helping bring into relief its deficiencies and whether Tory backbencher Michael Chong‘s reform bill will address them.

Under that system, representation isn’t often seen to be done in Canada, unless you define it as MPs toeing their party’s line.

Instead, as I’ve discussed before, representation usually happens in spaces shielded from scrutiny — such as caucus or cabinet meetings.

In those meetings, MPs are supposedly allowed to freely express their views and those of their constituents.

But outside those spaces, MPs are mostly expected to cast the same votes and speak in the same voice as their party colleagues — risking punishment if they don’t.

That means it’s almost impossible for Canadians to know the extent to which representation is actually being done in this country.

Chong’s bill would empower those representatives as a collective — legally enshrining caucus’s authority to remove party leaders.

It also blunts the authority of those leaders, taking away their final say on who gets to run for their party and who doesn’t.

And, if Chong’s bill becomes law, the power to remove MPs from caucus would firmly rest with caucus.

But what does any of that do to facilitate representation being done and being seen to be done?

On the first score, it’s conceivable party leaders would have to take better account of the views expressed by MPs during the private meetings where much the public’s business is discussed.

On the second score, it’s conceivable MPs may be emboldened to publicly break ranks when they disagree with their party or its leader — confident their chances of being expelled from caucus or not being able to run for their party in the next election have been reduced.

But all this is predicated on the willingness of MPs to resist the rewards of conformity, the penalties for dissent and a culture of deference.

After all, being expelled from caucus or barred from a party candidacy are just two of many punishments that can be inflicted on rebellious MPs.

And party leaders will continue to be able to check that rebelliousness by holding forth the lure of political promotion.

As such, while I strongly support the intent of Chong’s bill, I worry that legislation may, at best, just entrench and empower the private debating clubs that are party caucuses — doing little to show Canadians that representation is being done.

And if representation isn’t seen to be done, how do we know it’s even taking place?