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Backbench revolt? Conservative’s bill would give MPs power to turf leader

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in Ottawa on Nov. 27, 2013.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

A Conservative backbencher is set to introduce a bill to claw back the powers of federal party leaders, a move designed to give more grassroots power to MPs.

If passed, the bill from Ontario MP Michael Chong would allow MPs to turf their party leader and give them more say in the operation of their caucus, such as deciding whether an MP is kicked out or readmitted. The bill would also strip party leaders such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau of the right to approve election candidates and give final say to a local official instead.

The move comes just after the Senate scandal revealed the reach of the powerful Prime Minister's Office (PMO). It also follows a push earlier this year by backbench MPs for more freedom to make statements in the House of Commons, and the June resignation of Brent Rathgeber from the Conservative caucus. Now an independent, Mr. Rathgeber said the PMO holds too much authority over MPs.

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Sources with knowledge of Mr. Chong's bill stressed it is unrelated to recent questions about the PMO and backbenchers' rights; they say it is simply about democratic renewal. The bill would not take effect until after the 2015 election, and Mr. Chong is said to have been working on it for years with the help of a loose coalition of MPs, known as Committee 2012, who are interested in democratic reform.

The timing is partly unavoidable. MPs wanting to propose private bills must put their names on a long list. Mr. Chong's is nearing the top. If he does not table his bill soon, he could lose his spot and wait years for another chance.

The bill is expected to be tabled on Thursday.

If it gets PMO backing, it would sail through the House of Commons. But sources expect enough Conservatives would support it – even if the PMO ordered them not to – that it could pass with unanimous opposition support.

It that is the case, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau would be in a precarious position – given an opportunity to force through rule changes that would clip Mr. Harper's wings at a time when his PMO is under scrutiny, but also dampen their own powers over their parties.

Mr. Chong declined to comment, as did a PMO spokesman, who said he had not seen the bill.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan, who stick-handles laws through the House of Commons, declined comment. "I have not read it. I will not speculate as to its contents," he said in a statement released by his office.

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Mr. Chong – an MP from Wellington-Halton Hills, near Guelph, Ont., who served in cabinet in 2006 – has long championed democratic reform. His riding association proposed a change during this year's Conservative convention that would prevent the party from appointing a candidate "unless the local [riding association] fails to do so." The motion was defeated. In 2010, Mr. Chong advocated for a motion to consider changes to Question Period, writing at the time that MPs had been "stripped of the right to ask questions of the government."

The new bill is expected to propose changes in three broad areas.

The first would be handing power over candidate nominations to a local electoral district association. Since 1970, federal party leaders have had ultimate say over who runs.

The second would define the structure and power of the caucuses, or groups of MPs from the same party. The bill would give MPs the right to appoint a caucus chair and control who is kicked out or welcomed back. Sources say the current rules are governed more by convention than law, and have evolved to favour party leaders. Expulsion votes could be triggered by 15 per cent of caucus, then approved by majority vote.

The third change would further define the power of a caucus to "review" (or kick out) its leader, although all party members – not just the MPs – would still select the replacement. Debate on the bill would be expected to begin early next year. Those familiar with it hope it would come to a final vote before the next election.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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