In 2014, Parliament passed The Reform Act with overwhelming cross-party support. The hope was to incrementally democratize party caucuses in Parliament, by shifting certain powers from the leader back to Members of Parliament (MPs).
The Reform Act requires that each officially recognized party hold a series of votes at its first meeting after each election to determine what powers within the Parliamentary party belong to MPs and which stay with the leader. Those powers include the decision to oust an MP from their party caucus, or to call for a party leadership review.
But has The Reform Act lived up to its objectives?
The first returns were not good, to put it mildly. Though the law was passed just months earlier, after the 2015 general election, only the Conservative caucus held the votes as required. The NDP held the votes, but not until 2016, long after the party’s first caucus meeting. The Liberals ignored the law altogether by apparently not conducting the votes. It’s worth noting that earlier in 2015, 88% of New Democrats and 83% of Liberals had voted to pass The Reform Act into law.
What about 2019? Did parties obey the law? Did caucuses take on the powers? Or is it time to declare The Reform Act well and truly dead?
Some of the results have been surprisingly difficult to track—a challenge exacerbated by media accounts that did not share the complete picture. To bring full transparency to the Reform Act votes, and to take its pulse, the Samara Centre has collected the results. This post also briefly reviews the purpose and terms of the Act, shares the results of a survey of 2019 federal candidates on the Act, and draws some lessons.
No independence for MPs?
The table below records the outcome of The Reform Act votes held after the 2015 and 2019 elections. (For a refresher on what the votes are about, see "Background" below.)
1 Source: iPolitics 2 Source: Ottawa Citizen 3 Source: Former caucus member 4 Source: Globe & Mail 5 Source: CTV News 6 Source: Current caucus member (No votes held in 2015 since the party did not have official status) 7 Source: Current caucus member
2019: What happens in caucus stays in caucus
Unlike 2015, all four officially recognized parties held the votes after the 2019 general election. In other words, they obeyed law. Remarkably, that counts as progress.
But hold the applause. There is still little appetite for the actual democratizing provisions of The Reform Act. The Liberals and NDP voted against taking up any of the measures. While they may have had their own provisions for some of the rules—like electing their caucus chairs—the choice to pass on the powers of the Act left caucus membership squarely under the control of the party leader. Conservatives also took up one fewer of the powers than they had in 2015, with the caucus choosing not to take the power to select their interim leader. No caucus has yet adopted the authority to force a leadership review—the most significant provision for decentralizing power within the party.
Moreover, what was strikingly undemocratic, especially the second time around, was the extent to which some parties—but particularly the Liberals—sought to keep information about the votes under wraps. No party proactively released the results of their votes or the exact counts for and against each measure. The results of the Conservative votes were made easily available to journalists, who reported them on the day they took place. And when the Samara Centre sought it out, the Bloc and NDP caucus chairs provided information to us about the results of their Reform Act votes. Only the Liberals formally refused to disclose results to journalists, citing caucus confidentiality (the results nevertheless came to light through reporting). Since three out of four recognized parties saw it differently, the precedent should be that Caucus chairs willingly disclose the results of the Reform Act votes.
The secrecy surrounding The Reform Act votes has confounded media attempts to report what has transpired, leading to some competing and incorrect claims. At the same time, the media has also misrepresented the nature of the decisions to be made. For instance, many articles after the 2019 election framed Conservative MPs’ vote on whether they should have the power to launch a leadership review as a kind of referendum of Andrew Scheer’s leadership of the party. In reality the vote determined only if MPs should have the power to launch a leadership review at a later point. Triggering that review would have required a separate vote, and would have applied to any Conservative leader serving during this Parliament—not just Andrew Scheer.
The Reform Act may not be totally dead. Compliance with the law is at least up, even if there has been no discernible movement on the part of MPs toward seizing the democratizing powers. That’s despite the fact that the ideas embodied in the Act are broadly supported by those who seek to enter public life, according to the Samara Centre’s survey of major party candidates during the 2019 federal election.
Results from the 2019 Samara Candidates’ Survey N=280
What have we learned?
One bright spot is that the presence of the Act does at least provide for a moment following each election to encourage MPs to think about their relationship with their parties. But in isolation, it is unlikely to drive significant change.
Without sanctions written into legal reforms, even the MPs who make the law may not follow it.
Culture can prevail over institutional and legislative reform. That means fixing Parliament’s problems requires action on many fronts, including trying to engender new norms among MPs about what their job is.
MPs may complain in private that they are frustrated, but are still reluctant to directly challenge their party leaders—even when ostensibly given opportunities in private meetings.
Acceptable can be the enemy of good. The version of TheReform Act that ultimately passed was weakened, and party leaders have exploited that weakness. Its ultimate legacy is not yet decided, but when the next reformers look to democratize parties, they will have to confront difficult strategic questions, such as whether losing on principle is preferable to winning on a palatable (but compromised) measure.
The problem: Discipline creep
The Reform Act sought to give MPs more independence from their parties. Canada’s MPs are officially elected as individuals, not as party members, and theoretically have the freedom to decide how to vote on every item of business in Parliament. In reality, however, there’s only been one MP in the last two decades who was first elected without a party affiliation (i.e. as an Independent).
Within Parliament, MPs from the same party vote together over 99% of the time (on average). While it’s not surprising that MPs from the same party have similar views on most things, this level of unity doesn’t happen spontaneously. Given the range of issues that MPs debate and the diverse communities they represent, there are many times when MPs in the same party will disagree. To ensure unity in these situations, parties “whip” potentially rebellious MPs to make sure they stay in line. MPs who fail to do so face discipline, including limits on their ability to speak in Parliament, removal from committees, and even expulsion from the party.
The number of “whipped votes” where MPs are expected to follow the party line used to be comparatively limited, but parties now expect unity on nearly every issue. This creeping expansion of party discipline has led to growing concerns among the public and MPs themselves that the quality of parliamentary representation is being eroded, with more and more power going to the party leaders instead.
The terms: The Reform Act votes
The Act requires the MPs from each party to hold four votes on the relationship between the MPs and their leader at their first caucus meetings following a general election. Specially, the MPs in each caucus must vote on:
Whether membership in the caucus should be controlled through votes by caucus members themselves;
Whether caucus members should chose who serves as caucus chair;
Whether caucus members should have the right to trigger a review of the party leader; and
Whether caucus members should have the right to choose the interim party leader, should the position become vacant.
The original draft of The Reform Act would have automatically applied the four rules to each party caucus. But in the face of opposition, the Act was amended so that each caucus would simply be required to vote to opt in or out of each rule at the start of a new Parliament. The longest serving MP in each party must conduct the votes, and the results must be reported to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
To be clear, voting ‘no’ on any of the votes doesn’t necessarily indicate that a political party is unwilling to give more independence to its MPs. It can simply mean that the rules of a party (for controlling caucus membership, selecting the caucus chair, removing a party leader outside of scheduled leadership reviews, or the selection of an interim leader) are outlined elsewhere, like in the party’s constitution. Both the Bloc and Conservatives told Samara, for example, that the authority to call for a leadership review rests with the party’s national office, while the Liberals and NDP have their own rules to elect their caucus chairs.
These might seem like minor changes, but adopting them could go a long way to give MPs more independence to represent the communities that elected them. For instance, if caucus membership is controlled by MPs, then the party leader can no longer threaten to expel those who may wish to vote against the party line. The leader would also know that failing to listen to MPs’ concerns could eventually result in the launch of a leadership review.
Did you know?
Did you know that the Reform Act bill passed in 2014 was partly based on research by the Samara Centre? You can read about Samara's cameo in the first hour of debate in the House of Commons and check out our Globe and Mail op-ed about it. You can also peruse the three Samara reports that helped shape the legislation: The Real Outsiders, Lost in Translation or Just Lost? and Who's the Boss: Canadians' Views on their Democracy.