Parliament's pearl or more shell games?

  • National Newswatch

In the final frigid stretch of January, this past Wednesday may have seen hints of a great democratic thaw on Parliament Hill.

The day began with Justin Trudeau's bolt from the blue: “There are no more Liberal senators,” he proclaimed. By ejecting the whole 32-member contingent from their parliamentary caucus, the Liberals have staked out distinct turf in the Senate reform debate while simultaneously taking decisive action to free senators from the straitjacket of partisanship.In a time when the likes of Senators Duffy, Wallen and Harb have solidified the image of the Red Chamber as a den of party hacks and bagmen, Trudeau's move invites reimagining the Upper House as a place where patronage and party discipline are replaced with independent thought and rational debate.Later in the day, another sharp crack could be heard rolling across the parliamentary ice. In a squeaker of a vote on the floor of the House of Commons (142-140), NDP MP Kennedy Stewart's M-453 passed second reading.This private member's motion calls for the study of the viability of online petitions for our Parliament. Such a measure would give the fabled 'average Canadian' much greater influence on the political affairs of the nation by allowing them to sign petitions that would trigger debate in the House.This session of Parliament will see these important proposals debated alongside backbench Conservative MP Michael Chong's much-anticipated private member's bill (C-559). Chong's so-called Reform Act would reduce the power of party leaders in three vital ways. Party caucuses could remove their leaders by majority vote, leaders would no longer be able to veto election candidates chosen by constituency associations, and leaders could only remove members from caucus if the caucus itself supported the move.These seemingly unrelated occurrences have at least one thing in common: they represent departures from the agonizingly narrow circumscription of political legitimacy that Canadians have been encouraged to adopt of late.They signify the assertion of alternative sorts of legitimate political discourse in our Parliament. Each is the emergence of a particular kind of less partisan voice.In the case of online petitions, it is a participatory voice, one of citizens not necessarily affiliated with the traditional political class.The cutting loose of Senators from the Liberal party creates space for a dignified, sober, thoughtful voice that might be heard anew.And the Reform Act would restore backbench MPs to their rightful place in both their caucuses and the House, empowering them to give voice not only to the concerns of their constituents but also to their own consciences.These voices, should they be properly heard, would be distinct from the ironclad messaging currently on offer from the major parties on the Hill.The monotonous talking-point diatribes honed by the Conservative messaging machine and mimicked by parties of all stripes might yet be shown to be one particularly bland form of politics.At times, these new voices may not resonate with our expectations. Online petitions in Washington have been used to demand the construction of a Death Star. Formerly Liberal senators have already voted to keep their leadership structure in place. And even legislatively empowered MPs might continue to bend the knee to party overlords.But regardless of whether the nuts and bolts of each initiative come together flawlessly, there is little doubt that each represents an alternative to the mind-numbing status quo and can serve to broaden our perspective on what is and ought to be included in our democracy.Trudeau has declared that “At our best, Liberals are relentless reformers. When public institutions fail to serve the public interest, we take bold steps to change them.” This past week has shown that such a current of reform flows through all the parties on the Hill.Saskatchewan MP Brad Trost and seven other Conservatives pushed through NDP MP Kennedy Stewart's motion, Chong has cross-partisan support for his proposal and there are likely at least some Conservatives—who still style themselves Progressive—quietly applauding Trudeau's audacious Senate manoeuvre.A day that expanded the scope of our institutional aspirations might become a parliamentary session that pushes out the bounds of our collective democratic imagination.Nonetheless, all of these proposals remain mere seeds of change.We've seen hints of this sort of bold openness to reform from Trudeau before in his announcement that he would allow riding association nominations to be open. What he showed just months later was that he wasn't above publicly endorsing Chrystia Freeland, virtually deciding the race in Toronto Centre before it began. Might he not once again find a clandestine way to maintain centralized power, in this case over the Liberal Senate non-caucus? Meanwhile, Stewart's online petitions victory was a mere motion to undertake a study and some have already judged Chong's Reform Act 'dead on arrival.'There is reason to be hopeful that these proposals will be enacted and bring meaningful change to our democratic institutions. However, Canadians are used to a climate—both real and political—that brings tantalizing waves of warmth before it plunges us back into a deep freeze.Whether or not the initiatives enumerated here succeed, at the very least they serve to remind us that alternatives to the status quo might still germinate below the surface. Even if this wave of warmth doesn't last, it does us some good to be reminded of the possibility of spring.Fraser Harland and Mark Dance have worked for MPs on both opposition and government sides of the House of Commons through the non-partisan Parliamentary Internship Programme. Harland completed an MA in Political Science at the University of Victoria and is currently studying law at McGill. His work on constitutional reform has been published in The Canadian Parliamentary Review.Dance holds an MSc in Mind, Language and Embodied Cognition from the University of Edinburgh and is completing a fellowship at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. His research on parliamentary reform was featured on CBC's The House with host Evan Solomon.