When push comes to shove
No party leader — with the notable exception of Elizabeth May, who presumably does not have to worry about dissent within her one-person Green caucus — will really like the private member’s bill Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong was to table on Tuesday.
Under his proposed Reform Act, MPs would reportedly have the legal right to vote out their leader on the basis of a simple majority, and a minority of them (15 per cent) could force a party review of his or her leadership.
Looking back on the three prime ministers who I mainly covered — Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper — I can think of circumstances that could have set each of them on a collision course with enough caucus members to trigger a leadership review vote.
Think of Harper’s unilateral 2006 decision to spring a Quebec nation resolution on the House of Commons, or his ongoing efforts to keep the social conservative faction of his caucus at bay over abortion rights.
Think of Mulroney’s efforts to strike a middle course on the same issue in the face of opposition from some of his leading ministers in the late 1980s. Or his determination to promote official bilingualism against the will of a vocal minority of Tory MPs who would rather have done away with the Liberal policy.
Or consider Chrétien’s vulnerability at the hands of the “Nervous Nellies” within his opposition caucus, who doubted that he could beat Kim Campbell in the 1993 election or — a decade later — of his run-ins with the Paul Martin clan within his government.
As unsettling as the prospect of a caucus-induced leadership review or removal might be for a sitting prime minister, it could actually be even more threatening to an opposition leader devoid of access to the range of perks a head of government can dispense on docile MPs.
But MPs might also think twice about supporting Chong’s bill, for if it were adopted, the buck that they are often content to pass to their leaders would stop with them.
As it happens, MPs already have the moral right to withdraw their confidence in a leader and — if enough of them do so — the capacity to precipitate his or her demise, but they rarely have the backbone to put it to the test. The bill would force them to be more accountable for that lack of fortitude.
If Harper’s fellow MPs had the legal power to vote him out over the Senate scandal or — alternatively — if two dozen of them could have forced a leadership review this fall, they almost certainly would not have used that prerogative.
But they might have sought a more comprehensive accounting of the prime minister’s actions, for how could they have served the thin gruel that Harper has so far dished out as a justification to their constituents for not challenging his leadership?
Harper, under a regime that empowers his caucus, might have felt compelled to offer more forthrightness and less obfuscation.
There is little doubt that Chong’s bill could empower single-issue factions to pursue their pet cause, at the risk of profoundly dividing their party. It might provide another vehicle to advance the frustrated ambitions of talent-challenged MPs.
But the bill would keep in place some pretty fundamental safeguards against abuses — including the capacity by a majority in caucus to turf out MPs who systematically seek to undermine party unity for their own purposes.
MPs ultimately sink or swim based on their party’s buoyancy in public opinion and no reform bill will change that reality. Rocking the boat through serial leadership challenges and/or removals could only bring about a political shipwreck.
A word in closing: Chong’s bill would not take effect until after the 2015 election. As such, it is not a direct challenge to Harper’s leadership but the impetus for it can be traced back to a growing deficit between this prime minister’s moral authority and the heavy-handed control he seeks to exert on his government and on Parliament.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.