On Thursday night, Wellington—Halton Hills Member of Parliament and Conservative Party leadership candidate Michael Chong took time off of the campaign trail to give a talk on the state of Canadian democracy at UTSG’s George Ignatieff Theatre.
The event was hosted by the U of T Department of Political Science, University of Toronto Model Parliament, and Samara Canada, a non-profit advocacy group; it was sponsored by Canada 150.
In his speech, Chong criticized the ruling Liberal Party for not making good on its promise of electoral and parliamentary reform, citing the February decision of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stop pursuing these changes. Chong also conceded that it was a difficult decision, as other parties and governments, his own included, had tried and failed at passing significant legislation concerning democratic reform.
Chong spoke of the problem of the concentration of power, especially in the Prime Minister’s Office, and how it was “antithetical” to the system of checks and balances in Canadian politics. He cited a wave of controversial events such as the British vote to leave the European Union and the election of populist leaders in Europe and argued that if people feel that their views are not being taken into consideration, they rebel.
In order to counter this concentration of powers, Chong laid out three proposals for reform. The first reform would be to make party membership free and more regulated by Elections Canada, the independent agency tasked with organizing federal elections. Chong argued that making party membership gratis would allow more people to join and have a say in the political process.
He also contended that, since taxpayers partially fund political parties, regulation by Elections Canada is essential to ensure more transparency in party expenditures.
His second proposal was to remove the Prime Minister’s power over the Senate. He asserts that the Executive branch of government should be accountable to the Legislative branch, not the other way around.
Chong further proposed to remove the right of the Prime Minister to appoint the speaker of the Senate and instead make the senators choose the speaker via secret ballot. He also advocated eliminating the Prime Minister’s right to appoint the government leader in the Senate, a powerful position that assigns committee memberships.
Chong’s third recommendation was to make the government more accountable to the House of Commons by removing many of the Prime Minister’s powers over the chamber. He proposed to withdraw the authority of party leaders to decide who asks and answers questions during Question Period, as well as to lift their control of committee chairmanships and memberships. Chong argued that the bulk of parliamentary activity is done through these committees, but because of the threat of removal, few undertakings take place.
To solve this, he proposed that MPs directly elect committee memberships via secret ballot.
Following Chong’s speech, Jane Hilderman, Executive Director of Samara Canada, lectured on the state of Canadian democracy, asserting that turnout is on the rise in federal elections, especially among youth.
She spoke on her organization’s initiative, MP Exit Interviews, which aims to interview outgoing MPs about electoral reforms and what Canada can do.
After both speeches, the panel was opened to questions, with UTSC political science professor Chris Cochrane asking about threats to Canadian democracy.
Chong contended that the concentration of power within the Prime Minister’s Office and the encroachment of populism in Canada are severe threats. Hilderman, on the other hand, asserted that the lack of citizen participation in the political process is more concerning, especially as it pertains to the priority setting of political parties.