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CHRIS SELLEY: The Reform Act is back, and ready for more abuse, thanks to SNC-Lavalin affair

MP Michael Chong in the House of Commons in 2014. His efforts to empower MPs may not just have been useless, but harmful.
MP Michael Chong in the House of Commons in 2014. His efforts to empower MPs may not just have been useless, but harmful. - Wikimedia Commons

It’s good to see this whole beastly SNC-Lavalin business hasn’t broken Jane Philpott’s spirit — her commitment to doing politics differently, shall we say. In the House of Commons on Tuesday, she dusted off an obscure old piece of legislation called the Parliament of Canada Act, pointed to paragraph 49, and suggested Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau had improperly jettisoned her from caucus.

The offence, she argued, actually occurred on Nov. 5, 2015, at the Liberals’ first post-election caucus meeting. At such a meeting, paragraph 49.8 (1) of the act requires each party with 12 or more MPs to hold four votes on whether to have various rules outlined in previous paragraphs apply to their caucuses. This was the result of Conservative MP Michael Chong’s Reform Act, which received Royal Assent in June 2015. The votes have to be recorded, and the results reported to the Speaker.

The relevant rule here is in paragraph 49.2: “A member of caucus may only be expelled from it if the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 20 per cent of the members of the caucus requesting that the member’s membership be reviewed, and the expulsion of the member is approved by secret ballot by a majority of all caucus members.”

Trudeau last week made it clear it was his decision, not caucus’s.

It was reported back in 2015 that both the NDP and Liberal caucuses had simply declined to hold the votes. “Rather than vote yes or no to each of the four provisions, Liberal MPs voted during their first caucus meeting … to send the issue to the party’s biannual convention in Winnipeg next year,” the Ottawa Citizen reported. “NDP MPs had also voted … to defer the issue to a future caucus meeting.”

This quite flagrant violation of a brand-new law that passed 260-17, with both Trudeau and then NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair voting in favour, struck some of us less world-weary types as rather egregious. But it was all soon forgotten in the giddy maelstrom of second-wave Trudeaumania. Stephen Harper was gone, and all was well again. “When we talk about the Reform Act, we’re actually talking about the Conservative Reform Act,” explained NDP House Leader Peter Julian, who must have voted for it by accident. And what need had Liberals of rules empowering caucus when their leader, the world’s most enlightened man, had promised to do so as a matter of principle?

It looked to be the final humiliation for Chong’s legislation. The watered-down version that finally passed was a timid nod to the traditional Westminster principles that underpinned it — principles grounded in a time when caucus elected their leader rather than lived in mortal fear of his caprices. Two of three parties in the House just went ahead and ignored it, and admitted ignoring it, and it was clear nobody cared.

But the Reform Act popped back up Monday, ready for more abuse, and luckily people are paying attention this time. Geoff Regan, Speaker of the House of Commons, ruled on a question of privilege raised by Chong with respect to the Reform Act provisions and Celina Caesar-Chavanne’s recent departure from the Liberal caucus. Regan found that she had resigned voluntarily, and thus the point was moot; but that in any event it wasn’t his job to rule on expulsions from party caucuses or interpret the Reform Act’s provisions. No one imagines the courts getting involved. It might be an even deader letter than we realized.

On Tuesday, Liberal MP John McKay seemed to try to change the story from 2015, arguing caucus did actually hold the four votes. But when asked if the votes were recorded — as they are required to be — he didn’t seem to know his lines. “Nothing like that ever happens in caucus,” he said, as if bemused by the very idea.

Ah, well, it’s only the law.

The Reform Act’s fatal flaw was always crystal clear. It sought to empower via legislation MPs who had emasculated themselves voluntarily. If MPs want the power they used to have, they can just take it back — not from Parliament, but from their leaders and their parties. If the new rules had any teeth at all, their leaders would not have let them be passed.

It wasn’t cynical to point this out over and over again; it was naïve to argue over and over again that it could possibly end up any other way. One of the main lessons from the SNC-Lavalin meltdown is that rules cannot save Canadian politics from ethical messes like these. Sometimes they can even make things worse: Where “no laws were broken” was a Liberal battle cry in the face of Jody Wilson-Raybould’s allegations, “there is no recourse to punish violations of the Reform Act” became a partisan Liberal defence on Tuesday. Philpott’s and Wilson-Raybould’s expulsion from cabinet on their namby-pamby points of principle have galvanized those left behind in support of dear leader.

It’s all well and good to suggest voters should demand better behaviour — ethical, proper behaviour, not just not illegal. But until partisans demand it from their parties and their leaders, it won’t even be on offer. I wouldn’t wait up.

• Email: cselley@nationalpost.com | Twitter:

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