My Way or the Highway

3 minute read

Over the past two weeks, the size of the “independent caucus” in the House of Commons has nearly doubled. With very few exceptions, such as the case of Jody Wilson-Raybould, Members of Parliament are rarely elected by their constituents to sit as Independents. Rather, independence is usually granted to an MP fallen from grace with the party under which they were elected. Given the number of such incidences we’ve seen of late, here’s a 101 on the process through which an MP can find themselves on the outside, looking in.

An MP can be removed from their caucus for a variety of reasons. In one of the most recent examples, an MP was removed from their elected caucus due to a pattern of destructive behaviour that had become a distraction. This included accepting fundraising money from a known white nationalist, accusations of racism, and concerning views on LGBTQ rights. Others have been removed from their caucuses for internal conflicts. The general principle is that if an MP egregiously steps out of line with their party or breaks with party discipline, then they will likely be removed from caucus. But, who gets to decide to remove them? 

The process has gotten more complex due to The Reform Act, a private member’s bill that was introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong in 2014 and subsequently passed into law. The goal of the act was to rebalance the relationship between individual MPs and their parties. The legislation defined the process for caucuses to decide when and how to:

  • Expel and readmit a caucus member;
  • Elect and remove the caucus chair;
  • Review and remove the party leader by caucus; and,
  • Elect an interim leader in the event the leader suddenly dies, becomes incapacitated, suddenly resigns or is otherwise removed.

The Act states that if a majority of caucus votes to adopt a particular rule at the beginning of a new parliament, then the rule is in force until the next general election. If a majority votes “no” to a rule, then the power would revert back to the leader and leader’s office. The bill was passed in the House of Commons in the early months of 2015 with overwhelming cross-party support.

Once the House of Commons reconvened following the 2015 election, only the Conservative caucus held the required vote. The NDP delayed the vote until 2016, and the Liberals ignored the Act. Following the NDP vote, their members decided to vote against all four questions where the Liberals simply didn’t vote. It’s worth noting that 88% of New Democrats and 83% of Liberals had voted to pass The Reform Act into law a few months earlier.

Source: The Samara Centre for Democracy

Following the 2019 election, all major political parties, with the exception of the Bloc Québécois, held the required vote. In similar results to 2015, only the Conservative caucus voted in favour of all four questions. The NDP again voted against all four measures and the results of the Liberal caucus are unknown because Caucus Chair Francis Scarpaleggia insisted on keeping the results internal.

In theory, The Reform Act provides MPs with the ability to govern themselves instead of those in the PMO or leader’s offices having all the power. When Michael Chong introduced the bill, it was to shift politics away from the idea that it’s all about the leader and to empower individual MPs. In practice, however, power remains very centralized.

In late January, the Conservative caucus put the spirit of the Act into practice by holding a vote and allowing their MPs to decide the fate of their now-former colleague Derek Sloan. The outcome was the same as it would have been without the vote. But the vote proved a useful check and balance on the leader’s power and gave important validation to the decision. The other parties would do well to heed the lessons of the Conservatives’ recent experience and take a closer look at adopting the Reform Act’s mechanisms following the next election.

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