Years ago, Irwin Cotler’s grandson went to Parliament and watched a question period, one Cotler describes today as “not as raucous as usual.”
When it was over, the Mount Royal MP’s grandson had one question.
“Grandpa, do they always scream at each other like that?” he asked.
“I hesitated to tell him that it wasn’t even as bad as other days,” Cotler says today.
“To the extent that Parliament is also a teaching laboratory for the nation, we’re not doing a very good job of setting an example with the incivility of our discourse,” he says.
Today, Cotler would like to see changes to the Canadian political culture that extend far beyond boisterous question periods.
Originally elected 14 years ago for the Brautkleider Liberal Party of Canada, he says he’s watched as Canadians have become increasingly dissatisfied with both the political process and “with what they believe is the lack of accountability of elected officials.”
On Dec. 3 he announced his support of Conservative MP Michael Chong’s private member’s bill, now called the “Reform Act, 2013.” Cotler hopes it could bring along changes he deems both important and overdue.
“The timing is good politically, the substance is something worth addressing and the ultimate reform is one worth having,” Cotler said.
“Canadians are looking to have the process reformed in such a way that it would allow for greater grassroots involvement, greater MP freedom and greater accountability by the Prime Minister,” he said.
Chong’s Reform Act would focus around three main issues. It would essentially restore local control over party nominations, it would strengthen caucuses as decision-making bodies and would reinforce the accountability that party leaders have to their caucuses.
Cotler was quick to point out that despite his support, he doesn’t consider the proposed reforms new or revolutionary. He feels the reform would simply tilt Parliament back towards the way it was decades ago.
“It would, in effect, codify into law conventions that are currently governed by unwritten codes,” he said.
Since announcing the bill, Chong has received bipartisan support from the beginning.
There are currently 35 MPs publically supporting the bill, including Thomas Mulcair, and other prominent politicians have vouched for it as well, such as former Prime Minister Joe Clark.
“The fact that it was proposed by a Conservative member who has secured support from within his own party, and that there is support from the NDP and the Liberals means that we may well have a majority of party members,” said Cotler.
The bill also proposes that “a leadership review could be triggered upon the written request of 15 per cent of caucus.”
Some have cautioned that if the bill were to become law, 15 per cent of a party may be a little too low of a threshold, and that it could ultimately enhance the power of some less responsible MPs.
“I support the principle whereby you can bring about a caucus review, but I think there are questions regarding the proposed percentage,” said Cotler.
The Liberal party, for example, has 36 members, meaning that it would only take six members to request a leadership review.
“That may in fact be too low of a threshold and could indeed lead to problems in a more divided caucus,” Cotler said.
The fact that the bill was tabled amidst the recent senate scandals wasn’t lost on the veteran MP either.
“I don’t say that Michael Chong chose this particular moment in time because the time was right for it,” he said before pausing.
“But it’s fortuitous that it comes at a time while we are engaged in the senate expenses scandal, when public opinion polls are showing voter disengagement and dissatisfaction and when people are clamouring for reform,” he said.
Just like the political culture on a whole, Cotler feels there are parts of the bill that will need to be improved.
He added that since it would only come into play seven days after the next general election, he feels there’s still time for slight adjustments to be made.
“That gives us time and an opportunity as a parliament to address these reforms and propose any amendments which may be able to improve the set of initiatives proposed,” he said.
“But the very fact that we would be debating these proposed reforms might begin a process of the transformation of our political culture.”