Reasonable reform needed to establish MP independence

Back in 2006, the Conservative government passed a motion in the House of Commons declaring the province of Quebec to be “a nation within a united Canada.” The Conservatives received support from nearly all of their caucus. There was one notable exception — former cabinet minister Michael Chong.

More recently, disgraced former Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Bernier has been branding himself as the “libertarian” within the Conservative caucus — doing so most explicitly by rejecting the so-called “stimulus spending” and calling for drastic cuts to the size of government both at the federal level and in his home province of Quebec.

Are these two individuals simply aberrations in an otherwise strict system of party discipline in our country? Or are they the messiahs of political independence in our country who will influence a huge wave of “rogue” politicians to come after them?

I do not subscribe to either of these statements. However, I do think that these two examples are significant. How do we improve the concept of party discipline in this country to allow more independence of our elected representatives?

Party discipline is a fundamental part of the effectiveness and usefulness of political parties. It gives us clear choices and reduces ambiguities, which is very important for any political system that prides itself on the principle of accountability.

The United States Congress is a good example of a system of low party discipline, while in Canada party discipline is widely seen as one of the strictest in the Western world. In my mind, it’s important that we need to find a happy median between these two examples.

In conjunction with the archaic political financing rules in the U.S., the low level of party discipline leaves politicians vulnerable to the whims of special interests. This raises the question — are they really independent at all? They have a lot of independence from their party, but unless they can personally finance their own campaigns (which very few people can do), independence from special interests is difficult to achieve. Loyalty ultimately should be with the constituents, not the special interest groups.

This is not to say special interests are evil, but leverage should lie with the elected representative. This means that the interest group should have to convince that what they are calling for is important to the representative’s constituents and not simply important for their campaign war chest. Low party discipline also blurs the line of accountability as voters have difficulty determining who is responsible for what action. For example, if the Democrats have several people voting one way and many others voting the other on Obama’s now failed cap-and-trade initiative to curb global warming.

In Canada, the degree of our party discipline is largely the result of two related factors: large cabinets and a relatively small legislature. Add in the fact that the governing party never chooses an MP from an opposition party to be a cabinet minister and one gets a situation like we have in our current Parliament — approximately one quarter of the entire Conservative caucus is in cabinet. This was a similar proportion with the previous Liberal minority government and slightly less than the previous Liberal majority governments (only because there are more Liberal MPs in a majority government).

Since government MPs have such a high chance of getting into cabinet, they do not want to risk alienating themselves from the direction of the government (in other words, the Prime Minister). This is equally the case in the official opposition — the members of the caucus do not want to alienate themselves from the leader of the opposition, because that hurts their chances of getting into cabinet if they become government after the next election.

This situation makes us question the MP’s loyalty — is he or she to be loyal to the party or constituent first? In the current situation, it appears to be the former.
What can we do to improve the level of party discipline in Canada without exposing our elected representatives too much to the whims of special interests?

Firstly, we can look at reducing the size of our cabinet, while concurrently increasing the number of MPs in the House of Commons. This will lower the chances of getting into cabinet and allow MPs more freedom to make decisions themselves as the chance of getting into cabinet would be really remote. This is evident in the mother of the parliamentary system in Westminster (Britain).

Secondly, we can institute a convention of three-tiered voting. Votes should be classified one of three ways: money bills or confidence votes (which require full party discipline since the survival of the government depends on passage), bills deemed critical to the government’s agenda (whipped cabinet vote, but free for backbenchers to break ranks) and lastly votes on private members’ bills and matters of conscience (which are completely free). This was a concept that was pioneered by Paul Martin, but fell to the wayside in the midst of minority government pressures.

Lastly, pressure needs to be put on the media to end political analysis that asserts that any sort of independence is a sign of leadership weaknesses. This trend only makes party leadership assert more party discipline to ensure they are not embarrassed in the eyes of the public. Although the media tends to blow things out of proportion, MPs that take actions independent from their party with party discipline as strict as it is at the moment, are usually doing so because they are truly at odds with the party leadership. There needs to be an attitudinal shift for MPs and the media on how independent votes are perceived.

It is great to see some bit of independence asserted by our elected representatives. The rarity of this independence certainly highlights the fact that party discipline is too strict in this country. However, when reforming any system, we must be cognizant of the law of unintended consequences.

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