Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An Independence Streak

David Wilks last week transformed from a entirely unknown backbencher in the Conservative caucus to one of the best-known Conservative MPs in Canada. Mr. Wilks (CPC – Kootenay-Columbia, BC) committed one of the most familiar errors in democratic politics – he was caught telling the truth. During a meeting with constituents on the omnibudget bill expressed concerns he shared with his constituents. In the YouTube video linked above Mr. Wilks admits (confides?)  that he and other MPs have major reservations about the Harper budget.

Wilks offers startling, and frank insight into how the Conservative caucus, the House of Commons and Canadian politics works. He states bluntly to his voters that he has no power as an individual. While he has major reservations and problems with the legislation unless thirteen other CPC MPs object with him, nothing will happen. So, if a vote against won’t do anything, he might as well vote for and not rock the boat.

Perhaps the most alarming thing Mr. Wilks discusses was that backbencher MPs get 10 minutes a week to raise questions and concerns. I recently spent time with academics, and they fail to ask brief questions/comments, I can only imagine a politician. This is not how the system is designed to work.

To paraphrase V for Vendetta, people shouldn’t be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their MPs. In a Westminster parliamentary system the Prime Minister and cabinet only hold power at the consent of the caucus. Caucus revolts are not unheard of or uncommon in the United Kingdom. Even after vigorous whipping MPs will vote against their government if their constituents, or their principles would not go along with it. Political parties are merely alliances of candidates/MPs, if a leader loses authority or trust over this alliance their government falls.

Canada has strayed from this system. We elect party leaders directly which gives them extra clout. In previous weeks I have discussed the alarming concentration of power in the hands of our Prime Ministers. The toothlessness of the MPs are a key component of this. Aaron Wherry is entirely correct in this piece when he speaks about what David Wilks’comments mean.

I would like to see greater independence amongst Canada’s MPs (and MPPs/MLAs for that matter). They are our representatives. Citizens often have limited power in relation to their governments, but MPs constantly have the ability to influence and shape events. The five political parties in our House of Commons cannot possibly represent the full spectrum of opinion in Canada, marching lockstep behind party leadership only weakens our democracy. Bruce Hyer (IND – Thunder Bay-Superior North, ON) claims to be much happier now that he is free of party discipline.

However, there is a caveat. We probably do not want to see a parliament filled to the brim with independent-minded MPs. The House of Commons may begin to look much more like the United States’ House of Representatives. Congressmen and -women are only moved to vote for legislation if a particular provision of theirs – some pet project, or favour – is supplied. This is how you end up with boondoggle infrastructure projects and ludicrous public policy.

A certain level of party discipline has its place, but the rigid control and silence of dissenting voices helps no one. The saddest part of all is that no one took away MPs’ power, they surrendered it. In order to please the leadership in hopes of future advancement many have neutered themselves. On the positive side to return the system to order they merely have to act. They’ll need pressure though, and the only place that can come from is from voters.

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