Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Victims of Ambitions, Our Powerless MPs

With Samara’s ongoing report in regards to whether or not Parliament is reactive to the desires of Canadians we are left with a bigger question of who do the Members of Parliament truly serve? Most politicians probably fit in a category of honour most citizens would not put them in. They are dedicated public servants who strive to help their constituents and represent their communities. And then the parties step in.

As was reported in The Globe and Mail this week Canada, compared to all other democracies, has the strictest party control. When contrasted to the United States, or Great Britain, or Australia, or European democracies our MPs are less likely to break rank with their party leadership.


There are often-cited top-down control mechanisms. Party leaders dish out the positions of influence and prominence. When a party is in government the Prime Minister/Premier builds the cabinet with his/her advisors. As happened yesterday in Ontario, our new Premier Kathleen Wynne (OLP – Don Valley West) presented her new cabinet. MPPs who supported her bid were rewarded with prominent posts in cabinet, MPPs who backed rival candidates were knocked out of cabinet or demoted.

Leaders also have a type of “nuclear option”. To have a party’s name beside a candidate they much have their nomination papers signed by the leader of the party. Withholding of this signature prevents the candidate from holding the party’s nomination, regardless of what the riding association or local members may want. In essence this removes the member from the next parliament, unless they successfully run as an independent. Leaders can also remove recalcitrant members from caucus or discipline them in other fashions.

What party leaders cannot do is stop an MP from doing his/her job, yet they so often succeed.

Compared to other legislative bodies the House of Commons has a very large cabinet. In Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government there are 38 cabinet ministers. Then there are the 28 parliamentary secretaries which work under the cabinet ministers. Add in the positions within the party and important chairmanships and a shocking number of the Conservative MPs owe their position to the Prime Minister’s Office. Of the 165 Conservative MPs 40% are in cabinet or parliamentary secretaries. That means for a Conservative backbencher there is about a 50/50 chance that they could find themselves in cabinet one day. These numbers are misleading though. Eric Grénier from 308 analysed the chances for backbenchers to accede to cabinet. There are 35 MPs in the Conservative backbench who have never been in cabinet and were elected in 2006 or earlier. According to Grénier these backbenchers should give up hope of ever finding their way into the inner circle. The odds aren’t 50/50, unless a change in leadership or some other dramatic shift occurs.

This isn’t just a federal issue. In Ontario there are more cabinet ministers in the Wynne government than there are backbench MPPs. Liberal MPPs therefore have a great deal of incentive, theoretically, to maintain strict discipline and make nice with the Premier if/when a member of the cabinet falls on hard times or retires.

I sincerely doubt many MPs arrive on Parliament Hill, or MPPs to Queen’s Park without some ambition. It is this weakness that cripples our parliamentary institutions. Our representatives surrender their independence, and perhaps their principles, all in an effort to carry favour with the leadership. This is a rarer problem in places such as the United Kingdom. In the UK there are currently 303 Conservative MPs and only 23 cabinet posts. The result? Instead of 40% in cabinet there, at most, can be about 7%. Most MPs know they’ll never be in cabinet and so instead dedicate themselves to their role as MPs. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the coalition with the Liberal-Democrats, which means some of the posts are held by members of another party.

Let there be no doubt, this is not only a government problem. Opposition shadow cabinets and critic portfolios suffer exactly the same weaknesses. The parliamentarians on the other side of the house dream of when instead of being Education Critic they can become Education Minister.

This system of control only works if parliamentarians agree to play. A successful MP or MPP need not sit in cabinet or government to serve his/her constituents well. I believe our politicians need to be reminded of that.

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