Parliamentary Two-Step

Much has been said about the loss of civility in Parliament, the increased rancour and hyper-partisanship, the decline of collegiality, and the apparent lack of will among birds of all feathers to work together for the common good.

Much has been said of the diminished roles and silenced voices of individual MPs, and the decay of parliamentary democracy, as more power coalesces in the leaderships of their respective parties.

Last spring famously saw the spectacle of the Hon. David Wilks (MP, Kootenay — Columbia), in a private conversation made public, bemoaning the omnibus-budget-bill-of-the-day, and that, while he strongly disagreed with it, he couldn’t do anything about it.

Back in Ottawa and a trip to the woodshed later we saw him return a new man, a compliant and contrite man, a Party man, once again dutifully marching in step, ruing now how, unfortunately, his remarks had been so misunderstood.

Time and again in all parties we see the odd recalcitrant MP rear up and grumble in public, followed by that same trip to the woodshed, and that same cowed, sheepish, return to the fold.

Thus, we get the parliamentary two-step, where MPs complain that while they, personally, might profoundly disagree on some particular matter, their party higher-ups say otherwise, so, really (shrug), what can they do?

In a discussion of the predicament of the unfortunate Mr Wilks, I remarked that if he really felt the omnibus-bill was as wrong as he said in private, he should have stuck to his guns in public. There would be an MP worth his salt! I was speaking with a member of my own party, a former candidate, as I am, who responded that: Well he had to do that… He has to do what his Leader says… People voted for the Leader, and… If he doesn’t follow-along, his nomination papers won’t get signed next time!… So he really had no choice!

Alas! Party speak! People do cast their votes for many reasons, of course, and the given leader, party, and platform, do factor into this decision. Indeed, we all run election campaigns on that basis.

But, at the end of the day, it is the given MP whose name is on the writ of election and on that paycheque from the people of Canada.  MPs are not hired, they are not paid, to promote their parties or their own careers ahead of the best interests of their constituents.

It’s nice when these all align, but when they don’t, the responsibility is clear: on election day we carry our party banners so that voters will know who we are and where we stand, so that they then will have a sense of the battles we will engage, and the hills upon which we are prepared to die; but, once elected, we are supposed, first and foremost, to work for and be accountable to them, the voters.

Having said that, it must be emphasized that parties do have their proper place, and in that place they are well worthwhile;  we are stronger together, working with like-minded people to achieve common goals. Parties are about teamwork, which is crucial in magnifying the power of one into the power of many, for organizing and mobilizing resources, and being more than the sums of their parts. In this respect it is important to play with the team, and to absorb minor differences in so doing, otherwise there is no team, no party.

Party discipline channels this power and places it in the hands of the leader to wield. So MPs are subjected to great pressure to march in step and toe the party line, to grind-down the other guys, to yield no ground, ever, and take no prisoners. And, when of the governing party, to support the government absolutely, and in any case their own leadership — at risk of being shunned, excluded from caucus, or of having their hopes for a cabinet position or critic role or committee appointment dashed, or their leader’s signature withheld from their nomination papers — all to empower the team.

But the team perspective has its limits, and MPs must recognize those limits, each for their own selves.  They must not forget that, at the core, parties are but a mechanism of power created to achieve certain ends, beyond which they have no moral imperative in and of themselves. When those purposes are lost and the party becomes only about power or the people who wield it, when the tool becomes the point — there’s no further point to it.

Ultimately, parliamentary decorum, the effectiveness of the House, and even the quality of the government itself rest, not on the press or the public, not on the parties, their whips, or their leaders (though they all play a part), but on the individual MPs. For MPs are the very foundation of democracy within parliament itself. It is a big responsibility, to be sure, and I am not deceived that it is an easy one, but, again, it is their names on the writs, and on those paycheques, and it is they, individually, who are responsible for what they themselves do and say, and what they allow to be done in their names.

The current government’s chronic misbehaviour, for example, thrives on the unquestioning and continued support of their rank and file caucus. Their abuses of process, their lack of transparency and accountability, their smug disregard for the Constitution and of their democratic obligations, their belligerent campaign of misinformation and flagrant misuse of public funds in partisan promotion, their contempt for parliament itself — cannot prevail if their bench does not support them in this.

A majority government, particularly when backed by a majority in the Senate, is constrained only by their own good sense, and their own caucus. (And, to some degree, the courts.) It is here where the courage and good sense of the rank and file to draw the line and hold it, even against the pressures their own colleagues bring to bear, is critical. It needs only a few such stalwart souls to keep the government honest and above-board.

It is unrealistic, of course, honour and integrity aside, to expect or even ask a majority to defeat themselves. But, once its members recognize that they themselves are individually responsible, that they in fact hold the balance of power, and that it is truly up to them to limit the excesses of that power, it shouldn’t need to come to that.

But they cannot, in any case, blame “the system.” They cannot blame their party, their whips, or their leader, while they themselves lend their own power to the purpose, and fail to act within their own mandate. They cannot complain that they have no voice, when they themselves choose not to speak.

Such responsibility is not limited to the government benches; it applies to all MPs. Yes, by all means, let them play with the team, as long and as well as they can; but it nevertheless remains up to each of them, individually, how they behave, what they say, and how they vote — regardless of peer pressure, regardless of the team, regardless of the party. This is what we teach our children. We should expect no less from our MPs.

Asserting themselves in this way could indeed be a career-ender. That is true, and that is regrettable. But that’s the job.

We need people who are prepared to stand-up and do what’s right, despite the risks, despite the jeers and name-calling, despite the playground bullying. It is only those who are willing and able to do so to whom we should lend our support, and in whom we should entrust our democracy.

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