Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Parliamentarians and the yoke of party discipline

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Whipped, a documentary on party discipline by former BC legislature reporter Sean Holman. You can now stream the doc on the CPAC web site, and it’s well worth a look.

While it’s focused on Victoria and BC politics, the issues Whipped raises are universal. It looks at what parties do to keep their MLAs towing the party line, what happens to those that break from the pack, how rare such mavericks are, and speaks to former politicians about their experiences with party discipline, and how it impacted their ability to represent their constituents and be satisfied and fulfilled in their jobs.

The arguments for and against party discipline basically boil down to this: for is you run and are elected on a party platform and so need to vote to implement it once elected and the place for argument is the privacy of the caucus room; against is parliamentarians are elected by and answerable to their constituents first and should be able to represent them to the legislature, not represent the legislature to their constituents. Holman avoids directly pronouncing party disciple just or unjust in the doc, although a certain picture does certainly emerge from the interviews.

I believe there needs to be a balance between discipline and freedom. After all, when you agree to run under a party banner, you’re agreeing to a set of principles and policy platform, and are elected on that basis. So it’s not unreasonable to expect that you work to implement that agenda you ran and were elected on. Not everything, though, should be one of those core principles.

While Holman didn’t offer policy prescriptions for reform, one of his fellow panelists, Your Canada Your Constitution’s Duff Conacher, called for systematic and regulatory reforms to reduce the power of party leaders and allow more freedom for parliamentarians. The British system of MPs firing the leader was mentioned.

While I agree with the sentiment, I strongly rejected the need for legislative action in this area. As I said in my comment/question, there’s no law today that says parliamentarians have to do whatever the party leader says, and aren’t free to vote their conscious whenever they choose. If parliamentarians are under the whip, it is because they have willingly submitted to it. And they can just as easily throw off the whip if they choose too – Holman’s doc talked to several who have.

Parliamentarians submit to party discipline willingly, if sometimes grudgingly, because of the carrots and sticks party leaders employ. Toe the line and you can get a critic spot, a nicer office, to go on a cool junket or join your favoured committee. Don’t toe the line and you can find yourself on the outside looking in. At the extreme, the leader might refuse to sign your nomination papers for the next election.

So yes, being a maverick can have a cost. But parliamentarians need to ask themselves, would the freedom be worth the cost? They’re only whipped if they want to be. This isn’t about legislative change to grant parliamentarians freedom – they have the freedom today, if they’re willing to risk the consequences of exercising it. And I suspect they’d find strength – and freedom – in numbers.

While I don’t think legislative reforms are necessary, I do support moves to allow more freedom for parliamentarians. For example, a system of open nominations would make it more difficult for party leaders to hold their nominations over their heads. Parties should restrict whipped votes to matters of confidence and core platform planks. And the media, punditry and politicians should no longer paint a parliamentarian deferring from the official party line as a maverick repudiation of the leadership. Disagreement and debate should be welcomed and celebrated as normal and not worthy of hyperventilation. A big part of the problem here is one of perception – any difference of policy opinion is labelled by press and pundits as disloyalty and weak leadership, so leaders clamp down to prevent any such displays and the resulting bad press. Parliament should be about debate.

I strongly oppose the idea of letting caucus pick the leader. Besides reducing members to nothing but unpaid envelope-stuffing labour, it will not elect a leader representative of the country as a whole. And it’s also unnecessary – yes, caucus can’t technically fire the leader, but if most of caucus withdrew its support the leader wouldn’t be able to lead for long.

I also think a larger issue is one of public perception, or misconception, about the role of the parliamentarian in our political process. Technically, we're electing an individual representative to speak for us and act on our behalf; there may be a party name on the ballot, but we're electing Joe Blow the individual. More and more though, people see the individual and secondary and irrelevant next to the party brand and vote based on the leader. This is because discipline has rendered the individual indistinguishable from their peers, further fueling the argument for discipline because the individual owes their position to the party and leader, not the people. It's a vicious cycle we need to break. It's why I oppose banning floor crossing -- whatever voters base their votes on, they are still electing an individual and not a party, and that individual doesn't cease to represent them if they change parties.

Several times during the debate, party leaders were called to “give” or “allow” more freedom for parliamentarians. It’s not something for leaders to give – parliamentarians have the freedom already. They just need to take it.

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Purple library guy said...

I do think the nominations paper issue might be worth having a law or two about. Why is it that if a riding association chooses person A, the party leader gets to say no? Sometimes party leaders and the central party office seem to actually hijack the process and pick person B instead.
I think it's questionable whether the party leader should have that sort of power over riding-level processes. I don't think it would be out of line to have a law.

Unknown said...

I agreed with Purple library guy. candidate nominations should be in the hands of those who elect them. Otherwise, the candidate owes his future nomination to the leader only and that's too much power in a democracy. I believe the MPs should also be able to remove a leader and require a new leadership election by party members. Leaders are more likely to listen more to the MPs -but in caucus only I do agree.