50 yards from Parliament Hill

I almost never disagree with Chris Selley. Indeed, I am almost willing to make it a rule not to disagree with Chris Selley. But his analysis yesterday of Brad Trost’s groping for more backbencher power in Parliament is uncharacteristically superficial. Selley celebrates Trost’s public ruminating over his inability to spurn the party whip on polarizing issues; wouldn’t it be nice, he asks, if we had a Conservative Party more like the eclectic, dissent-tolerating one in old Westminster? Perhaps it would be. But there is an awkward plain fact staring us in the face.

The leader of the Conservative Party (UK) is chosen by his caucus. The caucus of the Conservative Party of Canada is chosen by the leader, who is chosen by the party membership as a whole. Our Conservative leader, at least, has the power to eject Conservatives from caucus and to refuse them party nominations. His popularly elected status makes him answerable to hoi polloi, and not to the parliamentary party he leads. The caucus cannot oust him unless it is sure of having the people behind it. If you dislike the decline of Parliament and the ever-accumulating power of party leaders, the Original Sin was committed by the Liberals at their convention in 1919, and imitated since by everybody else. That was the fatal decision, historian Christopher Moore has written, that made Canada “unique among parliamentary democracies in the steps it took to reduce the ability of backbenchers to influence their leaders.”

Selley, at least, is not hypocritical about this: others, I suppose, could be found guilty of bewailing the impotence of the backbench while also advocating for more party proportionality in the House of Commons. A backbench MP’s hypothetical moral authority comes from being the representative of the will of a particular small, geographically defined group of citizens. If you believe in proportional representation, you believe the proper source of an MP’s authority lies in being a counter or a chip—an advocate and symbol, in the assembly, of the national agenda of a national party. These conflicting accounts are irreconcilable. Pressed to the logical ultimate, you must either believe that Brad Trost has the right and duty to speak for Saskatoon-Humboldt, which sent him to the people’s House, or you believe that he is there to vote for Conservative measures, and if the Conservative Party should decide to nuke Humboldt, that’d just be too damn bad.

(The New Democratic Party, I should note, operates on the latter premise, so it’s not clear why someone like Nathan Cullen, a keen NDP advocate of proportional representation, should be cheering Trost on—except on the premise of sowing confusion among one’s enemies.)

In one way, obviously, I find Brad Trost bizarrely unrealistic about the fundamental conditions that have resulted in his impotence. He talks a lot about the supposed consequences of his occasional outbursts on abortion, but is unclear about exactly what these might be. Has Stephen Harper egged his front porch from the back seat of an RCMP cruiser? The “consequences” seem to boil down to Trost not being considered inside-track cabinet material—a position, I suppose, to which he assumes his talents would otherwise certainly entitle him. There are other pro-lifers in caucus who understand that the “party discipline” Trost loathes so much has been essential to Conservative progress in socially liberal Southern Ontario, and therefore to victory. You sure won’t hear Jason Kenney, who is 52% more Catholic than Benedict XVI, complaining about it.

Indeed, when I check the Elections Canada reports and see Trost’s campaign receiving a $10,000 transfer from the national party three days before the last election, I wonder that Trost himself complains about it. He could always choose to run as an independent, as so many courageous Canadians (55 in 2011) risk their deposits doing. The kind of fundraising, mobilizing, and publicizing power Trost enjoys as a Conservative candidate is another consequence of “party discipline”. Diddums wants to eat his cake and have it too.

But I’m not totally immune to Trost’s posturing as the Goddess of Democracy in Drag. A quote he gave to the Star suggests some measure of late-arriving self-awareness: “After almost eight years of this place, I realize that I actually have more flexibility than I first thought. I just need to take it.” A good start down that road would probably involve doing something other than constantly bellyaching about Planned Parenthood. If Trost is a principled believer in backbench power, he could work toward that goal, instead of grinding a personal axe most of us would like left in the shed. Practically speaking, he can’t be both the great democrat and the tribune of the foetus. It should be one or the other.

Those enviable British Tories have something called the 1922 Committee, a body of Conservative backbenchers in which ministers aren’t allowed to vote. Until quite recently, they weren’t even allowed to attend except under special circumstances. Even today, with its prestige and authority diminished, the 1922 Committee has the power to vote no-confidence in the Conservative leader, and sometimes cheekily gives a platform to possible successors. The Prime Minister won’t consider devolving real, functional power onto a Canadian answer to the 1922 Committee, but what if those eligible for such a body just decided to meet anyway, and occasionally, dare I suggest it, have recorded votes on things? Do backbenchers actually want an alternative power base or not?

50 yards from Parliament Hill

  1. Where did you get the nonsense on proportional representation meaning that an MP only represents his party and not his constituents?  Learn up on the proportional representation advocated for Canada–that contained in the Law Commission report, to understand it is a mixed member system, whereby the bulk of MPs are elected in ridings just as they are now, and even the ones who aren’t are beholden to the electorate since they are chosen from an OPEN list.

    Not that PR by itself would solve this problem of the powerless back-bencher, and I personally like the idea of the caucus choosing the leader, although I see a great deal of trouble selling that idea (taking the power away from the political party membership, I mean).  But since I like the idea, under PR, of parliament as a whole choosing the Prime Minister, I imagine that would be a necessary first step to get there.

    • A Frankenstein monster that sews together some MPs with one source or grounding of legitimacy and some with the other doesn’t really change the fact that the sources themselves are irreconcilable. “Proportionality” would be violated in the new system to the precise degree that the constituency members vote their consciences. A PARTICULAR member can be a counter, or he can be the spokesman of a community. Not both.

      • Rubbish.  Proportionality has never pretended to equal direct democracy, which is what you seem to be implying.  In other words, that MP voting his/her conscience is what the proportionate amount of the people elected.  Further rubbish in that an MP can’t ever vote their conscience while still acting as a ‘counter’ as you call it for their party.  After all, if they didn’t like the bulk of what their party was advocating, why would they be an MP for that party?

        And if MMP equates to a Frankenstein monster, just exactly what would you call the current system as it has devolved?  Because that seems a lot scarier to me.

        • By the standard you propose, we already have “proportionate representation”. (We all got to vote for an MP, didn’t we?) I’m not sure you understand what this phrase means.

          • Wow, you don’t know the very first thing about PR.  No, we all only got to vote for an MP candidate.  See the difference?

          • No system can promise that your candidate will always win. You seem to have a problem telling the difference between “vote for an MP” and “choose an MP”. And it’s not “rubbish” to say that if someone elected on a party list is spoiling proportionality if he then departs from his party on an issue; it’s simple logic.

          • @colbycosh:disqus True, no system can promise that your candidate will always win.  But PR has a far, far better chance of ensuring that your candidate will at least win once.  And for many Canadians, they have never, ever voted for a winning candidate, in spite of voting every chance they had.  Leading a great many to try voting AGAINST someone, instead of for someone.  And it is rubbish if the party list is an open one, because then you are voting for a person, not your aptly used ‘counter’.

    • The deal has to be that in exchange for letting caucus select the leader, the local riding associations get to nominate their candidates without vetoes or parachutes from the party. I think it is a reasonable deal.

      • In fact there couldn’t be a mechanism for the leader to veto since at that point there wouldn’t be a leader!  Might make it hard to run an election campaign, though.

  2. I have a small point of contention.  Brad Trost received $10,000 from the National campaign office.  However I would be willing to bet that the people of his riding actually sent the national campaign office far more than $10,000.

    • Then my advice to him would be to cut out the middleman. That’s usually good business.

      • And it would solve the “in and out” problem as well, wouldn’t it.

  3. This post started off brilliantly, but as the kryptonite of “papism” gradually broke down the author it approached near-Mallick levels of (something less than brilliance).  Hate blinds.

    I would add that the Conservative party is the only party which in its constitution and practice does not take a position on (perhaps a narrow definition of) “moral” issues, and that MPs are free to vote however they wish on abortion or capital punishment or transgendered “rights”.  NDP and Liberals get booted from caucus or receive lesser punishments for not toeing the party line.  The Conservatives are the only caucus which may vote according to conscience.  
     

    • Keeps the SoCons happy, in line.

    • ‘Vote according to conscience’ is another meaningless phrase.

      It can only work if everyone has the same ‘conscience’…..which of course….they don’t.

      • That’s why in practice, “vote according to your conscience” is only ever applied and demanded on issues considered either moral or invasive in the realm of social policy. Though I’m sure we can find some notable exceptions (perhaps constitutional matters), they are more likely to be those that prove the rule than disprove it.

        • It’s just your mind, and how you think about things….the same way you decide on everything else.

    • In practice liberal  backbench MPs can vote their conscience on moral issues, but not cab mins on government-sponsored legislation, be they on moral issues or government policy (cabinet solidarity).   For example, a lib minister stepped down from cabinet and rose from his seat on the liberal side to vote against the government legislation on same sex marriage.  Five liberals in the backbench voted against that legislation.

      When it gets to policy, it’s different between cons and libs.  On Quebec as a nation, a con minister stepped down from cabinet to oppose the policy but he had to abstain from voting; he would have been thrown out of caucus had he risen to vote against government policy.     

      Someone close to me, the late Jean-Robert Gauthier, a liberal, rose to vote against the patriation of the constitution.  Gauthier remained in the liberal caucus and was eventually named to the Senate.  I should add that Senateur Gauthier gave a rather rough time to Pierre Trudeau, a private citizen who appeared before the senate committee studying the Meech Lake accord.

      Ignatieff did impose party line on the gun registry, pure folly, IMO.

      For both parties however I think that an MP would be thrown out of caucus for voting against their government’s budget or openly opposing the party leader.

  4. Regarding the 1922 committee, let’s not forget that the UK has very different rules concerning political party advertising; last time I checked, television ads were totally banned, during and between campaigns.  In the end, it’s all about the money.

  5. “tribune of the foetus” = gold

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