The House of Automatons -

The House of Automatons

Conservative backbencher Brent Rathgeber goes off message, suggests free votes for all MPs


In a pair of blog posts, Conservative MP and frequent Maverick Watch subject Brent Rathgeber considers the American and Canadian situations and the independence of elected representatives.

It is unfortunate when Members of Parliament are reduced to automatons, dependable and loyal above all else. It is not easy to get elected to the House of Commons (or to win a Nomination for that matter). Everyone there brings unique experience and qualifications. In the CPC Caucus, there are lawyers, surgeons, soldiers, cops, teachers, a dentist, businesspeople and farmers. I suspect the other caucuses are similarly diverse and the members qualified.

The Public Service holds no monopoly over expertise in the policy making process. And the Ottawa mandarins are certainly much more removed from a diverse population than MP’s, who live in their ridings and return there every weekend. Our system would benefit if the experience and qualifications of Members of Parliament were given greater emphasis and if Members paid as much deference to their constituents as they do to their whips.

The Conservative party came to office in 2006 with a platform that included a promise to “make all votes in Parliament, except the budget and main estimates, ‘free votes’ for ordinary Members of Parliament.” The government whip’s office currently doesn’t comment on voting strategies, but suffice it to say, the “free vote” remains an elusive dream. (Granted, if commitments made in 2008 and 2009 are “the past,” a promise made in 2006 should be considered the stuff of ancient history.)

More free votes remains a generally lovely idea, but we could start with something simpler: more MPs demonstrating a willingness and an ability to express themselves somewhat freely.

We should, in the first place, probably assume that if an individual has been able to win election he or she possesses some basic reading skills and so there is little need for MPs to publicly prove their literacy by standing in the House to recite their party’s talking points. Indeed, there is little more depressing about our democracy than the rote recitation of sentences crafted by 20-something and 30-something party apparatchiks that many of the grown men and women we elect are asked to perform on a daily basis as seemingly the central purpose of their existence here. A certain uniformity and consistency of views is to be expected—it may even assist in the general coherence and understanding of what the parties stand for and represent—but the MP’s primary purpose should not be to spread the good word and attest to the gloriousness of their leader. They should not merely be party news releases made flesh and blood.

Mr. Rathgeber’s distinguishing characteristic is that he has a blog, on which he periodically expresses thoughts that do not seem to have been screened by his party leadership. This should not seem a revolutionary initiative.

Indeed, this should be our wish: more indications that our MPs exist as something other than tools of their parties. They needn’t start going rogue and spilling secrets and condemning their leaders. At least not right away. (And it is, it should be noted, possible to both stridently support the party line and act like a human being while doing so.) But a little less of the rote recitation and repetition and a little more of the using one’s own voice to articulate an opinion or thought would certainly go a long way toward making it a little bit easier to watch our politics get made this year. (It could also create the sort of free-speaking culture that would ultimately necessitate more free votes.)


The House of Automatons

  1. Brent Rathgeber needs to search for a few more souls like himself in the Conservative Party and then gain more parliamentary power by leaving the CPC caucus and forming a newer, smaller party based more closely on their ideals. Then, if the group is large enough (which should be checked before they leave the CPC), they could form a Coalition Government with the CPC, elevating some of their caucus members into portfolio positions so they can have a greater say.

    Then these members can vote with their consciences instead of being forced to follow CPC voting, the HoC can better represent its electors via this method, and it would give a breath of fresh air to the stale politics which have infected the Hill.

    Either that or a chunk of caucus needs to leave and become more like the old Progressive Conservative Party where fiduciary responsibility was the core memo and even a dreaded raise in the GST was seen as a way to save the country and not just as a deterrent for future re-election. Like it or hate it, introducing the GST was the single ‘ballsiest’ move ever by a Canadian Government and it helped usher in an era of balanced budgets for around a decade.

    • Now that they have power, they are going to hold it at all costs: I cannot imagine that the right is going to split mere years after finally uniting (and gaining that power that was so elusive for so long). That’s the whole kernel: even the backbench MPs, who don’t like being stifled, want to keep the power, even if it’s only an illusion of power. Plus they get to be gods back home in their communities. They will not relinquish that, and for all we know, it plays to harper’s larger strategy to have minion outbursts now and then — looks better for democracy.

    • Seems to me you’re pretty much recapitulating the origins of the Reform Party, whose members broke away from what they perceived as the institutional sclerosis of the old Progressive Conservative party.

      Harper will use all his considerable powers, including the ability to withhold nominations and to finance strong Conservative campaigns against party apostates, to nip any insurrections. He is nothing, if not ruthless.

  2. I think all it takes is a little push-back, like Mr. Rathgeber — no grand parliamentary reform, etc. These MPs have the power, they’re just gun-shy in using it. Perhaps we’ll see more follow Rathgeber’s lead, now that they see the direction he’s taking.

    That said, I’m not optimistic this will get better. Iron-clad party discipline has been essential to the Conservative Party’s success. And, it’ll be essential to the success of the party that someday replaces it. Harper has provided a pretty compelling blueprint for any shrewd party leader. Not terrific for democracy, but it sure is good for winning power and staying in power.

  3. A good start would be removing the requirement for the Party to approve a local riding association’s nomination. A candidate can’t beholden to two masters!

    • +1

  4. The reality is that crossing the PMO means your ass being nailed to the backbenches. Twas ever thus but now more so. There used to be a time when some people didn’t care and even enjoyed being outside the cloistering environment of cabinet but now the need to deliver the outsize cheques is crowding out judgement for all but a few. Let’s not kid ourselves the NDP would be hugely different either.

    • It’s quite likely the NDP would be worse, what with all the youngsters and all.

  5. A beautiful dream Aaron, but this MP has probably written his own exit strategy — remember Steve has to sign his nomination papers next time around. My bet is that a more obedient puppet will be found to run in that riding.

  6. In our riding, the CPC could run a sheepdog and win easily without campaigning. The incumbent knows that and probably realizes that the only way he could ruin a well-remunerated sinecure (that’s virtually guaranteed ’til retirement and beyond, if he wishes) would be to defy the leader or break ranks with his fellow automatons.

    He has little to win from displaying any streak of free-thinking independence and much to lose. I doubt his constituents will ever witness such behaviour.

  7. The way it operates now, we don’t need the MP’s. Just pick a party leader based on the votes per party who can then dictate what ever he/she wants. Think of the money saved by not having to pay MP’s! Better yet, make all votes free and operate as a democracy