The House: The meaning of Brad Trost

Does he really think he only represents his constituency association and the Conservatives in his riding?

by Aaron Wherry

We return to our periodic series on the House of Commons. This time to consider the case of Brad Trost.

Let’s first allow Brad Trost to explain himself. Here’s how, in an interview with the CBC yesterday, he justified his criticism of the government’s decision to fund Planned Parenthood.

“Ultimately, I have the backing of my constituency association and the Conservatives there. That’s who I represent. Because I’ve been vocal on this issue before, I owe them my democratic voice. I also owe my democratic voice to people who disagree with me so they know honestly whether or not to vote for or against me in the next election. It’s the proper thing to do.”

One could quibble with the specific of who he represents and his understanding of same. (Does he really think he only represents his constituency association and the Conservatives in his riding? Doesn’t he represent all of his constituents, regardless of how or whether they voted?) But it’s important to note who he doesn’t represent here: namely the Prime Minister, the Harper government or the Conservative Party of Canada. All three may well appreciate Mr. Trost clarifying from whence he derives his view and putting distance between himself and the official stance, but we should probably appreciate Mr. Trost deferring not to any of them, but to the people who elected him.

Indisputably, politics parties serve an important purpose. But so should Members of Parliament. And publicly that should involve something more than reading cue cards, repeating party lines, filling out TV camera frames and providing the sufficient number of warm bodies required to pass legislation. They should be something more than representatives of a brand.

There is, unquestionably, a certain tension here. MPs are elected by constituents, but represent parties. The system is built on the existence of political parties, not a collection of unaffiliated individuals. (At the same time, parties are formed by individuals whose views are supposed to inform the group’s positions.) It is also generally accepted, at least in the present context, that a citizen’s vote has more to do with the party and party leader.

The question to be asked on this last point is whether that’s the way we want it to be. I’d suggest it’s not. I’d argue that, at the very least, there is a balance that could be achieved and does not exist now. That the individual you actually vote for should be somehow more relevant.

An MP who expresses disagreement with his party instantly makes himself more relevant. An individual who stakes out a position and stays with it after he is elected however it contradicts official policy makes himself more relevant. A system of 308 mavericks going rogue on every other issue would cease to function as a parliamentary system. But a culture that treats the ability to enforce discipline as the highest test of leadership only perpetuates the idea of the MP as a cue-card reader.  If we’d rather something better than that—if we would like our MPs to behave publicly as something other than mouthpieces*—than we should find a way to treat dissension as something other than a sign of weakness.

Setting aside, for the moment, whatever your feelings about Mr. Trost’s position on this particular issue, setting aside the politics of Mr. Trost’s situation, his “democratic voice” is probably to be applauded and encouraged.

The tension of the party system should be just that: a balance of competing forces that requires an appreciation of both the party and the individual. In that regard, we need, somehow, to better understand both the reality and the possibility of Parliament.

 

*There is an argument to be made that MPs are able to freely express themselves and be heard and have their views taken into account within their respective caucuses. It’s probably a fair point. I say “probably” because caucus discussions are, of course, conducted in private and, at least in theory, kept in confidence. And therein would seem to be the problem with caucus being the only acceptable outlet for free expression.




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The House: The meaning of Brad Trost

  1. The government, the cabinet, should have no place in the caucus of the party. Neither should senators.

    • I’m a bit confused by this comment.  The Conservative caucus IS the government and the Tory senators, isn’t it?

      Isn’t saying “The government, the cabinet, should have no place in the caucus of the party” the equivalent of saying “The members of the caucus of the party should have no say in the caucus of the party”?  I think you mean a word other than “caucus”.  In Canada, caucus refers to all members of a particular party in Parliament.  By definition, the caucus of the party that forms government is made up of the MPs and Senators of the governing party.  That’s axiomatic, isn’t it?

      • I was wondering if LoraineLamontagne was trying to create system where backbenchers and Cabinet have different meetings.

        For example, I know in UK the Cons have 1922 Cmte but I don’t think there are similar groups here in Canada.

        Wiki ~ “ the 1922 Committee is a committee of Conservative Members of Parliament. Voting membership is limited to backbench MPs although frontbench Conservative MPs have an open invitation to attend meetings. While the party was in opposition, frontbench MPs other than the party leader could also attend its meetings. The Committee meets every week while Parliament is in session, and provides a way for Conservative backbenchers to determine their views independently of frontbenchers, as well as playing an important role in the choosing of the party leader.

        • Exactly like the 1922, though I would not extend the invitation to the frontbench.  Wouldn’t this have played a role in the demise of Thatcher?

          I love reading about the British parliament.  They understand the workings of their democratic institutions so much better than us because they relate their workings to the history of their country.  A perfect example of this is found in today’s Le Devoir, where H. Buzzetti notes that the citizens of Canada will be paying $35,000 for a stained glass panel honoring Elizabeth II 60th year as queen and the Victoria for choosing Ottawa as capital. The panel was installed in the parliament building two weeks ago.  They had the exact same idea in Great-Britain, however the stained glass panel will be financed by the personal donations of members of the two houses of parliament. The Brits respect the crown, but they also respect the distance that needs to be kept between parliament and the crown. In the UK, the Queen is never used as a political tool.

      • I may be wrong on this, so correct me please, but cabinet collectively decides  government policies.  A member of the cabinet who would disapprove of government policy and wish to vote against it would have to resign.  Not so for a member of the political caucus.  For example, a liberal cabinet minister was opposed to the definition of civil marriage to include same-sex couples; the minister resigned from cabinet but remained a member of the caucus of his party and was free to rise and vote against a government-sponsored bill.

        Hence keeping cabinet out of caucus would encourage legislators to freely express their opinions, and the Senators should also be out of the caucus to maintain their independence from political parties.  Maybe a way to improve the division of power between the executive and legislative branches of government.

        • Hence keeping cabinet out of caucus would encourage legislators to freely express their opinions.

          Which legislators, the one’s in cabinet, or the ones in the caucus that doesn’t include the cabinet? 

          Are you suggesting that legislators would feel more free to express their opinions in closed door meetings with only the non-cabinet members of their party present than they do in meetings that involve ALL of the members of their party?  Even if we accept that this is so, does that split accomplish anything beyond sowing internal dissent within the governing party? 

          After all, if the backbenchers are not comfortable expressing an opinion in private in front of a cabinet minister, they’re not going to make those opinions public, so doesn’t such a set-up merely create a group of MPs from the governing party who meet periodically to secretly grip about what their colleagues in cabinet are up to, potentially without their colleagues in cabinet having the faintest idea that they’re upset?  Isn’t the current scenario, where caucus meetings allow backbenchers to scream at their cabinet colleagues in private and try to convince them to change course better than a situation where caucus meetings merely allow backbenchers to scream at the walls, and potentially leave cabinet ministers more in the dark as to what their caucus colleagues are upset about (until the issue boils up to the point that someone brings it up publicly)?  Even if we accept that backbenchers would be more forthright if their cabinet colleagues weren’t attending caucus meetings, what good does that do us if the people actually making the decisions (the cabinet ministers) aren’t around to hear what the backbenchers are talking frankly about? 

          I actually like the fact that cabinet ministers and PMs are occassionaly made very uncomfortable when they attend caucus meetings and their backbenchers rip in to them, and I wouldn’t want to see that go away.  If Ministers just meet with Ministers, and backbenchers with backbenchers, don’t we lose some opportunities for backbenchers to influence Ministers?

          • Holding caucus meetings without the frontbench does not stop cabinet  from knowing what the backbench is talking about. They could certainly find ways to communicate their deliberations and decisions effectively to the cabinet.  You give a lot weight to making a minister feel some discomfort during caucus meetings.  I would give more weight to the members’s ability to speaking freely in front of equals rather than in front of those who hold the strings of party financing and of nominations to cabinet and other positions that include financial compensation.

            Trost reminds me that the Conservative platform in 2005-2006 included the promise of free votes for all but confidence and money bills. Conservatives proudly claim that they always vote freely – they just always agree with the cabinet.  Paint me sceptical. 

          • Holding caucus meetings without the frontbench does not stop cabinet  from knowing what the backbench is talking about. They could certainly find ways to communicate their deliberations and
            decisions effectively to the cabinet.  You give a lot weight to making a
            minister feel some discomfort during caucus meetings
            .

            I don’t necessarily give a lot of weight to making Ministers feel uncomfortable in the meeting, I just give it more weight as a means of influencing said Ministers than I would give to the notion of those Ministers simply receiving the minutes from said meetings after the fact.  I think a Tory backbencher screaming at the PM that the base is angry and about to revolt is a more effective means of swaying the PM than the PM getting a memo that the backbenchers held a meeting and feel that the base is angry and about to revolt.

            Trost reminds me that the Conservative platform in 2005-2006 included
            the promise of free votes for all but confidence and money bills.
            Conservatives proudly claim that they always vote freely – they just
            always agree with the cabinet.  Paint me sceptical.

            LOL.  We’re of one mind there.  The Toires always talked an awful lot like Preston Manning before they got in to power, and they’ve been talking an awful lot like Jean Chretien ever since.  Sadly, I’m of the opinion that they can’t live up to either example.

  2. Brad Trost and Borys Wrzesnewskyj  are both backbenchers looking to make a name for themselves in hopes of a leadership shot down the road. We’ll probably see more of these kinds of efforts.

    • Does this mean we’ll be seeing Trost in a wetsuit sometime soon?

      • I’m sure a costume of sorts will come into it at some point.  LOL

    • As a non-Conservative, I will gladly donate to a future Brad Trost leadership campaign, entirely for the entertainment value I would derive from it.

      • Heh…a public tar-and-feathering is always fun!

  3. While I agree that Trost should be applauded for being forthcoming in his views on an issue of significance, I suspect he is playing to a much larger audience than his own riding.  

    Trost is a young ambitious career politician who is still early in his career.  At some level, he has been remarkably successful winning three successive elections by healthy margins.  He seems to be competent at running his riding office, he can speak to the press coherently etc.  

    At another level, he could be seen to be an utter failure, the odds on Harper promoting him off the backbenches appears to be near zero.  Trost might well at times compare himself with say Pierre Poilievre and wonder “why him?”.  At the same time Trost is young enough to know that he will outlast Harper and indeed is likely to be at his prime when Harper steps down.

    With his seat secure and his riding association watching his back, I suspect Trost is making his play to be the Conservative spokesman for the social conservative side of the party.  To achieve that, he needs to gain national notoriety supporting an issue that acts as a wedge between those soc-cons and the rest of the party.  He needs to do that in a fashion that does not make him look like an idiot (i.e. distinguish himself from Rob Anders)  Also his timing has to be such that he is not seen as a threat to Conservative rule.  

    The gain for Trost is that if he succeeds in becoming the darling of the soc-cons then he is defacto untouchable within the party.  There is a reason, Harper has not booted out Anders or distanced the Conservatives from McVety which I suspect is much more about fundraising than shared ideology.  It would be much better for the Conservatives to have someone such as Trost being the face of that side of their coalition rather than having the kooks on centre stage.

    • Is abortion really a great issue to use to play to a much larger audience than Saskatchewan though? 

      I mean, I understand the importance of social conservatives to the Conservative Party, but still, doesn’t appealing primarily or solely to them box a politician into a corner of being supported primarily by a minority of people who have no one else to vote for anyway? 

      While the most recent poll I found with a quick search had a close split on the issue in Saskatchewan with 40% of people in Saskatchewan/Manitoba self-identifying as “pro-choice” and 37% identifying as “pro-life”, in Canada as a whole that same split was 52% “pro-choice” and 27% “pro-life”.  It seems to me that abortion is a much better “local” issue for Trost in the prairies, where the two sides of the abortion debate are pretty much evenly divided than it is in the ROC where those who are pro-choice outnumber their opponents by slightly more than 2:1.  Locally, abortion may be a good issue for Trost, but that’s at least partly because the prairies are the only region in the entire country where less than a majority of citizens self-identify as pro-choice (according to that 2010 poll anyway).

      • Love the use of ROC ins a non-Québec context.  Hooray for that!

      • Remember that the vast majority of Canadians don’t give a dime (directly) to political parties so we are in no way talking about typical Canadians or even typical Conservatives.  I suspect that those unfortunate Trost-like souls on the fringes of Canada i.e. cut off from the central core that is Saskatoon feel especially isolated.  They know they cannot make a change with their votes but perhaps they are more optimistic with their wallets . 

        In short your argument wrt voting makes sense, but I was principally talking about fundraising so in that context I think my thesis makes cents.

        • Excellent point.

  4. his “democratic voice” is probably to be applauded and encouraged

    I’m not saying it can’t be so, but do we actually have any evidence that the majority of the people in Trost’s riding actually agree with his position on Planned Parenthood?  I have no problem with applauding a politician for following the will of his constituents.  I also don’t really have a problem with an elected representative following his or her conscience on an issue, even if the majority of his or her constituents disagree with that position (in many ways, that’s what representative democracy is all about). 

    What I do have a problem with is everyone seeming to assume that the majority of citizens in Brad Trost’s riding disagree with the government’s decision to give funding to Planned Parenthood for non-abortion related services in countries where abortion is illegal.  That could be true, but is there any evidence to support that contention???  What if 60% of the people in his riding are just fine with the PP funding?  ‘Cause if that’s the case, we shouldn’t be celebrating his “democratic voice” we should be celebrating his “strong conscience”.

    • ‘Once a safe Liberal seat, the NDP took over the new creation in 1988. The Liberals stole it back in 1993, but the Reform party and its successor the Canadian Alliance took it over with a strong win in 2000. However, the riding remains split three ways to this day between the Liberals, the new Conservative Party and the NDP. In 2004, with the incumbent, Jim Pankiw running as an independent on the ticket made for the closest four-way race in the country with the winning party receiving just 26.7% of the vote just 4.5 points ahead of the fourth place finisher.’

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saskatoon%E2%80%94Humboldt

      The riding has been everything by the sound of it, so they don’t seem to be SoCons generally.

      • Yes.  Held by Otto Lang, Trudeau Cabinet Minister and father to Amanda Lang (and her twin sister!) of the Lang & O’Leary report.

    • Fair question, although Trost’s statement, as Aaron points out, talks about accountability to his “constituency association and the Conservatives there.”  It is only a small extrapolation to accept that in a region where opinion on the issue is split, the majority those who voted/supported Trost are probably on the pro-life side.

      • True enough.  My comment was aimed more at Wherry’s applauding of Trot’s “democratic voice” and the commenters saying things like “I may disagree with his stance, but I applaud him following the wishes of his constituents” with no evidence whatsoever to indicate that Trot’s stance is in keeping with the wishes of his constituents.  Brad Trost may believe that he represents and is accountable to only the members of his constituency association, but the rest of us shouldn’t do or say things that may (no doubt unintentionally) seem to support that view of representative democracy.

    • I guess Trost believes he has, by virtue of being elected,  a mandate. 

  5. This boring majority parliament just got more interesting, courtesy Mr. Trost. Can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

  6. Political parties are anti-democratic but there is nothing we can do about it because human beings are xenophobic and also like to join groups. For me, ideal system would be random people decide to run in ridings across Canada, local people elect their fav person as representative and then all the winners gather in Ottawa. Once there, MPs will sort themselves into informal groups, propose legislation and if there are enough votes than a bill passes. 

    One problem in modern era is that there is too much money involved in politics that is has become a career for too many people. Professional pols, which is what we have now, only care about their own interests and don’t think of Canada as whole. Also, high salaries and tremendous benefits/pension/accoutrements that are paid to MPs make it easier for them to kowtow to power. If there were fewer people dependent on being MP as career, there would be far more independence from MPs. 

    Also, political correctness has stifled debates in Canada for at least 20 yrs. People not allowed to say what they think any more, Big Brother is watching. 

    • That’s interesting, Tony.  I don’t believe I have any thoughts that are illegal in this country.  Could you be specific?  Maybe you could tell us some thoughts that a “friend” has that are unlawful.

      • Do you live in Canada?

        Shakedown: Winner of the Writer’s Trust of Canada / Samara’s – Best Canadian Political Book of the Last 25 Years 

        “On January 11, 2008, I was summoned to a 90-minute government interrogation. My crime? As the publisher of Western Standard magazine, I had reprinted the Danish cartoons of Mohammed to illustrate a news story. I was charged with the offence of “discrimination,” and made to appear before Alberta’s “human rights commission” for questioning. As crazy as it sounds, I became the only person in the world to face legal sanction for printing those cartoons.”

        Mark Steyn ~ Maclean’s ~ It’s All Very Odd, ‘That’s For Sure’:

        The American website Pundita has a sharp analysis of Section XIII, comparing it to Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel The Minority Report, set in a world in which citizens can be sentenced for “pre-crime” — for criminal acts which have not occurred but are “likely” to. Who needs futuristic novels when we’re living it here and now in one of the oldest constitutional democracies on the planet? What kind of countries have tribunals with 100 per cent conviction rates that replace the presumption of innocence with the presumption of guilt and in which truth is not only no defence but compelling evidence of that guilt?

        • Could you specify what illegal “thought” your friend was guilty of, and what his punishment was?

      • George Orwell ~ All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others

        National Review ~ Are Conservatives Nuts?

        Remember the cocky, arrogant kid in nursery school, the one who always thought that he had all the answers and that he could do whatever he wanted, and was always ignoring what the teacher had to say? Chances are this bully grew up to be a conservative.

        Right now, I have no doubt that some liberal readers are nodding their heads and saying, “Yes! That makes total sense. Conservatives are such bullies!”Well, according to the latest “scientific” study this is nonsense. In fact, it’s the other way around.

        Ever since Theodor Adorno came out with his scandalously flawed Authoritarian Personality in 1950, liberal and leftist social scientists have been trying to diagnose conservatism as a psychological defect or sickness. Adorno and his colleagues argued that conservatism was little more than a “pre-fascist” “personality type.” 

        Perhaps the more revealing psychological insight can be found in the fact that so many liberals think disagreeing with them is a form of psychosis.

  7. He’s hardly started and it looks like he’s already having to cope with being cut off from the Royal Hair Product supply

    • The fixatif is in for him.

  8. There are too many spelling mistakes for me to share this post with others too widely.
    Than is not then, and we have political parties, not politics parties.

    While I agree that MPs should represent constituents over parties, Parliament certainly can, and has worked under this, and it’s more democratic than what we have now. The claim that it would fall apart if everyone went “rogue” is nonsense. When everyone is independent, there is nothing to go rogue from!

    • Part of understanding any piece of writing is understanding the concept and spirit, not just the letter. Clearly you’ve failed to do so. While the grammar/spelling errors are regrettable, I think his points are considered and explained clearly.

      His choice of the word “rogue” wasn’t particularly representative, I think his point is better made in “would cease to function as a parliamentary system”. Maybe the solution is a smaller parliament composed of individuals elected through a representative system. But Canada is far too expansive and sparsely populated to make such a system easy to institute.

  9. I really do wish I was better prepared, but alas, this article is here now, and my procrastination not withstanding, I offer this.  I have been of the mind this past year or two, watching the shenanigans in our own Parliament, the U.S. Congress and House, and lastly, even the E.U., that a sanguine argument could be made that the problem with modern democracy might just be the Party System.  Think about it. Long and deep, consider the tenets of democracy, what it stands for, what its meant to accomplish.  And, note I did not say government, parliament or anything else, but consider the doctrines and attributes of Democratic Representation, and when coupled with the current nature of Party “politics”.  If the Party acted as it has in ANY OTHER ASPECT of our civil society, would they not, at one time or another, be subject to conspiracy, fraud, libel and assorted other Civil or Criminal offences.  If nothing else, this article and the subjects it covers may spur me to finally put pen to paper (or at least finger to keyboard) and formulate a meaningful argument for the elimination of the party.  Given our current Parliament, how wrong could one person acting in the best interests of their Constituents possibly be any worse, or even as bad as Parliament operates now?

  10. Traditionally, the first duty of a Westminster-type representative is to hold the government (the cabinet and bureaucracy) accountable for its actions and inactions. This obtains whether the MP is on the majority or the minority side of the House.

    If Brad Trost’s version of the factual background in this controversy is correct — and I have not seen it denied, and it certainly has a ring of plausibility about it — this is exactly what he has done. The government had a deal with the majority MP caucus not to fund Planned Parenthood. The relevant minister and her officials without warning reneged on that deal, by changing the policy and leaking that news to friendly media. When forced to choose between minister and caucus, the Prime Minister chose to support the minister. He could have (and in fairness should have) insisted that the minister resign. That then left Brad Trost and other Conservative Party MPs to choose between squawking or shutting up.

    The fact that he chose to make an issue of it the only way he could — by taking the matter outside caucus and outside Parliament (just as the minister had done) — speaks to his worthiness as an MP. Anyone who imagines he’s trying to advance his career is totally missing the point. He is doing what Parliament demands of him, if it is not to subside into complete subservience to the government.

    Whatever happens to him now, I wish him well.

     

  11. What a lot of drivel. Canadian politics needs abolition of political parties, complete coverage of election expenses by the public, and free votes on all matters voted by MPs.
    Let those elected sort out who will be PM and cabinet members.
    Only with a system similar to this will MPs ever represent their constituents.

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