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.