The House of Automatons - Macleans.ca

The House of Automatons

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

by

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.)