The meaning of David Wilks

Sonya Bell draws five lessons.

Stephen Harper gives his backbenchers less face time than his soon-to-be-published hockey book — he reportedly worked on it 15 minutes every day. When asked about the opportunity to raise his concerns with his party and the prime minister, Wilks explained: “We can do that at national caucus, which is every Wednesday from 9:30 until noon. We have about a 10 minute period in which we can speak to the prime minister.”

Mr. Wilks’ 12 minutes in front of a video camera are remarkable: a fascinating little moment in our democracy.

As it pertains specifically to C-38, the situation is complicated. On the one hand, the case of Mr. Wilks raises a legitimate conundrum. A budget is so fundamental to a government that a government backbencher would certainly have to divorce himself from his caucus to vote against it. And if, this long after an election, a budget was defeated—if a sufficient number of government backbenchers voted against it or skipped the vote—the government would fall and we would proceed to an election. A vote on a budget bill is unlike a vote on almost any other bill.

But the House is not faced with merely a budget. It is not simply being asked to approve the main financial priorities or spending estimates of the government. It is faced with a bill that contains dozens of initiatives. And so it raises the sorts of questions a Young Stephen Harper once asked. How can an MP offer a simple yes or no when 60 questions are being asked? How is Parliament, as a group of 308 MPs, supposed to properly review such a thing? How can even a member of the government caucus possibly grapple with such a bill? A government backbencher could strongly support the government’s general fiscal policy, but still be a bit uneasy about, say, expanding American police powers in Canadian waters. Perhaps he’d like to see that studied by a committee.

Whatever Mr. Wilks’ official support for C-38, he does seem to think it might be broken up. He should be pressed to explain. And he should be asked about life as a backbench MP.

At the same time, every Conservative backbencher should probably now be asked by their local newspaper to respond to the issues raised by Mr. Wilks. And the New Democrats and Liberals should be asked about how they would manage better. All MPs should be asked about what goes on here and whether it should be better.

The parliamentary system requires a certain loss of power, a certain sacrifice to the greater party. But MPs are only as powerless as they allow themselves to be.