Person, party, Parliament

Greg Fingas considers Bruce Hyer’s defection in the context of Thomas Mulcair’s hopes for regional outreach. Brian Topp considers Mr. Hyer’s defection in the context of the “bozo eruptions” that apparently hurt Wild Rose’s chances in Alberta.

Our political system tends towards hyper-centralization, and imposes a discipline on elected representatives that, at least some of them sometimes believe, disrespects and disempowers them. A “crisis of surplus consciousness” can result, in which the few at the top end up with too much to do (and therefore cannot do it well), which the vast majority of other team members end up with too little to do (and aren’t happy about it). This, to be precise, used to be said with reference to the hyper-centralized system in place in the Soviet Union. It could also be said of a number of poorly-led, hyper-centralized private corporations. It may be what parliamentary systems inherently drift into.

But as the Alberta election testifies, our political system also brutally punishes political teams who fail to maintain the tightest possible order in their ranks – at least as far as anyone can see – at every stage of proceedings including elections. “Bozo moments,” policy disagreements, strategy debated in public: Any chink of light is seized on as evidence of unfitness for office.

It seems to me there’s a distinction to be made between a candidate saying something that a significant number of voters find offensive and a candidate expressing a different opinion on policy or strategy, but it’s certainly the case that any break in unity is first and foremost discussed as a potential crisis of leadership.

Brian thinks “it is possible to have a respectful, deliberative, democratic political team that then presents a united front,” but the question remains, what does that look like?

Political parties serve an important purpose and the goal should not be 308 independent Members of Parliament. But MPs should not be mere representatives of and for the party. So what would balance look like? Is there an example of caucus management that fits, or at least nears, the ideal? Stephen Harper’s handling of the abortion debate? Jack Layton’s handling of the long-gun registry vote*? The way most parties operate even if we can’t appreciate what goes on behind closed doors?

Take one current conundrum: the Liberal leadership allowing a free vote on Motion 312. As a private member’s initiative, you can certainly make the case that it should be treated as a free vote. As a matter of conscience, you can certainly argue that it demands to be a free vote. But Jeff Jedras makes a compelling case that the Liberals should whip the vote: if a woman’s right to choose is fundamental to the Liberal party, Liberal MPs should be obliged to vote the party line.

In other words, it’s complicated: a point that should not be lost when this discussion is had.

In 2006, the Conservative party promised in its election platform that, if elected, a Conservative government would make all votes, except the budget and main estimates, free votes for “ordinary Members of Parliament.” Six years later it remains an interesting idea. At least in theory. Is it even feasible? Is it advisable? If you take Jeff’s point about the Liberal party’s position on abortion, it wouldn’t be so easy as declaring a free vote on everything but the budget. But if you take Brian’s point, differences of opinion would first have to become something other than automatic crises.


*Note: It was easier to handle the matter as a free vote when the bill in question was, at least technically, a private member’s bill.

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