50 yards from Parliament Hill

I almost never disagree with Chris Selley. Indeed, I am almost willing to make it a rule not to disagree with Chris Selley. But his analysis yesterday of Brad Trost’s groping for more backbencher power in Parliament is uncharacteristically superficial. Selley celebrates Trost’s public ruminating over his inability to spurn the party whip on polarizing issues; wouldn’t it be nice, he asks, if we had a Conservative Party more like the eclectic, dissent-tolerating one in old Westminster? Perhaps it would be. But there is an awkward plain fact staring us in the face.

The leader of the Conservative Party (UK) is chosen by his caucus. The caucus of the Conservative Party of Canada is chosen by the leader, who is chosen by the party membership as a whole. Our Conservative leader, at least, has the power to eject Conservatives from caucus and to refuse them party nominations. His popularly elected status makes him answerable to hoi polloi, and not to the parliamentary party he leads. The caucus cannot oust him unless it is sure of having the people behind it. If you dislike the decline of Parliament and the ever-accumulating power of party leaders, the Original Sin was committed by the Liberals at their convention in 1919, and imitated since by everybody else. That was the fatal decision, historian Christopher Moore has written, that made Canada “unique among parliamentary democracies in the steps it took to reduce the ability of backbenchers to influence their leaders.”

Selley, at least, is not hypocritical about this: others, I suppose, could be found guilty of bewailing the impotence of the backbench while also advocating for more party proportionality in the House of Commons. A backbench MP’s hypothetical moral authority comes from being the representative of the will of a particular small, geographically defined group of citizens. If you believe in proportional representation, you believe the proper source of an MP’s authority lies in being a counter or a chip—an advocate and symbol, in the assembly, of the national agenda of a national party. These conflicting accounts are irreconcilable. Pressed to the logical ultimate, you must either believe that Brad Trost has the right and duty to speak for Saskatoon-Humboldt, which sent him to the people’s House, or you believe that he is there to vote for Conservative measures, and if the Conservative Party should decide to nuke Humboldt, that’d just be too damn bad.

(The New Democratic Party, I should note, operates on the latter premise, so it’s not clear why someone like Nathan Cullen, a keen NDP advocate of proportional representation, should be cheering Trost on—except on the premise of sowing confusion among one’s enemies.)

In one way, obviously, I find Brad Trost bizarrely unrealistic about the fundamental conditions that have resulted in his impotence. He talks a lot about the supposed consequences of his occasional outbursts on abortion, but is unclear about exactly what these might be. Has Stephen Harper egged his front porch from the back seat of an RCMP cruiser? The “consequences” seem to boil down to Trost not being considered inside-track cabinet material—a position, I suppose, to which he assumes his talents would otherwise certainly entitle him. There are other pro-lifers in caucus who understand that the “party discipline” Trost loathes so much has been essential to Conservative progress in socially liberal Southern Ontario, and therefore to victory. You sure won’t hear Jason Kenney, who is 52% more Catholic than Benedict XVI, complaining about it.

Indeed, when I check the Elections Canada reports and see Trost’s campaign receiving a $10,000 transfer from the national party three days before the last election, I wonder that Trost himself complains about it. He could always choose to run as an independent, as so many courageous Canadians (55 in 2011) risk their deposits doing. The kind of fundraising, mobilizing, and publicizing power Trost enjoys as a Conservative candidate is another consequence of “party discipline”. Diddums wants to eat his cake and have it too.

But I’m not totally immune to Trost’s posturing as the Goddess of Democracy in Drag. A quote he gave to the Star suggests some measure of late-arriving self-awareness: “After almost eight years of this place, I realize that I actually have more flexibility than I first thought. I just need to take it.” A good start down that road would probably involve doing something other than constantly bellyaching about Planned Parenthood. If Trost is a principled believer in backbench power, he could work toward that goal, instead of grinding a personal axe most of us would like left in the shed. Practically speaking, he can’t be both the great democrat and the tribune of the foetus. It should be one or the other.

Those enviable British Tories have something called the 1922 Committee, a body of Conservative backbenchers in which ministers aren’t allowed to vote. Until quite recently, they weren’t even allowed to attend except under special circumstances. Even today, with its prestige and authority diminished, the 1922 Committee has the power to vote no-confidence in the Conservative leader, and sometimes cheekily gives a platform to possible successors. The Prime Minister won’t consider devolving real, functional power onto a Canadian answer to the 1922 Committee, but what if those eligible for such a body just decided to meet anyway, and occasionally, dare I suggest it, have recorded votes on things? Do backbenchers actually want an alternative power base or not?

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