Loosening the control of the political party: Part of the Redesigning Parliament series

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013 View Count = 1409

Loosening the control of the political party: Part of the Redesigning Parliament series

Over the month of February, Samara will be presenting blog entries from MPs, Samara readers, partners and volunteers, community leaders and citizens from across the country on how we can “Redesign Parliament” to more ably serve Canadians in the future.

The responses received were broken out into themes or ideas. Each week we’ll explore a theme or two and then offer deeper dives by individual writers. This thematic post is brought to you by Samara
volunteer Phillipe Murphy-Rheaume.


“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

George Washington famously warned against the formation and consolidation of political parties. In his opinion, political parties would serve as instruments of tyranny, subverting the will of the people through the accumulation of party power.

Although the Canadian experience has shown that political parties have not undermined our democracy, they have arguably weakened the bond between Canadians and their politicians. Former MP Glen Pearson said this on his blog: “It is a bitter lesson to learn as a politician that your own ineffectiveness, limited by polarization, earns you the title of ‘redundant’ in the eyes of citizens. They must go on with the important things of their lives because they can no longer count on you to place their interest above that of your party.” In Samara’s MP Exit Interviews series and from the sitting MPs who answered our call for submissions to “Redesign Parliament” we heard many times that the power of parties must be curbed.

But how?

Nominations

As Peter Stoffer, NDP MP for Sackville-Eastern Shore (NS), suggests:  “If a riding association nominates someone, the leader shouldn’t have to sign anyone’s card; the riding association should. If they nominate a candidate, that is who should run. If you’re not a good boy or good girl, the party leaders have the power to not sign the nomination papers. This is a major problem.”

Independent MP Bruce Hyer agrees that the leader’s power to refuse to sign nomination papers, “is a "Sword of Damocles" held above heads of MPs…. The parties and the leaders don't trust the members in the riding to know who they prefer to represent them, or the voters in that riding to elect the best person.” (Huffington Post, May 2012)

Strengthening riding associations could enhance local engagement with political parties by giving them an effective voice in a party’s direction.  At the very least, they could allow an MP to express the will of the community they represent. 

Free votes

Our system of responsible government based on the Westminster-style parliamentary system weakens individual MP autonomy through the need for party discipline.  Since our governments depend on parliamentary confidence, the party in government has grown accustomed to enforcing iron-clad discipline. Opposition parties have tended to respond in kind.  Current and former MPs, such as Don Davies and Paul Forseth, have suggested that more free votes and the limitation of confidence votes would further strengthen elected officials and weaken the hands of party leaders and their whips.

Washington’s quote illustrates that the tyranny of parties is not a contemporary problem.  Jeffrey Simpson referred to former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s government as “the friendly dictatorship” over a decade ago in a book with the same title, due to the concentration of power in the Liberal Party through the Prime Minister’s Office. 

Let them ask their own darn questions

Michael Chong, Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills, mentioned this idea in a Policy Options article before he put forward a motion to fix Question Period itself. Pre-1977, when the cameras were added to the House, MPs could ask their own question just by catching the eye of the Speaker. After the cameras were introduced, the Whips, with the then-Speaker’s agreement, began to provide the list of MPs who would ask the questions. This convention has the effect of permitting the political party to control who speaks, thereby stifling dissent. Why not, asks Chong, drop that new convention and allow MPs to speak in an order directed by the Speaker?

Releasing MPs from the yoke of the party is something that many MPs want, but it’s not going to be easy. Even Michael Chong’s ideas—which had the support of the House for further study—were stopped in their tracks by an election.

Watch for more ideas throughout the month of February on how to “Redesign Parliament." And give us your reactions here through Facebook, below.

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Want more on party discipline? Read the Globe and Mail article: 'Behave and obey:' How party discipline hurts politics

Want even more? Read Samara's report "It's My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered"

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