Democracy versus party discipline

The 2014 Reform Act was an important first step toward restoring representative government

by Kennedy Stewart

The Crushing Power of Canadian Political Parties

Canadian political parties have more control over our politics than parties in any other democratic country. Many observers of Canadian politics agree, including Dr. Leslie Seidle of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, who states, “In the advanced parliamentary democracies, there is nowhere that has heavier, tighter party discipline than the Canadian House of Commons. Indeed, individual Canadian members of Parliament are almost completely constrained from taking action outside what is determined by the leadership team of their political party.

It is worth unpacking the idea of control to show what MPs are up against. There are two important aspects of control to consider: who controls the House of Commons’ agenda and who controls how MPs vote. Agenda control is most important, as it allows parties to determine which issues are and are not discussed in the House. Government and opposition parties wrestle to dominate what is discussed on any given day in the House of Commons, but at the same time MPs struggle within their own parties to determine what issues the party leadership will champion or bury in deep, dark holes. Parties also desperately try to control how MPs vote—to ensure all MPs vote with the party leader on all issues.

Party leadership teams use “party discipline” to exert control when setting agendas or votes. Disagree with the leadership team before an election and you will not be recruited or selected as a candidate. Take a contrary position during an election and you risk being dropped as a candidate. Speak out or vote against your party in the House of Commons and you’ll be demoted in, or expelled from, the cabinet or shadow cabinet. Or maybe the party leadership team will ban you from asking questions in the House for six months or remove you from your favourite committee. Go too far and you’ll get kicked out of the party caucus. MPs who find themselves even slightly offside with the party leadership team have very little opportunity to contribute to shaping the country, as almost all aspects of what happens in the Chamber are controlled by a small group surrounding the party leader, including the leader’s principal secretary, the House leader, the whip, the national caucus chair and the leader’s office’s senior staff.

This was not always the case. Our politics were much different in the past. In fact, I doubt whether people today would recognize the House of Commons in the years following Confederation. For the first half-century of our parliamentary history, MPs would often vote with the party leader who promised them the most for their riding, regardless of which party they ran with during elections. Party lines were loose. According to Frank Underhill, “both front-benchers and backbenchers passed with remarkable ease from one political camp to another. In terms of setting the agenda, House business was more or less evenly split between private members and government, giving ordinary MPs more control of which issues were debated and voted upon on the floor of the House of Commons. In addition, while party leaders did what they could to convince—some would say bribe—MPs to vote with their party, this was far from guaranteed. As a result, government bills would often fail to pass, and party leaders would have to listen to the opinions of a wide array of MPs when changing laws or spending public money.

The power of individual MPs started to diminish during the early twentieth century as party leadership teams began to impose their wills in Parliament. Godbout and Høyland’s exhaustive study of early voting in the House of Commons shows successive Liberal and Conservative governments decreased the amount of House time dedicated to private members’ business and increased the time spent on government business. The less time spent on private members’ business, the fewer opportunities for ordinary MPs to forward the concerns of their constituents.

Ordinary MPs started to resent their ebbing power to set the agenda, but their options to fight back were limited. As there were only two parties in the House of Commons—Liberals and Conservatives—even crossing the floor would not provide MPs with more time to talk about issues in their ridings, as the leadership teams of both parties worked to control the parliamentary agenda. As a result, frustrated MPs began to leave the two old parties to start new political parties such as the Progressive Party of Canada, formed in 1920, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), formed in 1932. Ironically, as the number of parties represented in the House of Commons increased, so too did party discipline within all parties. As a result, while political candidates now have a larger array of political parties to join, they must now be ultra-loyal to whichever party team they end up standing with in order to keep their job.

The activities taking place during a typical day in the House of Commons illuminate this shift in priorities and opportunities. On most days, work officially starts with ministers tabling government bills or making statements. This is followed by a period in which ordinary MPs present private member’s bills or motions and petitions (including, now, e-petitions). After government bill debate, the agenda shifts to MP statements and Question Period before moving back to discussing government bills. The day finishes with private members’ business debates and starts all over again the next day, more or less following the same routine.

Activities Where Party Leadership Teams Exert Full Agenda Control

On a typical day, MPs spend eight-and-a-half hours (510 minutes) debating the nation’s business. Of this, over six hours (72%) of the agenda is directly controlled by the government leadership team, which oversees all aspects of government business including speech content. This holds for the opposition side of the House as well, where leadership teams decide who speaks and, for the most part, what is said in response to government initiatives.

Although the event attracts the most attention from the media and public hoping to see brilliance or MPs falling flat on their face, party leadership teams absolutely dominate what is said in the House of Commons during Question Period. The agenda of the forty-five minutes allotted to Question Period—9 percent of a typical day in the House—is mainly controlled by opposition party leadership teams that decide what questions will be asked, but also by the government leadership team, which decides what answers are given. Question Period really only reveals which ordinary MPs are better or worse at parroting the party line.

What Needs to Change?

One way to lessen party control would be to allocate more time for private members’ business, which has shrunk to a mere 4 percent of time spent in the House of Commons. This time should be increased so at the very least every backbench MP has the opportunity to have an idea voted upon—or even better, every backbench MP has the opportunity to trigger votes on two bills or motions. Although this change would cut into the time for debating government bills, the result would better empower ordinary MPs.

While increasing the time spent on private members’ business would give backbench MPs more airtime, it would do little to fix the smothering party discipline. Unleashing backbenchers requires weakening the grip of party leadership teams. Michael Chong’s Reform Act was an important first step in further empowering ordinary MPs. For one, its clauses can give MPs, not the party leader, final say over who sits in the party caucus and stops party leaders from unilaterally kicking MPs out of the party. Second, it gives MPs the power to trigger a leadership review vote to remove an overly controlling party leader. Finally, it removes the ability of party leaders to block candidates from running for their party. While Chong beat the odds and succeeded in getting his private member’s bill passed into law, the parties have not fully embraced these changes, and things remain much as they were. If this does not change in future Parliaments, revisiting the Reform Act would seem a very good idea.

The power of ordinary MPs has greatly diminished over the years as party leadership teams have reduced the time allocated to private members’ business in order to exert more central party control over the parliamentary agenda. It has become difficult for backbenchers to control even a small fraction of the agenda and contribute to making Canada a more democratic and better place to live.

Excerpted from book Turning Parliament Inside Out, Practical Ideas for Reforming Canada’s Democracy edited by Michael Chong, Scott Simms, and Kennedy Stewart with forewords by Ed Broadbent, Preston Manning and Bob Rae, published by Douglas& McIntyre 2017, Above text is from Chapter 3, Empowering the Backbench written by Kennedy Stewart, MP. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Leave a comment