Print Edition: June 3, 2015
In a word or two, could you tell me your political orientation?
You might be inclined to respond “left of centre,” or “liberal,” or “not that liberal.” It’s a quick, common way to describe where you stand in political issues. But too often, Canadians don’t think beyond that label, and we vote for parties that seem to line up with our own belief systems. Our point of view is “conservative,” so we vote for the Conservatives.
This reduces our political engagement and responsibility to a minimum — and our federal government takes advantage of that.
Let’s say, for instance, that I vote for the NDP in the upcoming federal election, because their political stance fits closest with my own. If I leave it at that, and the NDP candidate gets elected in, then their duty to me is instantly fulfilled by virtue of being voted in, as long as they do NDP-sounding things for me.
This is where the window for party discipline opens.
To maintain the image of the party, MPs are urged to unanimously agree or disagree on issues, keeping them within the bounds of the party’s interests — this is party discipline. In Canada, the window opens wide.
In a 2012 series of articles called “Reinventing Parliament,” the Globe and Mail documented how NDP Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Bruce Hyer voted in favour of abolishing the long-gun registry — something he promised his constituents he would do, even though the NDP’s official stance was against the abolition and he ran the risk of being “punished” for voting against the party. He was then banned from making member statements in the House of Commons. The story lends a new meaning to the phrase “Orange Crush.”
In another article in the same series (“Is Canada’s party discipline the strictest in the world? Experts say yes”), Leslie Seidel, a research director for Institute for Research on Public Policy, states:
“In the advanced parliamentary democracies, there is nowhere that has heavier, tighter party discipline than the Canadian House of Commons.”
When a politician is punished for straying from the official stance of the party, they are being punished for acting on the behalf of their constituents. The particular concerns of individual MPs and their constituents get steamrolled for the sake of upholding the party’s political ideology.
And this says nothing about the issue of apathy in Canada. But why would Canadians care about politics when their MPs seem either uncaring or unable to represent their constituents’ interests? Party discipline discourages MPs from acting as individuals, and forces them to either contribute to the image of the federal party or be silenced.
In order to restore the agency of individual politicians, ideological politics — voting for the Liberal Party because you’re a liberal — needs to be replaced with politics that discuss particular issues over the general — in other words, voting for an MP because he or she will address your concerns in your riding best.
But this is not the sole responsibility of the daring MP willing to stand up to their party. We, as constituents, need to take a closer look at politics, beyond that of seeing only which party’s values line up most closely with our own. Both sides have to pull their weight if real change is to occur.