Whipped Votes 101

Last week I blogged favourably about the Houses of the US Congress and how bipartisan support for a Budget Bill, allowed Tea Party Republicans (and others) to vote against their leadership; yet a fiscal cliff disaster was averted. I queried how this lack of discipline would work in the Westminster system of Parliament.

The short answer is not well!!

Whips exist under both the Parliamentary and Congressional systems and each has an arsenal of rewards and punishments at their disposal (Committee assignments, Junkets, Office Space, etc.) to promote party discipline.

Party discipline, however, is much more fundamental to the British Parliamentary system. There are many differences between the United States and the Canadian systems of government. The former is constitutionally premised on a formal separation of powers; whereas a Canadian Prime Minister is both the head of the Executive and his Party’s leading spokesperson in the legislature. Whereas a Member of Congress would have to resign her seat to serve in a President’s Cabinet, it is extremely rare, although not constitutionally prohibited, for a Canadian Minister not to serve in Parliament and normally the elected House.

Lord Durham’s famed Responsible Government means that the government is accountable to the legislative branch and can govern provided it holds the confidence of the House of Commons. Therein lays the first key as to why discipline is so prevalent in our system. A vote of non-confidence usually results in the Dissolution of the House and an election. A MP puts his job on the line when he votes to provoke an election and therefore a government member normally will not do so. The US system of impeachment is much more complicated and in no way affects either House of Congress; its members have fixed terms of either 2 or 6 years irrespective of how well or poorly the Executive Branch is performing.

Constitutional distinction might explain the basis for how various Whips exercise their clout but the realities of endorsement and electoral financing is what cements party discipline or not. In the US, elections are unbelievably expensive and members of the House, on two-year election cycles, are constantly raising money. Accordingly, their ability to raise funds amongst their own districts and stakeholders has much more bearing on their re-election than an endorsement from Party Brass. Raising the requisite funds, moreover, will inevitably put a Congressman offside his Party on occasion.

Conversely, an election to the House of Commons can be comfortably financed for as little as 1/20 of the cost of a Congressional bid. But it is statutorily enshrined that a Canadian Party Leader must sign a Candidate’s Nomination Papers for that candidate to run under that party banner. An endorsement (and therefore Party approval) is absolutely critical in our electoral system.

Accordingly, is our House of Commons to be reduced to the equivalent of the US Electoral College?? It’s sole function to determine which Leader has the most support, all votes breaking on strict party lines and once it is known how the leaders are voting, the results of each vote being known in advance??

It seems wastefully expensive for an Electoral College to meet 27 weeks a year, having members travel great distances, if its only function is to provide unequivocal support to the respective leaders.

There have been rare instances of MPs defying Party Leadership and voting with their constituents, especially on issues of regional importance. NDP Members Bruce Hyer and John Rafferty voted against their party whip on a Government Bill to abolish the Long Gun Registry. Both faced discipline; Hyer is no longer a member of the NDP Caucus.

In the last Parliament, Liberal Members Anthony Rota and Larry Bagnell obeyed a party whip and voted against a Private Member’s Bill to abolish the LGR. Both were rural MP’s; both were defeated in the 2011 Election. It is hard to calculate what electoral effect the LGR vote had, as in that election many Liberals were defeated for many different reasons. It is noteworthy that both lost narrowly.

It is unfortunate when Members of Parliament are reduced to automatons, dependable and loyal above all else. It is not easy to get elected to the House of Commons (or to win a Nomination for that matter). Everyone there brings unique experience and qualifications. In the CPC Caucus, there are lawyers, surgeons, soldiers, cops, teachers, a dentist, businesspeople and farmers. I suspect the other caucuses are similarly diverse and the members qualified.

The Public Service holds no monopoly over expertise in the policy making process. And the Ottawa mandarins are certainly much more removed from a diverse population than MP’s, who live in their ridings and return there every weekend. Our system would benefit if the experience and qualifications of Members of Parliament were given greater emphasis and if Members paid as much deference to their constituents as they do to their whips.


9 comments for “Whipped Votes 101

  1. Garth Norris
    January 14, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    Some excellent points here Brent. It really highlights why MPs have to be vigorous in voicing their opinions inside Caucus before an issue reaches the vote in the House so as to bring their expertise forward as much as possible within our structured system. And to have the nerve to stand on moral principles on key issues if necessary.

  2. Liam Connelly
    January 15, 2013 at 7:52 am

    Question – budget bills and other matters deemed by the PM are votes of non – confidence; yet what about other votes? Are not those in the latter category as problematic in their consequences?

  3. CMY
    January 15, 2013 at 8:20 am

    Unfortunately, much of the importance of backbench MPs (and much of the influence they can wield behind the scenes) has also been done away with through the direct election of party leaders by party members – a process which is in many ways incompatible with the parliamentary system.

  4. Peter Redmond
    January 15, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Excellent comparison between the different systems and the way they govern. It seems that the U.S. are constantly holding elections. Their campaigns are all very nasty. I prefer our system to the U.S. I don’t think it would be possible to have a ‘Fiscal Cliff’ situation in Canada. Either our Majority Government would pass the needed legislation, or a Minority Government would be defeated on the issue and get to take the issue directly to the people with an election.

  5. Amanda Balcolm
    January 15, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Brent. It is lost on most Members of Parliament that they actually work for the people of Canada who elected them, not the party and not the Prime Minister. I understand the need to keep your members in line so the Government is not defeated and an election called or potentially called on each issue, but if the majority of your constituents, whom you represent very well, and are in touch with quite frequently, see a certain issue overwhelming one way, I think it behooves you to represent your constituents.

  6. Brian
    January 16, 2013 at 7:14 am

    You were elected into the House so you’ve got voter support and so do other individual members of your caucus! Seems like you’ve got your head screwed on straight in terms of understanding how the power structures of parliament work especially when compared to other systems. Perhaps you should be working with other similar minded MP’s in your caucus to gain more clout within your own party, like the Tea Party aligned individuals did!

    I’m sure you could find at least a dozen or so people within your caucus who’d agree with your ideas/concepts and once you do that, it’d be easy to convince the rest of your caucus into working towards your goals and not just those of the central leadership! Canadian democracy needs a bit of a shake-up and you could be just the person to do it!

  7. January 22, 2013 at 5:59 am

    Hi, just wanted to say i liked this article. it was practical. keep on posting.

  8. Linda Leon
    January 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    Has anyone within the Harper Conservative government ever voted against their own party? Look at the two omnibus budget bills where real harm was done to citizens through the gutting of environmental protection, the weakening of laws designed to protect workers and the termination of important advisory boards and science laboratories? (Not only do conservatives not want citizens to know about science; they don’t wish to know themselves.) Think of the cynical changes to the Hazardous Materials Act that will now make it possible for companies to maintain proprietary secrecy on chemicals that will poison both citizens and the environment. Look at the unscrupulous device of creating omnibus bills in the first place? One of your colleagues was taped expressing concerns about Bill C-38. I’m sure he will have to work very hard to keep his PM approved nomination during the next election. Are you one of those backbenchers chanting the mantra of the great NDP Carbon tax conspiracy? It is totally a fiction by the way; another product from the factory of misinformation that comes out of the PMO regularly. The truth of the matter is that all Harper Conservatives behave like trained seals and would be unable to keep their seats otherwise.

  9. Peter Gray
    January 24, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    The harsh reality is most of these MP’s are cowards. It’s easier to vote with the party and stay under the radar than stick your neck out for what you (or your constituents) actually believe in.