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.