This article originally appeared in Huffington Post Canada
When the Conservatives were in opposition, they frequently chastised the governing Liberals for ruling their backbencher MPs with an iron fist. Most if not all votes were whipped, which meant that, in a majority government, the position of the Prime Minister and his inner Cabinet invariably became the law of the land.
Since the Conservatives have come to power, that same trend has unfortunately continued and a number of small-c conservative MPs have begun to voice their disapproval. The latest to do so is Brent Rathgeber, who was elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 2008 and subsequently became an independent in 2013 over what he referred to as the Conservative’s lack of commitment to “open government.” Mr. Rathgeber has written a book on the topic entitled Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, and recently published an excerpt in the National Post.
The gist of Rathgeber’s argument is that Members of Parliament are part of the legislative, not the executive, branch of the state. They are not part of the Government of Canada; they are elected to represent their constituents. As such, they should be free to vote independently on all but “three line whips” (such as confidence votes), which may mean voting against the government on occasion.
Canadians tend to think of the “separation of powers” as being an American concept. In fact, the very same ideal is embedded in the Canadian Constitution, albeit in a less rigid form. The Constitution Act, 1867 separates the powers of the “Executive,” “Legislative” and “Judicature” in a similar fashion to the Constitution of the United States. The big difference of course is that as a matter of constitutional convention, the Prime Minister, who is also a Member of Parliament, acts as the de facto head of government and appoints other Members to form part of his governing Cabinet.
The convention of appointing the Cabinet from members of the legislature should not, in theory, undermine the entire separation of powers since the majority of MPs do not form part of the executive branch. In practice, however, it is not only the Cabinet who are expected to vote in lockstep with the government, but ordinary backbencher MPs as well.
The solution for some is to pass new laws that provide MPs with more autonomy. While some reforms may be in order, this approach fails to recognize that the problem we are facing is fundamentally cultural not legal. Ultimately, it is the MPs who voluntarily chain themselves to the government’s position. As Rathgeber explains, “[t]he big carrot for backbenchers is the forward movement of one’s political career.” Regardless of whether or not MPs have a greater say in how the party and caucus are run, they will not exercise that power if they believe it will damage or hinder their future political prospects.
The better approach, it seems to me, is a much simpler one: increase the number of MPs. Canada currently has 338 MPs, which is thankfully more than the 308 we had going into the 2011 election, but still far too few. The British House of Commons consists of a whopping 650 elected representatives, and it is no secret that British MPs vote a lot more freely than do their Canadian counterparts. The reason is that the distance in Britain between the backbench and the Cabinet is far greater in political terms. Many British MPs know well in advance that they are politically insignificant and will never form part of the Cabinet, and this knowledge liberates them from the seductive pull of the party brass.
In Canada, by contrast, every junior MP fairly considers him/herself to be a potential future Cabinet Minister, and perhaps even the Prime Minister, which too often leads them to abandon their constituents in favour of toeing the government line. Indeed, could we Canadians even conceive of an MP who serves his constituents and Canadians for several decades without ever becoming a member of the Cabinet or an Opposition Critic?
In other words, the best way to stop our MPs from pursuing their career prospects at the expense of the electorate is to limit those prospects. Politicians are ambitious creatures by nature, but many are also hard-nosed pragmatists, and if the road to the Cabinet becomes too long and winding, they may just settle for a successful career as an influential legislator. Increasing the number of MPs will not completely fix the problem of the self-whipped MP, but it will help to ensure that those who run for office do so because they want to have a hand in passing laws, not so they can join the government that executes those laws.