Keith Penner represented
Cochrane-Superior in the House of Commons from 1968 to 1984. At thetime this
article was written he was a member of the National Transportation Agency of Canda
aforthe Ontario Region.
Elected Members of Parliament live
with many stresses and tensions: insecurity of tenure, too little privacy and
sometimes conflict between their personal convictions and the opinions held by
the voters. More often, I would suggest, there is likely to be strained
relations, at least on occasion, between a member and the political party to
which he or she belongs.
Tension between an elected member
and the voters is more in the member's mind than it is a reality. The degree of
apathy and ignorance among citizens about public policy issues and politicians
is alarmingly high.
Elected members may feel that
voters have them constantly in mind. The truth is, they are seldom given a
second thought. Marc Lalonde, a former cabinet minister said, in this regard,
that politics is not everything in life. "It is important to remember that
500 feet from Parliament Hill no one thinks about politics for more than two
minutes in a day, if that".
Now, of course, some issues have,
what we may call, brief flashpoints which attract public attention. Capital
punishment comes quickly to mind. I recall one MP saying to me that although he
was an abolishionist by conviction, he was going with his constituents on this
one and voting for retention. It made no difference. In the next election he
Another MP I knew refused a pay
increase a number of years ago because he said his constituents were opposed to
it. He lost thousands of dollars as a result and lost the next election as
Then, there was Mr. Keep-in-Touch.
Every day, while Parliament sat, this MP called twenty constituents on the
telephone. During recesses of Parliament, he went door-to-door and held
numerous neighbourhood meetings to gather views, opinions and ideas from the
electorate. For him, participatory democracy was an article of faith. He served
only one term before suffering defeat.
A veteran MP I knew gave heart and
soul and mind to see that justice was done for his constituents when the
government expropriated massive amounts of land for an airport that was never
built. Many of the people he had helped did not bother to turn out on voting
day and he came second.
Now, it is not my intention to
convey a message of cynicism about the electorate. Not at all. People are busy
with their lives. They have jobs or careers which absorb their attention.
Families and community activities soak up what time remains. Their focus of
attention simply is not on those issues of the day which so deeply concern
The late Don Jamieson, a former
Minister of External affairs, who hailed from the Province of Newfoundland,
once said: "Every time you start thinking you are going to go into the
history books as the guy who finally solved the Middle East crisis, one of your
constituents says `Never mind that, when are you going to fix the plank on the
In Canada, as a rule, one gets to
Parliament on a party ticket. George Hees, another former Cabinet Minister
expressed it this way: "The political organization must create a demand in
the minds of the voters for their candidate, just as corporations create a
demand for their particular brand of merchandise."
Not many candidates run as
independents and the reason is obvious. Thus, a successful candidate probable
owes more loyalty to the party that helped to elect him or her than to the
electorate who may be unable to remember the MP's name a month after the
This leads me to suggest,
therefore, that the greater dilemma, if there is one at all, may be between the
member and the party rather than between the member and the electorate.
In the relationship between an
elected member and the political party, a little rebellion goes a long way.
Gordon Aikin, a former MP and author of a book entitled The Backbencher,
wrote "A little rebellion is a good thing in politics as long as someone
else does it."
An Oxford philosopher is quoted in
William Manchester's recent book on Winston Churchill entitled The Last Lion
as follows: "No strongly, centralized political organization feels
altogether happy with individuals who combine independence, a free imagination
and formidable strength of character, with stubborn faith and a single- minded,
unchanging view of the public and private good."
At the very outset, we can probable
all agree that most political parties in a democratic society will allow
personal convictions to come first if these are matters of conscience or of
religious belief. Issues like abortion or capital punishment may be subject to
a free vote or else they may be buried in an omnibus bill to soften their
effect. But less tolerant, if tolerant at all, will be the party that must
contend with members who easily put aside party loyalties in order to represent
what they consider to be the views of their electors.
A case in point would be the imposition
of a new tax. Edmond Burke said, 200 years ago: "To tax and to please is
not given to men". Prime Minister Mulroney, referring to a party
dissident, said: "He has been a fair weather friend. With us when we could
help him, he dropped us when we became a temporary liability. We would rather
go with people who are going to be with us in the tough slogging."
The other side of the argument,
made by some, is that in Canada party discipline is excessive, that the concept
of `confidence' in the government is much too narrowly defined. Such members
point to Westminster where measures, from time to time, are defeated, including
tax bills, and the government does not necessarily fall, Instead, the proposal
may be dropped and a new one takes its place.
In Canada, some Members of
Parliament seem to long for the U.S. congressional type system in which
partisan positions are often blurred or softened. But even in Congress, we
should remember, the leadership works to exert its will. Speaker Sam Rayburn,
for example, in his day, was often heard to say: "Around here to get along
you had better go along".
Whether it is so or not that party
discipline in Canada is too severe, it is simply a fact that party unity is
considered to be a virtue and a strength, while division in the ranks is seen
to be a flaw and a sign of weakness. Whether members like it or not, the
parliamentary system does depend, to a considerable degree, upon party
Mr. Trudeau, as Prime Minister, was
often heard exhorting his caucus to remain united. "The Opposition hates
to see us slaying together", he would say. At the same time, every
indication of divided opinion in the Opposition ranks was exploited to the full
by the government of the day.
Before proceeding with the ways of
coping with party discipline, it should be noted, in passing, that the power of
the whip is much greater when a party forms a government that when it is in
opposition. A Leader of the Opposition has few carrots to offer the members
and, therefore, carries a smaller stick as well.
I remember watching in utter
amazement as two former Cabinet ministers, then in Opposition, voted against a
measure that they had supported while they were in Government. They did so
against the wishes of their leader. It led me to ask the question: Could it be
that the degree of dissent is directly proportional to the costs that may be
incurred? Expressed differently, a few perks make conformity much easier to
swallow, just as sugar helps the medicine go down.
Finally, I turn to the question of
how best to cope with the demands of one's political party. How to cope, that
is, and survive. For many, personal convictions and party policy are so rarely
in conflict that they feel free to act as cheerleaders, as salespersons or as
The cheerleader MP gleefully
heralds the rightness and goodness of every party position. Even after Napoleon
lost the Battle of Waterloo, there was one officer in his army, Nicholas
Chauvin, who still kept his faith in the little corporal. His fanatical loyalty
gave us the word we use today for a rabid follower, a chauvinist.
The MP as salesperson is the one
who always believes that party policy is good but has been badly communicated
to the public. Thus, a former MP, now back in the business world, tells his
party: "You have not communicated your product to the public. No matter
how good it is, it is likely to stay in the warehouse unless you get out and
The educator-politician is somewhat
more sophisticated and refined. This member becomes knowledgeable about the
intricate details of a policy or a piece of legislation. He or she seeks to
counter arguments or views that are expressed in opposition to it. They develop
a rationale for the bill or for the party position and they seek opportunities
to explain why this particular course of action is the necessary or right one.
Such members, of course, are often marked for promotion into the ranks of
Where personal convictions do
conflict with the party position, a member may either side-step the dilemma by
becoming a specialist within the parliamentary system, or walk directly into
the eye of the storm and become a maverick. There is also a third alternative,
which is, simply, to depart the scene as gracefully as possible and go and do
something else. Here, only the first two alternatives will be considered.
The specialist does not bother too
much with every issue that comes forward. Instead, these members prefer to
specialize in one or two areas and try to make some kind of an impact there. As
for other matters, they are more or less happy to go along. The specialist
feels free to follow his or her own convictions in the subject matter,
especially when the party position is not yet firmly or unalterably in place.
Thus, such a member seeks to become involved in party policy formulation and
policy development. They follow an acceptable path, usually within the ranks of
the party, to influence other members and the government of the day.
The McGrath Committee on
Parliamentary Reform asked the question, among others, how may more latitude be
provided to the private member in a system of executive democracy? The answer,
it was suggested, lay partly in a stronger, more independent committee system in
which parliamentary inquiries could be initiated by agreement among the members
without the need for government consent. The committee system in Canada today
is a vast improvement over what it once was. The recommendations of the McGrath
Committee made a significant impact on the parliamentary committee system in
Canada. The system provides much more scope for the energetic, creative and
intelligent MP. It is an antidote to the charge that a Member of Parliament is
merely sheep-like or a trained seal in the legislative process.
A maverick becomes a rebel, a
heretic, a thing to flout. It is a way of attracting a great deal of attention,
at least for a short while. Interviews by members of the news media abound.
Being a guest on a talk show is a frequent occurrence. It can all be a heady
experience. This approach may lead in time to the member deciding that he or
she ought to change political parties. Charles King, a Canadian newspaper
columnist, recently looked at the careers of a number of Canadian legislators
who had changed political parties. He noted that in no case was the transition
easy or successful. He pointed out that the gesture by these members gained for
them only the hostility of their former colleagues and no thanks from their
constituents. He concluded that it marked sad endings to worthwhile political
There is no clear, unambiguous
answer to the dilemma created when an elected member's will clashes with
imposed party discipline. How one responds, depends in large measure upon the
personality and the background of the member involved. To return again to
William Manchester in his book, The Last Lion, he wrote: "If public
men of vision are tough as Churchill was, they endure. If they are not, and
most are not, the perish or live out their lives in lonely exile".
Well, so be it. But then Mark Twain
reminded us that: "Fame is a vapour, popularity an accident and the only
earthly certainty is oblivion".