At the time this article was
written Bert Brown was Chairman of the Canadian Committee for a Triple E
Senate. This article is based on his remarks to a conference on Re-Inventing
Parliament organized by the Canada West Foundation in February 1994 at the
University of Lethbridge.
In 1991 the author conducted a
survey of past and present federal and provincial legislators about their views
on the effects of party discipline. Following the 1993 election another survey
was sent to 230 members of the last Parliament. Respondents were guaranteed
anonymity if they wished. The surveys indicate that the strongest opinions on
the effects of party discipline are held by sitting members who are captive to
it. Those no longer serving in a legislative body were far less concerned.
There are no binding or even
informal votes held in federal governing caucuses and very rarely in provincial
ones. How many Canadians fully understand that when they vote for a member of
parliament or provincial legislator, they are choosing a person who will rarely
be allowed to vote in caucus and only allowed to vote in their legislature when
such a vote exactly coincides with the interests of their party?
When asked why they voted the party
line one MP responded, "No doubt members have ambitions to move into new
positions or cabinet, and votes against the party line reduce such chances very
rapidly to zero." Another said, "Voting against the party line is not
exactly career enhancing". Not wanting to precipitate an early election
was another excuse used to justify toeing the line.
When asked about trade offs in
voting party line, a number of those surveyed said an interesting phenomena
occurs when members want to make a trade off, but cannot `stomach' voting the
party line. They do not bother to show up for votes or abstain. Some members
simply become ill.
Asked if he feared party
retaliation one member who had experienced it said, "Yes, members never
like to think about fear of party retaliation, but it is always lurking in the
background and is constantly reinforced by the party whips".
A question about incentives for
party loyalty evoked a long list of perks including, trips to other countries,
positions on committees, boards and chairs of committees, parliamentary
secretary positions, and hopes of a cabinet position. Approval of caucus or the
"herd instinct" were also cited as incentives to loyalty.
When asked if caucus was a team or
an army, most participants replied caucus either began as an army or became one
after a short period as a governing party.
One MP said, "I thought I went
down there to play halfback or defensive lineman. Instead, they gave me a
couple of pom poms and sent me to the cheering section".
When a policy on daycare was
announced to caucus at 11:00 a.m. and the position paper for the 3:00 p.m. news
conference was handed out before caucus discussed it, the members responded
with howls of protest, "Are we robots, or nothing but a bunch of trained
Asked how a party can punish a
member for disagreeing with policy, one member said, "If you get on the
wrong side of the whip, forget it." Another said, "You were supposed
to park your brain at the door". Finally, one frustrated member said,
"When you differ from the party, all the Marquis of Queensbury Rules go
out the window and anything is tolerable anything in the name of squelching
My favourite story about party
discipline comes from Peter Lougheed at the Alternatives 91 Conference.
"All a leader has to do", he noted, "is look across the table
and raise his eyebrow". That raised eyebrow says ... "you ain't
getting in cabinet buddy".
Changes suggested to help strike a
balance between demands of party discipline and the needs of the electorate
included reducing confidence votes to a very short list or simply, proclaimed
votes of confidence as in the British Parliament.
The frustrations of the current
system were perhaps best summed up by the leader of the Reform Party, Preston
Manning, when he said, "Despite the fact that Canadians from coast to
coast feel taxed to death, the Canadian House of Commons is incapable of
exercising effective downward pressure on federal spending and taxation. This
is because the government treats every vote on a government motion, including
every vote on a spending or taxation motion, as a confidence motion. In the
Canadian Parliament, you cannot defeat a government spending proposal or a
taxation proposal without defeating the government, and as a result, proposals
to increase government spending or taxation are never turned down."
Other reforms to improve our system
that were suggested included fixed election dates to prevent taxpayers being
bought with their own money and the expense of early elections foisted on
reluctant voters purely to accommodate party interests. Some suggested giving
more legislative powers to committees and less to party whips. Finally, there
were suggestions for fundamental reform of the House of Commons, reform of the
electoral system, and Senate Reform each in varying degrees.
When asked if they envy their
American counterpart or pity them, those surveyed expressed more envy than
pity. There is no check and balance between what the Prime Minister decrees and
what happens in the House. There is no check and balance in committees. There
is no other House that can provide checks and balances. The Prime Minister
basically has power without any checks and balances.
It is worth quoting Lord Hailsham,
a keen student of Britain's parliament, who said, "no restrictions on the
powers of parliament have been written into a formal constitution. There is
nothing legally which it cannot do. The Party which controls parliament can do
what it likes. The Party-in-Power is our ruler."
When asked how they felt about conflicts
between their own ideas and party policy and/or the wishes of constituents, the
responses are best summed up by one MP who said, "Things around the House
of Commons and support for the government are very much ambition driven. There
are very few who ever speak out on issues. There is so much virulent ambition
down here that it seems to drive everything."
In summing up participants feelings
about conflicts between MPs and the public, it appears that in this area, our
parliamentary system falls far short of the expectations of Canadians. In
striving to reach consensus and to insure the party's re-election, the
governing party will ignore one interest after another, until effectively, it
ignores them all. Members call this, "putting water in our wine". Examples
of such compromise are familiar. They include the CF-18 contract, the National
Energy Program, the shakes and shingles dispute, the cod fisheries disputes,
the GST, the Meech Lake Accord, and finally the rejected Charlottetown Accord.
Examples already in the current government include the tobacco tax and the
current federal budget. During the survey on MP said, "The lie of `party
interest' as `national interest' is perpetrated so often that any true national
interest ceases to exist."
At the end of this survey, one is
left with the feeling that our parliamentary system has become so distorted by
party discipline, so narrowly focused on achieving and retaining power that all
other interests are swept aside in favour of party interests as perceived by
the PMO. In the end, the interests of small groups, such as aboriginals, large
and often powerful minorities such as francophones, and even majority interests
as those of women, go unanswered, as do those of outer provinces, when they do
not agree exactly with governing party interests. In the words of one former
provincial cabinet minister, "Party interest ultimately becomes so
paramount and discipline so great, that no new light can get in."
Canada has reached a stage where
party interest holds hostage all other interests. Even the drafting and
amending of the constitution is held hostage to the whim of how parties see
their plurality of seats in the next election. Many of the reforms suggested by
respondents in the survey such as fewer confidence votes, fixed election dates,
direct election of leaders by party members, strengthened committee make-up and
powers, better access to information, reducing the confrontational aspect of
question period, and returning the House of Commons to a forum for constructive
debate could vastly improve, at least temporarily, the way in which elected
members of parliament are able to effectively represent the interests of their
constituents in the national decision-making process.
Without fundamental structural
reform to make the national government accountable to minority interests and
minority provinces, accountable on each piece of legislation, accountable on
all national policy, it is difficult to believe such Commons' reform would not
inevitably erode over time. Unchecked and unchallenged party discipline would
reassert its tremendous influence and power to return us to the tyranny of the
An MP responded by saying, "If
the same old party discipline is in place you can have a formal structure of free
votes in place, but many people will not vote freely because they are thinking
of their future. A reformed Senate would almost force these issues, people
could not back away from them even if they wanted to".
In the absence of other fundamental
reforms to the present psychology of decision-making in Ottawa, a thorough
examination of potential benefits of an elected upper House, with equal
provincial representation, and retaining the powers it was embodied with at
Confederation can provide the necessary check and balance on the House of
Commons. Such a Senate would be a long term counter force to the myopia of
unchallenged party discipline.
It may well be the reforms to party
discipline and the operation of the House of Commons as recommended by the respondents
to this survey, worthwhile as those changes are, can only bring lasting change
if a constitutional reform which effectively prevents any return to the old
ways is undertaken simultaneously.
The real and enduring benefits of
constitutional reform will occur when the future House of Commons is forced to
become far more democratic and accountable and to remain so, by a democratic
Senate that has the power to leave it with no other choice.
The Canadian parliamentary system,
which was held in such high esteem for a generation after World War II, began a
slow but dramatic change from a parliamentary democracy to government by the
office of the Prime Minister and his staff under Pierre Elliott Trudeau. This
concentration of power and decision-making became complete under Brian
Mulroney. As yet, there is little indication of change by the current
It appears to have naturally
followed that, as the numbers of people involved in decision-making dwindled
and the variety and divergence of views reflected in the decisions narrowed,
the tendency to take wrong headed directions for the nation escalated
This same concentration of power in
a majority of provincial Premiers' offices has led to a duplication of wrong
headed directions at the provincial level. Provincial and federal governments
have consistently ignored the long-term policies necessary to make less
populated provinces economically diverse and attractive as a place to live for
future generations. They have, and still are, building up huge national and
provincial deficits and debt.
It is impossible to identify any
single factor contributing more to the current economic and constitutional woes
of Canada than the concentration of decision-making in the hands of dangerously
few, and dangerously focused people. All has occurred as the result of
unchallenged and unrestrained party discipline.