‘The Undemocratic World of Canadian Members of Parliament’

“In the crazy, Leninist world of Canada’s leader-centric parliamentary politics, maybe the only proper role for any MP, other than the one who has been selected as leader, is to be silent and obedient — like a Victorian child, to be seen and not heard, except when they are reading a speech prepared for them by a staffer from the PMO or the Leader’s Office…” 

“Leaders habitually make decisions on behalf of their caucus without full consultation. Votes are virtually never taken in Caucus. Rules of order are non-existent. The leader decides what will be done by “reading the room”—when he or she can be bothered—and any person who complains out loud about the abuse of process is ruthlessly punished for breaking ‘caucus confidence’.”

“This means that, by the end of the 42nd Parliament, the ‘Conservative’ {Party} caucus had become as dictatorial in its demands, and as opaque in its management practices, as Justin Trudeau’s ‘Liberals’.”

“Like one of the patriarchs in the ‘Book of Genesis’, I’ve been around Parliament Hill for a very, very long time. My colleague Cheryl Gallant and I are jointly the longest-serving MPs in the ‘Conservative’ {Party} caucus…

“Today, I propose to talk about democracy… The next ‘Conservative’{Party} leader should restore Caucus democracy & rules of order.

“Supposedly, the parliamentary caucuses of Canadian parties are places where free-ranging policy discussions take place, followed by a decision which is binding upon every caucus member. After the vote, everybody—including those who disagree with the selected policy option—are expected to defend it anyway.

“More than 110 years ago, this way of arriving at, and then following through on, collective decisions was articulated in these words:

“Freedom of discussion, unity of action—this is what we must strive to achieve”.

“To ensure freedom of discussion, all caucus proceedings are to be regarded as confidential. Since no outsider can be certain who took which position at this confidential meeting, the secrecy of the proceedings allows for subsequent unity of action. This way of acting is characterized in Canada using such terms as “caucus unity”, “caucus solidarity”, and “caucus discipline {All of which subvert our representative democracy}.

“So familiar is this argument that it may come as a surprise to learn that the author of the quotation cited above was not Canadian—these words are Lenin’s and are taken from his report on the 1906 congress of the ‘Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’ (the ancestor of the Bolsheviks). Lenin’s term for this way of making decisions was “democratic centralism {!!!}.

“The fact that Canada’s parties purport to operate on explicitly Leninist principles is depressing enough. Worse yet is the fact that Canada’s party leaders rarely keep their side of the bargain. Caucus discipline is certainly a real thing, as are the practices of stripping MPs of committee assignments or conveniently-situated offices as punishments, and depriving them, under one pretext or another, of their nomination when they have had the temerity to speak out, to oppose the leader, or to show other signs of independence or ‘impertinence’. 

{It should be unConstitutional – illegal – for anyone, including a political party, to coerce an elected representative’s vote…}

“But the other side of the bargain is not honoured: Leaders habitually make decisions on behalf of their caucus without full consultation. Votes are virtually never taken in Caucus. Rules of order are non-existent. The leader decides what will be done by “reading the room”—when he or she can be bothered—and any person who complains out loud about the abuse of process is ruthlessly punished for breaking caucus confidence.

“Don’t misunderstand me: respecting the secrecy of what happens in Caucus is genuinely important, and just last month, I myself opened the first ‘Conservative’ {Party} caucus of the 43rd Parliament (which it was my responsibility to chair, as the longest-serving MP in the room), by reminding everybody in the room of the importance of not revealing what we would be discussing {But the people who elected you have the RIGHT to know what’s being discussed!}. But it is tragic that the primary practical use of the caucus confidence convention is to stifle dissent rather than to facilitate it—primarily by making it a punishable offence to demonstrate that procedural abuse has taken place.

“A striking example of this, in marginally different circumstances, was Justin Trudeau’s expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould for what he characterized as the “unconscionable” (although perfectly legal) act of recording a conversation in which his minion (or who, at other times, was known as the head of the public service of Canada) had tried to strong-arm her into acting against her view of the public interest. The abuses engaged in by leaders are endlessly forgivable. The act of revealing these abuses is the only truly unforgivable sin.

“This deplorable situation was made a bit better when, in the 41st Parliament, Michael Chong’s ‘Reform Act’ was adopted, permitting the election by caucus members of their ‘chair’, and allowing for some other changes, including the adoption by each recognized caucus of the rule that MPs cannot be unilaterally tossed out by the leader. But far, far more is needed.

“Candidates for the ‘Conservative’ Party leadership should commit to following actual rules of order at all caucus meetings {! Which is how constituency meetings are held!}. I suggest ‘Robert’s Rules of Order’, which are simple and universally understood. Suitable amendments could be made to accommodate the particular needs of caucus meetings, such as accommodating the leader’s ability to intervene at any point in most discussions, and the need for the leader to be exempted from the time-limits imposed upon the remarks made by other caucus members {? Why? This is used by leadership to manipulate a meeting}.

“Leaders should be willing—indeed, they should very much want—to hold votes in Caucus. No leader is ever more fully empowered, vis-à-vis dissenting caucus members, than when he or she has demonstrated, to the dissenting faction, that he or she has the support of the majority. No leader is ever weaker, than when he or she is incapable of making such a demonstration.

“And yet, leader after leader unwisely decides to choose the undemocratic path {This is why we need Criminal Code and Constitutional amendments}. I have never understood why. Having served (unlike all but one of my ‘Conservative’ {Party} colleagues) in the caucus of the ‘Canadian Alliance’ prior to the 2004 party merger, I can remember just how well it worked to have a proper set of rules of order and to settle the most important questions by means of votes (with the members, rather than the leader, determining what was important and therefore subject to being decided by means of a vote).

“Of course, everybody remembers this as being the caucus that rebelled against Stockwell Day {and his inept and incompetent leadership}. Which suggests, at first glance, that democratic caucuses are powder-kegs. But after Stock stepped aside, the CA caucus ran well under the interim leadership of John Reynolds. It ran even better under the leadership of Stephen Harper, who was able to skilfully use his MPs’ informed consent to build a strong mandate for making the ‘unpleasant compromises’ {‘sell-out to corruption’} that would be needed in order to successfully conclude the merger negotiations with the ‘Progressive Conservatives’. Without a truly democratic caucus, I don’t think the ‘merger’ {‘takeover’} could have been pulled off—and the dissents that took place afterwards make this point. Harper’s relatively-large Canadian Alliance caucus lost a single MP during the merger process, while the PC caucus, which was run on the leader-centric model to which we have since reverted, had shed nearly half its membership by the time of the next election.
“The next ‘Conservative’ {Party} leader should restore free votes on all matters not otherwise designated and should ensure that no member is disciplined for voting against a party position imposed by a body of which he or she is not a member.

“I have worded the header for this section so that it will contain the antidote to what I regard as the terminal stage in the decline of my caucus from one in which (when I was first elected), MPs — including members of Shadow Cabinet – were expected to vote, on all important matters,
–in accordance with the will of their constituents or (as might sometimes prove to be the case);
–in accordance with the dictates of their consciences;
to one in which it is the primary obligation of any non-backbencher to vote as determined by the leader and whatever subsection of the Shadow Cabinet made the decision on behalf of the rest.

“Today, an MP who votes his or her conscience, or the will of his or her constituents, on any matter where the leader wants a different outcome will, in punishment for his or her disobedience, be tossed out of shadow cabinet and possibly off of committees. That was certainly my own experience: In January 2018, I was sacked from the party’s critic role for Democratic Institutions, for the crime of having broken ranks two months earlier and voted in favour of ‘Bill C-45’, the ‘Cannabis Act’, after having consulted my constituents and been given a mandate to do so.

“One should always be cautious about generalizing from a personal narrative, and it may be that this is true in my case. But I think I’m accurate in saying that the demand that was placed on me—the requirement to vote as instructed, on a question which had never been submitted to a vote in which I was able to participate—has been imposed on many others. This means that, by the end of the 42nd Parliament, the ‘Conservative’ {Party} caucus had become as dictatorial in its demands, and as opaque in its management practices, as Justin Trudeau’s ‘Liberals’.

“The facts, in the case of Bill C-45, are as follows:
–The ‘Conservative’ {Party} caucus was divided on the issue of cannabis legalization. By my estimate, somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of MPs were pro-legalization (although many, including myself, had well-placed reservations about the details of ‘Bill C-45’). This is a substantially greater minority than is typical in a united caucus;
–The matter was discussed in Caucus, but no vote, as to the position the party would take, was ever taken in Caucus. Instead, the leadership simply imposed a decision from above. The real motivation for this course of action was never explained to Caucus;
–No vote of Shadow Cabinet as a whole was ever taken on the stand the party would take on the bill;
–I first announced the intention to consult my constituents on ‘Bill C-45’, and had actually mailed out the survey (or “Constituency Referendum”) before Andrew Scheer had assumed the leadership of the party and therefore before any of the foregoing had taken place;
–Three thousand constituents responded to the ‘Constituency Referendum’, with a majority telling me to vote in favour of the legislation.

Had I voted against my constituents, I would have destroyed my credibility as my party’s spokesman on democracy issues. My ability to advocate internally on democracy issues—writing this essay, for example—would have been destroyed.

“None of this mattered to the leader. I was summoned to his office, informed by him that the ‘Constituency Referendum’ instrument (which had been used the previous summer by most ‘Conservative’ {Party} MPs, as a way of measuring public support for a referendum on electoral reform) was worthless as a gauge of public opinion, and was presented with a choice between voting against ‘Bill C-45’, resigning my post as democracy critic, or being sacked. I turned down the first option, and I was informed that there would be no “road back” (i.e., I would never again leave the back benches) unless I agreed to voluntarily resign.

“This was an option that I actually considered, briefly, until I saw the resignation letter that I was expected to sign. Among other things, it contained the following wording: 

“As you know, the Leader of the Official Opposition and the Shadow Cabinet oppose ‘Bill C-45’. This opposition is well founded: doctors, scientists and public safety officials have all warned the ‘Liberal’ Party of Canada about the flaws associated with this bill.

“However, I must always represent my constituents and I cannot in good conscience vote against their wishes. I also will not vote against the Leader of the Official Opposition while sitting as a member of his Shadow Cabinet.”

“The first sentence left the false impression that I had had the opportunity, as a Shadow Cabinet member, to present my point of view and to participate in the subsequent vote. Nothing of the sort had taken place. The final sentence shows that I was expected to endorse the notion that the supreme duty of every shadow cabinet member is obedience. So I refused to sign the letter, although I did inform the leader that I’m a team player {The ‘team’ is you and your constituents, NOT you and your Party!}, and that it was not my intention to raise a fuss.

“Two months later, when I was sacked, I was true to my word. I had been removed from my post in the evening, with neither notice to me nor explanation in the Leader’s press release, less than a week after Patrick Brown had been removed as leader of the Ontario PCs for sexual misconduct. Naturally, a reporter spotted a pattern, and called me at home, to ask if I had been terminated for a similar reason.

“At that moment, I had the opportunity to set the record straight. But instead, loyal to my leader (because, one way or the other, he was going to lead us into the next election, and damage to his credibility, however well-deserved, would cost us votes in other MPs’ ridings), I lied and told the reporter that the removal was the result of my need to juggle some extra responsibilities that I had recently taken on at my family’s business.

“(It wasn’t all a lie—I really had taken on the vice-chairmanship of my family’s business, and I really had pre-cleared this with the Ethics Commissioner, as stated to the reporter. But still, in order to protect my leader from the consequences of what I regarded as, at best, a very ill-considered policy decision that was intended to permanently hobble my own career, I had told an outright lie to a reporter, for the first time in my career. It is a sign of just how craven our political culture has become that there will be some people who will say that I was right to lie to a journalist in January 2018, and am wrong to come clean about it now at the tail-end of 2019.)

“At any rate, the reporter (the very intelligent and reasonable Marie-Danielle Smith) bought my story, and Andrew’s obvious desire to avoid the negative publicity associated with his decisions was met. The whole thing would have remained a secret were it not for the fact that I now believe that making this story public may serve as a way of incentivizing the next leader of my party to foreswear doing the same thing in the future.

“I relate the foregoing facts, by the way, not out of a sense of dislike for Andrew Scheer, or resentment about being tossed out of Shadow Cabinet—indeed, as recently as our Caucus meeting on the afternoon of December 12, 2019, (the one that immediately followed Andrew’s public announcement of his forthcoming resignation), I was the first caucus member to take the microphone to say that Andrew would be both legally and morally justified in staying on as party leader until the new one is chosen, thereby avoiding the need for an interim leader to be selected.

“Anyway, enough about Andrew and me. Below, I outline the policy that I would like to see adopted.

“The two Parliaments in which our party was a minority government, and the subsequent one where we held a majority, showed that Cabinet members, and even backbenchers, have to vote with the party most of the time. As leader, you have to be able to cobble together more than 50% of the votes on any given matter or you don’t win the vote. This includes numerous procedural votes which can hardly be described as “conscience” matters, and on which MPs can hardly be expected to poll their constituents. As well, the basis of the Westminster system is that confidence in the Government is expressed by means of voting with the Government on every money-related matter. ‘Want of Confidence’ on even a single vote triggers an election.
{Then change that!}

“So on the vast majority of votes—well over 90%—it is reasonable to expect that MPs should {“should”, not ‘have to’} vote with their party, and that the consequence of failing to do so should be expulsion from their party’s caucus {???}.

{That’s only “reasonable” if they get to retain all of their Parliamentary privileges once outside of caucus – which they don’t. Those parliamentary privileges exist for elected representatives, not Party employees…}

“Managing the conflicting pressures on MPs has traditionally been managed by means of a system of “whip levels{“Whip” is an unfortunatey-accurate term for what Parties do to OUR elected representatives}. An upcoming vote is rated by the caucus based on the level of importance that the caucus assigns to showing a unified face on this particular matter. If absolute unity is absolutely vital (as on a budget vote), then it is said to require a “three-line whip”. All MPs are expected to vote the party line. If the matter is of intermediate importance, then it is said to require a “two-line whip”. All cabinet / shadow cabinet members are expected to vote the party line, and backbenchers can vote as they see fit. If personal conscience or the duty of representing constituents is seen as paramount, the vote is treated as being a “one-line whip”, and everybody can vote as they see fit.

This system is ‘reasonable’ and ‘fair’ (or, more truthfully, it is reasonable and fair if you regard the terms outlined by Lenin in 1906 as being the ideal towards which you are aiming {!}) only if each MP who is bound to “vote the party line”, at whatever whip level has been established for that particular vote, had first been given the opportunity to:
–say his or her piece at the meeting at which the caucus’s position was determined;
–vote one way or the other, at that confidential meeting, on what that position will be; and
–at the very least, have a say as to what the appropriate caucus response ought to be, to any decision to dissent.

“This last bullet was not a part of Lenin’s original formula, as I have the modest aspiration that our party should take a more moderate approach to visible dissent than the one preferred by the Bolsheviks {!}. But even if that last bullet-point strikes prospective ‘Conservative’ {Party} leadership candidates as wild-eyed libertarianism, I still maintain that if an MP is denied the right to participate in the internal vote, then it is a breach of the principle of ‘Democratic Centralism’ for him or her to be regarded as being obligated to vote the party line.

{How can ANY Canadian elected representative support Leninism as our governing methodology?}

“There was a time, earlier in my career, when I saw this principle being breached only from time to time. The first large leap in the wrong direction was when, on coming to power, we adopted the practice of the outgoing ‘Liberals’, of requiring parliamentary secretaries to be bound to vote the government line even on two-line whips, as if they were cabinet ministers. But parliamentary secretaries do not sit in cabinet and do not get to participate either in the votes as to what will bind cabinet, nor in the discussions leading up to these votes.

“The next leap—and the one that caught me—was the expectation that all shadow cabinet members vote the party line on all matters, even if the decision to vote in a certain direction was made at a meeting of the inner cabinet, or of some cabinet committee on which the individual member does not sit. Votes that are imposed on all members of caucus, including on items of private members’ business, on which debate has been at best ‘pro forma’, are becoming more and more common. I would be hard-pressed to say that the ‘Conservative’ {Party} caucus is any more democratic than the ‘Liberals’, the NDP, or the Bloc.

“Perhaps I really am a wild-eyed libertarian dreamer. In the crazy, Leninist world of Canada’s leader-centric parliamentary politics, maybe the only proper role for any MP other than the one who has been selected as leader is to be silent and obedient—like a Victorian child, to be seen and not heard, except when they are reading a speech prepared for them by a staffer from the PMO or the Leader’s Office.

“But I’m hoping that each of the candidates running to be the next leader of the ‘Conservative’ Party will decide otherwise and will pledge to drag our parliamentary wing back from the situation into which it has fallen. Then maybe we can return to being the party of democracy, openness, and free speech that I thought I was helping to create, back in 2003-04 when I was on the team negotiating the terms of the CA / PC merger.”

{That’s what Reform had and, ironically, what YOU helped kill with the merger with the corrupted remnants of the ‘Progressive Conservatives’…}

–‘Conservatives should be leading on democracy issues’,
“…Canada’s Commons, where just 0.7% of votes broke party ranks between October 2004 and May 2013…”

“…the fear of talking about what happens in caucus and cabinet – the private spaces where MLAs, MPPs and MPs are allowed to voice dissenting opinions about public issues – means that Canadians have little understanding of why their representatives make such compromises…

“An example of that fear: during a background interview, one politician told me that, as a first-time provincial candidate,

I knew I was part of a larger franchise and I would only be able to sell drinks in the same size cup as everyone else. But I did think I would be able to at least decorate my store the way I wanted and have my own customer service approach.”

“But when we sat down for what became a sweaty, two-hour on-camera interview, the politician talked about being a supporter party discipline.

“The politician later told me about suffering “sleepless nights” contemplating what may have been said during that interview, which I left on the cutting room floor.

“Meanwhile, another former MLA compared being a member of caucus to being a member of the “mafia”, declining to talk publicly about party discipline because
I still have to do business in this environment”.

–‘Canada’s strict party discipline perverts democracy’,
Sean Holman, Toronto Star, June 18, 2013
See also:
The Root Of Dysfunction in the Canadian Senate{March 22, 2018}:
“The problem is that Senators weren’t elected – or appointed by provincial governments — even though they’re supposed to represent provincial interests. The Senate has instead been used as a place for a Prime Minister to reward loyal supporters; hence, the Prime Ministerial impatience when the Senate actually tries to do their job. It’s particularly revealing in this case, considering the P.M.’s charade of supposedly appointing ‘independent’ Senators…”

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