Achieving Greater Democratic Representation

All major Canadian political parties enforce strict party discipline in their respective caucuses. OpenParliament.ca, for instance, shows how Members of Parliament (MP) from Canada’s three major political parties rarely vote in opposition to their caucus colleagues. This is because MPs are obliged to vote along party lines or else face repercussions, such as expulsion from the party. Many Nova Scotians will remember former MP Bill Casey’s ejection from the Conservative caucus for voting against the government’s official position in 2007.

Party discipline is becoming conventional in the Canadian political system, impeding MPs from representing their constituents’ interests fully. This is a result of the belief that voters cast their ballot based on party leaders, rather than local candidates. As a result, MPs are discouraged from representing their constituents’ interests when they conflict with the party’s position. This disrupts the representative aspect of Canada’s democratic structure. Party discipline also presents challenges for responsible governance. In the Canadian political system, the executive branch requires support from Parliament in order to govern. However, strict party discipline delegitimizes this requirement.

Consider the current government, formed by the Conservative party led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Because this government has a majority in the both the House of Commons and the Senate, and, since the Conservative party enforces strict party discipline, the executive branch can operate without facing much inter- or intraparty scrutiny.

Conservative MP Michael Chong has raised this issue, expressing concern about its effect on Canada’s democratic structure. Chong introduced a parliamentary reform bill prior to the Winter break that would restore some power to individual MPs by changing the approval process for party candidates, but, more importantly, by allowing caucus members to depose their leader through a leadership review.

The bill, if passed, will allow caucus members to conduct leadership reviews if 15 per cent of the caucus agrees that a review is necessary. In this scenario, caucus members would vote on whether to unseat the leader in a secret ballot, after which they would vote in an interim leader until the party chooses a replacement.

This process, which is standard in other Westminster parliaments, in a sense legitimizes party discipline by holding leaders accountable to their caucus and compelling these leaders to be more responsive to their caucus members, as opposed to the current system.

However, Mr. Chong’s bill could go further. Changes to the leadership selection process reinforce accountability to caucus members, but they do not eliminate overly strict party discipline. For example, it does not guarantee the right of MPs to vote freely without repercussion.

Nevertheless, Mr. Chong’s bill deserves serious attention and support from the public, since it has the potential to facilitate improvements to Canada’s political system. Not to mention

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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