You can check out any time you like

Loyalty. Reliability. Steadfastness. According to the Conservative party, these words represent the qualities Canadians most desire in a Member of Parliament. To encourage MPs to adhere to these cardinal virtues, the Cons have introduced a private member’s bill which would trigger an automatic byelection after 35 days if an MP left the party he or she was elected under.

“If they’re not going to continue to get what they voted for, then they should have the right to have what they want,” said Helena Guergis, a co-sponsor of the bill, who won her seat by 100 votes in 2004. It is unclear whether she was speaking for the 59% of her constituents who did not get what they voted for last June.

Here’s a few more words: self-serving, petty, reactionary. That’s pretty much the optics here. The Conservatives lost the support of a star MP, and now are trying to ensure that our elected representatives are straight-jacketed into toeing the party line. An MP’s duty is foremost to his or her constituents, not party. The Conservatives’ bill, by saying that an MP’s ability to represent his or her riding is conditional on obeying a party leader, gets this backwards. It gives party leaders a greatly increased threat to keep their members in line: do as I say, or you are campaigning tomorrow. As a party which has a pretense of a grassroots tradition, the Conservatives should think such things through more carefully.

This particular form of automatic recall vote shares the faults of its populist cousins; it treats MPs as children, who are under constant and immediate supervision of the electorate. MPs have a tough job, and getting elected earns them some time to prove themselves. They get a chance to tackle complex issues and situations without having their decisions second-guessed in real time. This is necessary because some of the real virtues of an MP require time and reflection to appreciate: critical thinking, openness to change, and a willingness to do what is right over what is popular.

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6 Comments

  1. Manatee said,

    Monday, 20 June 2005 at 10:19 am

    I should begin by agreeing that Bill C-408, as well as Bill C-251 (You can check out anytime you like… but you must sit as an independent) do not improve the process of governing. MPs are representatives. We must trust them to think for themselves. When they disappoint us we should have an opportunity to replace that individual, though this opportunity should come after a fixed and reasonable length of time, on the next election day. Thus, I think C-383 (You can check out anytime we like) is the worst of the Private Members Bills dealing with such matters. Though, when I picture 59% of Ms. Guergis’ voting constituents congregating outside of the polls on election day, collecting signatures, pooling their money, and pledging to meet in a year to submit their application for recall, I can’t help but chuckle at the irony.

    I agree with Gnomes that the Bill is bad for the reasons he gives in his last paragraph. However, I find myself less convinced with arguments based on the ineffectiveness of the FPTP electoral system. Also, I do not feel that my objection to this Bill precludes me from believing that a degree of party discipline is a necessity, given our Parliamentary system of government. (I’m curious of Gnomes thoughts on party discipline in general, and must confess, I fear he will accuse me of fence-sitting).

    Yes, many MPs failed to earn a majority of votes in the last election. I have sweetened to the idea of electoral reform in the last few years, but I do not dismiss the representatives sent to Ottawa as illegitimate because the system that sent them there is not perfect. The reality is that the majority of voters choose who they will vote for based not on the merits of the individual candidates, but on broad concepts of what the parties stand for (or in the case of diligent voters, the actual platforms). When your average, heavy-set, backbench, Conservative MP from the Edmonton area stands to vote against Bill C-48, he can rest assured that he has acted based on the best knowledge of his constituents wishes made available to him (his being elected). If we want better, let’s get a better electoral system. Recent cases, Stronach, Grewal, and O’Brien are interesting exceptions. Stronach likely received a great deal of votes through name-recognition. We’ve heard that Grewal had the support of some Liberals in his riding, and O’Brien definitely let his constituents know his thoughts on SSM. If I were a Liberal who voted for O’Brien, or a Conservative who voted for Stronach, I would not be calling for a by-election. I would be looking for a more preferable future candidate.

    Since I’ve already agreed that MPs should be critical thinkers, open to change, etc., how can I suggest that a degree of party discipline is necessary. Party discipline ensures that the confidence of the House (a necessity given the nature of our Executive and Legislative branches) is held long enough for a government to actually do something. I know Gnomes still believes that the Executive must maintain the confidence of the House to remain legitimate. It also encourages MPs to ensure that any decision to act against their party comes only after “critical thought”, or is based on “a willingness to do what is right”. Political Parties are important institutions. Their existence usually produces platforms based on a broad concensus of the perceived national good. When an individual commits to join a political party, and especially when one chooses to run under a particular banner, it can be assumed that this person has done so because he supports the majority of that party’s platform. The degree of party discipline I support is largely self-imposed, based on the assumption that an MP has used critical thought when joining a party and will try to avoid or force an election, in all but extreme cases, by voting with their party for the achievement of a national good. I’m glad that MPs leaving their party is not the norm.

  2. Gnomes said,

    Monday, 20 June 2005 at 11:43 am

    There is no denying the rightful importance of party affiliation, party solidarity, and the discipline it requires. These are all important things, they just must absolutely remain subordinate to the right of an MP to sit in the House.

    It is difficult to discuss relatively minor issues of representation such as this in the context of an electoral system which leaves over half the population without a representative voicing their views in Parliament. What is particularly galling about Ms. Guergis’ comments is the way that they embody the typical point of view that an MP’s duty is only to his or her supporters, “the winners”, while the rest of the constituents “the losers”, are disregarded.

    I think Guergis would deny subscribing to the above view, but if any pluarality constitutes a sufficient mandate, then there is no complaining about MPs like Scott Brison who can find enough new support to be re-elected after crossing the floor.

  3. O'Smiley said,

    Monday, 20 June 2005 at 1:17 pm

    In essence Bill C-408 and C-251 are identical except that C-251 allows the “defecting” member to sit as an independent without consequence.

    Under both a direct change from one party affiliation to another would require a by-election. With this C-251 really doesn’t make sense for wouldn’t all party hopping members sit as an independent but remain a closet Liberal, Conservative, NDP or Bloc member. Ultimately it would not be any deferent than that member claiming their new party affiliation.

    The idea of a required by-election following a change in party affiliation by a member is heavily debatable.

    I agree that an MP should be elected based on personal merit and not solely on party affiliation, but this is not always the case. I believe that many MP’s are elected solely on party affiliation (particularly western conservative members. I point out gnomes MP as an example) and therefore a change in party by the MP is in turn a betrayal of their constituents. Additionally those MP’s elected by less than 50% of their constituents have present an even greater betrayal since had that MP run under a different banner a very different result may have been obtained. Perhaps a candidate from another party who had lost would have been elected.

    Conversely, should the electorate be sufficiently knowledgeable about the candidates to acknowledge this as a risk? In other words is the defection the ‘fault’ of the electorate for voting for a left leaning conservative or right leaning Liberal. Additionally, whether affiliated with one party or another, the responsibility of the MP to appropriately represent their constituents does not change.

    In the end, I guess, a by-election hurts no-one except those MP’s that have not been doing their jobs to the satisfaction of their constituents.

  4. Gnomes said,

    Monday, 20 June 2005 at 3:49 pm

    Campaigning is a very expensive, arduous process, and would represent a severe threat to an MP even if he or she was confident of re-election.

    Most people do vote based on party affiliation, but representatives need to be free to react to changing situations. Kilgour, Stronach and O’Brien’s distate for the direction taken by their respective parties were valid decisions conscientously made, not betrayals.

  5. O'Smiley said,

    Monday, 20 June 2005 at 7:26 pm

    In campaigning under a specific party banner does one not portray to the electorate that they agree with and will vote with that party’s policy. Is changing parties not a betrayal to the electorate which voted that candidate in expecting them to abide by their party standings?

    It is very complicated in that some vote for a person, some vote for a party, both which are valid. It is further complicated by the fact that many ridings may be “mis-represented” as the elected MP may have received less than a majority of the vote. It cannot be argued that some people WILL feel betrayed by a change in party by his/her representative, the question is whether they should have a say in the matter. If a constituency is greatly adverse to their MP changing affiliation, should they be able to recall them? Other than a petition, the only method for determining the view of the constituency is through a by-election. Should cost/stress to the MP take precedence over the constituents? It can be equally argued that we have a general election every 4 or so years for that exact purpose.

  6. Gnomes said,

    Tuesday, 21 June 2005 at 12:07 am

    It cannot be argued that some people WILL feel betrayed by a change in party by his/her representative, the question is whether they should have a say in the matter.

    They do not matter. Under our illustrious FPTP system, they become irrelevant. What MPs such as Brison, for example, did, was to merely shuffle some of the winners to the loser category, and vice versa. The enfranchised are naturally peeved at trading places with the disenfranchised, but can claim no moral high ground.


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