Party loyalty: Canada’s system should be improved to allow for individual voices

David Kilgour

The resignation of Brent Rathgeber, MP for northwest Edmonton and St. Albert, from the Conservative caucus has brought much attention to a major governance issue across Canada: How much should party leaders be able to control the votes of their colleagues?

The party discipline applied to most votes in our House of Commons is among the strongest in the democratic world. Defenders argue that our Executive Democracy model, based on one prevailing in Britain in the distant past, requires iron party discipline if our fused legislative and executive branches of government are to function effectively. Virtually every vote is potentially one of non-confidence in the government; if lost, an election is required. The whips of government parties use the possibility of an early election to compel their members to vote the party line.

W.S. Gilbert stated the Canadian political reality humorously if unintentionally: "I always voted at my party's call and I never thought of thinking for myself at all." MPs are essentially passive observers in the formulation of most national policy. A loyal MP will be a candidate for promotion or other favours from the party, while disloyal ones can be prevented from ascending the political ladder and can ultimately be thrown out of caucus. "Caucus solidarity and my constituents be damned" might therefore be the real oath of office for most MPs. Prime ministers and premiers could virtually cast proxy votes on behalf of all government members in confidence votes.

The all-party MP report on parliamentary reform, headed by James McGrath, came to the conclusion as early as 1985 that the role of individual MPs must be enhanced. McGrath himself said at the time, "I wanted to put into place a system where being a member of Parliament would be seen to be an end to itself and not a means to an end." The committee recommended that governments should designate only key measures as votes of confidence and should permit MPs to decide how to vote themselves on many matters.

A report by the late Eugene Forsey and Graham Eglington lists a large number of measures defeated in the British Parliament. On most, the cabinet of the day simply carried on, either dropping the failed proposal or seeking majority support for a different one. The authors stress that earlier on, government MPs in Canada were permitted to vote against cabinet proposals. For example, between 1867 and 1872, fully 18 pages of instances in which Conservative MPs voted against measures of John A. Macdonald's government are listed. The sky did not fall; Macdonald's government was able to function effectively; government MPs could keep their self- and constituent-respect and remain in the government caucus.

Another option would be the German constitutional one, which says that no chancellor can be defeated in their equivalent of our House of Commons unless a majority of members simultaneously agree on a new person to become chancellor.

In the U.S., where admittedly there is a strict separation between the executive and the legislative branches of government, legislation gets passed with far less party loyalty. The weakness of party discipline in congressional voting also facilitates effective regional representation. Neither presidents nor Congress resign if a particular measure is voted down in either the Senate or the House of Representatives.

The Congressional Quarterly defines party unity votes as those in which at least 51 per cent of members of one party vote against 51 per cent of the other party. Under this definition, itself astonishing to Canadian legislators, the Quarterly notes that, for example, in the years 1975-1982 party unity votes occurred in only 44 per cent of the 4,417 recorded Senate votes and in only about 40 per cent of those in the House of Representatives. The sample includes the years 1976-1980, when Democrats controlled the White House and both branches of Congress.

The point of the comparison is to emphasize that Canadian bloc voting makes bi- or tri-party agreement on anything in our legislatures exceedingly rare. Individual MPs in Canada are, for example, far less able to represent regional interests effectively than are their counterparts in Washington. This is not to suggest that Canada should duplicate the Congressional style of government, but only to point out that the best solution to ongoing problems of representative democracy in Canada might be to adapt attractive features from various systems, including the American one.

If party discipline were loosened, it would be easier for, say, Atlantic MPs to defy their respective party establishments, if need be, in support of regional priorities. Coalitions composed of members of all parties could exist for the purpose of working together on issues of common concern. The present adversarial attitudes and structures of Parliament and legislatures in which opposition parties oppose virtually anything a government proposes might well change in the direction of parties working together for the common good.

At present, government and opposition legislators lack many opportunities to put their constituents first in voting. Voting power is concentrated in the hands of party leaderships. Our representative democracy itself would benefit if we put our present mind-numbing party discipline where it belongs — in the history books.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.