Backbenchers in a majority government are generally considered obedient nobodies, but leaders in Victoria and Ottawa have learned those nonentities yearn to be free. Some of them yearned so hard, they now sit as independents — living protests against the straitjacket of Canadian party politics.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has endured the most recent rebellion among the legislators he has relied on to vote as directed and stay quiet the rest of the time.
Langley Conservative MP Mark Warawa, who tried and failed to have the House of Commons vote on his motion to condemn the practice of sex-selective abortion, was later removed by his party from the list of members who were to speak during the daily members’ statements. He said the party told him his topic was not approved.
He has protested the de-listing to the Speaker and is considering whether to request a secret ballot of the whole House that could overturn the committee decision that his abortion motion was “unvotable.”
Just before Easter, more Conservative MPs stood up to demand their right to speak their minds. One of them, John Williamson of New Brunswick, is Harper’s former director of communications.
The Conservative rebels aren’t criticizing the prime minister, just the party’s refusal to acknowledge what they believe is their right to free speech. It’s another symptom of the way the party system has skewed the workings of legislatures.
Rebellion is not confined to the Conservatives. Unlike the Tories, who chafe and protest, but cling to their seats in caucus, three New Democrat dissenters have parted company with the party since last spring.
Those NDP members adopted the B.C. solution to discipline: If the party is cramping your style, just leave. Or don’t join a party in the first place.
John van Dongen of Abbotsford South chose the first route, pausing along the way to sit as B.C.’s only Conservative MLA before deciding that John Cummins’s leadership was no more congenial than Christy Clark’s.
A much rarer political type is Vicki Huntington, who became MLA for Delta South in 2009, the first Independent to be elected since 1949.
There is, of course, a third route to independence, when you might want the party, but the party doesn’t want you anymore.
John Slater, MLA for Boundary-Similkameen, wanted to stay with the B.C. Liberals through the election, but the party refused to sign his nomination papers, so in January he walked. Although he planned to run as an Independent, he has since decided to leave politics.
Bob Simpson (Cariboo North) showed that even opposition parties can tolerate only so much dissent. Then-New Democrat leader Carole James dumped him from caucus in 2010 because Simpson criticized her leadership in a web posting. Simpson maintains that parties have too much control over our system and are damaging democracy.
Some legislators who insist on free speech or independence are simply loose cannons who would be a pain in the neck at parties, never mind at the seat of government. But others find the courage to say what they or their constituents believe, no matter how inconvenient for the parties. Independence gave B.C.’s dissenters the freedom to take a stand against a policy supported by both major parties: They turned thumbs-down on the new Family Day holiday because they said it would be too costly to business in hard economic times.
Party discipline is important to the smooth functioning of government, but it’s not as good for the smooth functioning of democracy.
In Victoria and Ottawa, free speech should be honoured as much inside the House as it is outside.