Whipped Votes, Floor Crossing, and the Perils of Party Discipline

whipIn Ottawa’s latest uptick of political drama, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair called on MP Claude Patry to resign his seat Thursday, after the latter joined the Bloc Quebecois. Noting that Patry, while still a New Democrat, voted with the rest of the caucus last year to ban the practice of floor crossing, Mulcair said, “We call upon him to have the courage of those convictions, to step down from his seat in Jonquiere-Alma, and run in a by-election if he thinks the people of his riding support him.”

In principle, I happen to agree with the NDP position on this issue — it is simply a matter of respecting voters — but it is also a bit rich for Mulcair to be pontificating about Patry’s obligation to live up to his clearly expressed principles. Are we supposed to ignore the fact that the NDP floor crossing vote in question was whipped? That as a matter of course, party leaders every day deprive their caucuses of the freedom to decide for themselves how to vote?

For me, this episode serves to highlight the suffocating spectre of party discipline that blights Canadian democracy. Such a rigidly authoritarian phenomenon subverts the very logic of Parliamentary sovereignty and responsible government, according to which cabinet must maintain the support of the House of Commons. Not a particularly tough sell when cabinet is permitted to crush all dissent and coerce its MPs into supporting the party line. The result of this tradition in Canada and other Westminster democracies is the absurd spectacle of unthinking parliamentarians saying what they’re told to say, voting how they’re told to vote, and displaying lockstep unanimity of a kind that would earn envy from election rigging dictatorships the world over.

Democracy would be better served by reversing the current practice and making whipped votes the exception rather than the rule. I can understand if party leaders might choose to tighten the leash a little when basic rights are at stake (and here I am inclined to include certain environmental questions too), but most Parliamentary votes do not fall into this category. Even budget bills and other confidence measures do not really need to be whipped. After all, what is so perverse about the idea of forcing a government to negotiate with its backbenchers and earn their support?

Admittedly, reasonable arguments do exist in favour of party discipline. Deprived of the stern authority of party elites, individual MPs might be emboldened to make all sorts of frivolous demands of the government, to place their constituents’ local interests ahead of the national interest, or to sell their souls to nefarious, deep-pocketed lobbyists. Our increasingly dysfunctional neighbours to the south, where party discipline is far more relaxed, serve as a cautionary tale on all counts.

There are no easy answers to these objections. At the very least, legislation limiting the mixture of money and politics must be vigilantly protected — indeed, expanded — and this is true with or without any reduction in party discipline. Aside from that, the freer and more deliberative system that I envision simply demands a lot more of voters. If the authority of parties is diminished, it must be a principled and engaged citizenry, not big money or narrow parochialism, that steps in to fill the vacuum. There is no way around it; we have to be the ones to hold our representatives to account.

And what about the issue of floor crossing that prompted all the above reflections? How can I wish to loosen the iron grip of party discipline while at the same time making it more difficult for parliamentarians to switch parties? The answer is that increasing the autonomy of MPs is not a good in itself, but only a vehicle for raising the influence of the electorate. While rank-and-file members of party caucuses must become more powerful on average, this power should come at the expense of their leaders, not their constituents. Voters deserve the opportunity to determine both which individuals and which parties represent them in Parliament.

So, Mr. Mulcair, demand that Mr. Patry step down from his seat if you must. Frankly, I agree with you. But insisting that your caucus members demonstrate the “courage of their convictions” rings hollow unless you allow them freely to form and express those convictions in the first place.

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