Last week, the National Post’s John Ivison wrote an interesting column arguing that the Conservative backbench has lost its fear of Stephen Harper. He argues that “the trained seals on the backbench are biting back and we are likely to see more unsanctioned behaviour in future, as MPs relish their new-found freedom.”
Is the Prime Minister, who for years has kept an extremely tight leash on his caucus, losing control? The answer may be more subtle than Ivison suggests. The Conservative Party of Canada is a broad coalition of interests: social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, economic libertarians, red Tories, and the like. Due to its very nature, this coalition will occasionally pit interests against interests. A successful leader will be able to reconcile differences and hold the alliance together.
The Prime Minister can enforce discipline in a variety of ways. He can promote or demote MPs based on their performance. Harper can kick an MP out of the Conservative caucus at any time. Postmedia’s Stephen Maher argues that it was easier to impose discipline prior to the 2011 election. Some MPs want to get their name in the headlines, while others will speak out when the government does something they dislike.
The Globe and Mail’s Bill Curry similarly argues that the Conservative backbench is becoming more vocal and willing to cause a stir in office. The fact that backbenchers are playing a more prominent role in Ottawa may actually play a positive role for Stephen Harper’s image. While certainly still micromanaging the minutiae of what he considers important, giving backbenchers some leeway in parliamentary affairs will moderate Harper’s image as a tyrannical leader. The National Post’s Kelly McParland highlights this argument by showcasing the opposition’s criticism of Jason Kenney’s support for Motion 312, which would have looked at re-defining the legal status of a fetus. While normally criticizing Harper’s heavy-handedness and whipping the vote, the opposition criticized the fact that many government ministers were supporting the private member’s motion.
Another major private member’s motion, albeit one with government approval, is Bill C-377, An Act to Amend the Income Tax Act (labour organizations). It has passed second reading and is on its way to committee. The examples shown so far are to suggest that the individual MP still has significance in Westminster parliamentary democracy. While party discipline undoubtedly constrains their behaviour in numerous aspects, perhaps now that Harper has secured a majority, he will allow more free votes on matters of non-confidence.
If the vote had been whipped and Conservative MPs failed to obey the commands of the Prime Minister, then Ivison’s thesis would certainly be confirmed. He argues that “the abortion vote was not, perhaps, a real manifestation of the disquiet on the backbenches.”
As long as MPs are not openly criticizing the PM, or voting against government initiatives, we may begin to see more action from the backbenches. The Westminster system constrains MPs from speaking their minds on all matters, and is predicated on the time-proven tactic of party discipline. In this sense, time tells us that the backbench will always ultimately fear the leader. Indeed, the fact that members’ statements are being used to parrot Conservative talking points suggests that centralization from the Prime Minister’s Office will not lessen in the near future.
In 2006, MP Garth Turner was booted from the Conservative caucus for publicly blogging against government policy on the environment. The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson argues that “especially when in government, whether you are a junior backbencher or a senior cabinet minister, you are entitled to make your views known to the leadership. But once the caucus, the cabinet or the prime minister has decided, then you must support that decision, or leave.” An interesting parallel is drawn to a current MP, Brent Rathgeber. In a blog post on his website, he argues that “One can occasionally be critical of the Government without being disloyal. I proudly serve in the Conservative (Government) Caucus but do not leave the viewpoints of my constituents behind every time I board a plane to Ottawa […]sometimes a critique from the Conservatives’ own benches will be more effective, as Opposition barbs are frequently written off as partisan gamesmanship.” His future conduct and the government’s response will be an interesting case study in point.