02 September 2010

The NDP split - democracy as it should be

Michael Ignatieff and his Liberals, joined enthusiastically by the media, are all over Jack Layton these days because the NDP caucus is split on the future of the gun registry and some members may not vote with their colleagues. He is being told - in parliamentary jargon - to "whip" his caucus, an apt term indeed. If this tells us anything, it tells us why so many people are turned off by politics.

The NDP MPs who oppose the registry are apparently acting in accordance with the wishes of their constituents
(assuming they are listening to their women constituents as well as the men). So, here we have representatives who want to do not only what they were elected to do but quite probably what their consciences tell them to do, and their party leader is being told to punish them unless they betray both constituents and consciences.
What kind of people would accept this? If refusing to be "whipped" violated their party's core philosophy or a major policy, that would be one thing, but in this case it doesn't. In this case, as in most, they must be whipped to make the party leader look strong, to make him look like a big man who can bend others to his will, even if it offends their conscience. Only men or women without pride or self-respect would put up with that kind of treatment. And politicians, apparently, are expected to fall into that category - poodles, to be whipped into obedience. Self-respecting citizens can only look on with dismay.

But quite aside from revealing the shabby nature of politics and politicians, this kind of group-think is bad democracy. Caucus solidarity reduces most MPs to the status of cheerleaders when they enter the legislature. Our representatives deserve the right to state their views openly and freely, to vote on them just as openly and freely, and we deserve the right to measure their performance as our, not their parties’, representatives. Free votes make for a Parliament that more accurately reflects the wishes of the people, i.e. a more democratic Parliament. They can help parties work together and thus make government, particularly minority government, more effective. Caucus solidarity tends to do the opposite. As constitutional scholar C.E.S. Franks of Queen's University put it, “parties are interested in confrontation and drama, not in parliament as a legislature, or the back benches as an influence on government.”

I sympathize with Michael Ignatieff and his need to whip (how suitable that word seems) his caucus. He needs all the morale-boosters he can get. And if his MPs' integrity has to be sacrificed in the process ... well, that's politics. Frankly, I don't think Jack Layton is as desperate. I hope he will opt to respect his MPs - and the democratic process - and leave them free to vote their conscience.

1 comment:

  1. I hear what you're saying Bill but it's the age-old quandary. Do we elect delegates or do we elect representatives? More often than not, we delegate our decision making to our elected officials in the belief that they have more access to information and expertise on various issues and can, therefore, make more informed decisions.

    As for whipping the vote, not once in your article, or any other article I've read on the topic, do you mention the Conservative whip of this government bill masquerading as a private member's bill. Surely there must be one or two dissenting Reform-a-Tories that thinks the long gun registry works. Or perhaps there are government MPs that are ignoring the wishes of THEIR own constituency.

    Anon in Calgary