Parliamentary system is broken


By Ken Waddell

Neepawa Banner & Press

It works like this in Canada. You pick a political party and you pay a small membership fee and you become a member. That gives you the privilege of attending the general meetings, to vote for a candidate nominee and to vote for party leader. It also allows you to attend (for a fee) the policy conventions. It’s a pretty simple system.

People who are willing to get involved, get out and sell memberships to help get a candidate nominated to run in an election. Sometimes, there is a race to become the candidate for a party. In a “safe” seat, a party may have several people clamouring for the nomination. Once the candidates are named and the election is called, the battle begins to win the seat in the provincial legislature in Winnipeg or the federal parliament in Ottawa.

It’s all good right? Your representative will go and represent your views and your fellow constituents’ views in the legislature or parliament. Generally speaking, that happens, but only to a certain extent. What happens in real life is a bit different from the ideal. Here’s where it goes off the rails.

An idea gets developed into a policy and then gets written up as a bill. Bills are usually written by political staff or civil servants. Once a bill is approved by the party leader and/or the cabinet, it is presented to the house for first reading. It goes through three readings and committee debate. This is the point where the trouble really flares up. If a government MLA or MP disagrees with a bill, he or she is not allowed to say anything. The party, or more specifically the leader and his advisors, have approved the bill and God help an MLA or MP that speaks out against or dares to vote against it. If they do, they are likely to be disciplined by being kicked out of the party. The same goes if they speak in favour of an opposition bill or an opposition member’s private member’s bill.

This strict discipline is called party solidarity or a “whipped’ vote system. The very wording is distasteful in itself. Worse than that, it is very harmful to democracy. We expect, naturally, that our MP or MLA will make decisions based on their constituents’ views or at the very least, vote according to their beliefs and conscience. But that’s not how it works. If the party (leader or cabinet or whoever) decides a certain bill is the way to go, it doesn’t matter that an MLA or MP doesn’t agree. They must “toe the party line.”

There is a need to have some direction in policy. That makes sense. But the general direction for a government is laid out in the budget. It is important that the budget pass and it needs to have all members of the government vote for it. All other bills or policies should be subject to a free vote, so members can vote according to constituency or this conscience. Simply not voting the party line, or even an unpopular view, shouldn’t be cause for discipline, scorn or getting the boot. It should be celebrated.

In recent weeks, in Manitoba, MLAs knew in their hearts that parts of Bill 8 and 19 were wrong, but they are forbidden to say so or vote how they feel. Earlier, MLA Steven Fletcher was booted from the governing PC party for disagreeing with the government. MP Ted Falk is being ostracized and may be disciplined, for saying abortion isn’t a right. Disagreeing with the party line, or with the CBC official view, or with the media’s accepted narrative, or speaking in a politically incorrect manner, shouldn’t be an offence. Until we allow free votes, our parliamentary system will remain broken and will not properly serve democracy.