By WILLIAM JOHNSON
Thursday, November 7, 2002
Have we seen the future?
Given Liberal traditions, Tuesday's vote against the Prime Minister and cabinet by 56 Liberal MPs astounded the country. Where will the insurrection end? That pack of docile yea-saying "nobodies" actually joined MPs from four parties to pass a Canadian Alliance motion to elect the chairs of parliamentary committees by secret ballot.
And the Peace Tower didn't totter. The sky over Ottawa didn't fall. No report of movement in Mackenzie King's grave.
Some believe that ordinary MPs are taking back their independence, their authority, their effectiveness. Tuesday's precedent could herald a new era when an MP is a somebody.
After all, Paul Martin has built his quest for the Liberal leadership on rehabilitating the back-bench MP. Gone the heavy hand of who you know in the Prime Minister's Office. In parliamentary committees, Mr. Martin promised in his Oct. 21 policy speech, the members will choose their chairs and vice-chairs by secret ballot rather than raise their hands for whomever the PMO's emissary indicates. He showed the way for Liberals in Tuesday's vote in the Commons.
And he offered five other planks to enhance the role of Parliament, as opposed to the cabinet. Party discipline would be relaxed to permit MPs to vote according to their judgment, except for "key matters such as the budget." Future bills would routinely be referred to committees for study before, not after, they'd been adopted in principle, so as to "greatly amplify the capacity of members of Parliament as legislators."
Private member's bills, now almost all buried without a vote, would be studied by the relevant parliamentary committee to decide which would get full treatment. The members of these committees would be chosen or removed by their party caucus rather than the leadership.
Finally, Mr. Martin proposed that senior government appointments, such as ambassadors or members of regulatory agencies, "be reviewed by the appropriate standing committee before final confirmation." The cabinet, though, would retain the final word.
Each of these proposals would enhance the MPs' standing and make for better government. But the Liberal MPs showed on Tuesday why such reforms are fragile and likely to be subverted.
No sooner had they won the right to vote secretly to choose their committee officers than they proceeded to deprive the Official Opposition of its traditional prerogative of having one of its members chosen as vice-chair. Instead, they voted in two committees to have a Bloc Québécois member as vice-chair; two other committees chose, respectively, a Conservative and an NDP vice-chair. The only Canadian Alliance member chosen as vice-chair was Monte Solberg, who had left the caucus for a time last year to join a coalition with the Tories.
This display of mean-spirited vindictiveness toward the Opposition shows why piecemeal democratic reform is unlikely to succeed. Our political culture has an underlying logic and dynamic based on total conflict between the two major parties. It, in turn, derives from the first-past-the-post electoral system, in which winner takes all, loser loses all. One party can win a comfortable majority with 39 per cent of the vote, so there is every incentive to fight to the finish.
There will be no rehabilitation of the back-bench MP until we have a more democratic electoral system -- one that encourages MPs to work together in mutual respect.