Essay #1: Conservatives should be leading on democracy issuesDecember 30, 2019
By Scott Reid
Member of Parliament for Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston
Open the PDF here: CONSERVATIVES SHOULD BE LEADING, INSTEAD OF LAGGING, ON DEMOCRACY ISSUES
Like one of the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis, I’ve been around Parliament Hill for a very, very long time. My colleague Cheryl Gallant and I are jointly the longest-serving MPs in the Conservative caucus, and it is a sign of my great antiquity that of the six “emissaries” who negotiated the terms of the Canadian Alliance – PC merger sixteen years ago, I am the last one still in public office.
Nonetheless, in some respects I’m a pretty average Conservative Party member. When it comes to electing leaders, I turn out to be, quite literally, the perfect median voter, having voted four times in a row for the winning candidate:
- Stockwell Day for Alliance leader in 2000;
- Stephen Harper for Alliance leader in 2002;
- Harper again (for CPC leader this time) in 2004; and
- Andrew Scheer in 2017.
In fact, my record of always being attracted to the candidate who ultimately won the leadership goes back still further. In 1983, I was a teenaged Brian Mulroney supporter at the Ottawa leadership convention at which he was elected PC leader. Based on the foregoing record, I think my claim to being a reliable bellwether is pretty sound.
So now, let’s find a practical use for my unique combination of longevity and statistical conformity. I propose, over the course of the next month or so, during the period when potential candidates are deciding whether or not to run for the Conservative leadership, to publish a small series of brief essays as to what would motivate this particular median voter to support one candidate over another.
I invite every candidate to borrow aggressively from the list of external policies and internal reforms that I will list in these essays; not only will these suggestions help the borrowers to attract the support of median Conservatives like myself; the borrowers will also (I believe) stand a much better chance of winning the next election.
There are three themes that I believe should be central to modern Canadian Conservatism:
- Reviving Canada’s moribund democracy;
- Striking a much-needed balance on the constellation of issues of Inclusiveness, Equality, and Civil Liberties;
- A clear vision on the Economy and the Environment.
I’ll discuss these in three separate essays. Today, I propose to talk about democracy.
THEME 1: CONSERVATIVES SHOULD BE LEADING, INSTEAD OF LAGGING, ON DEMOCRACY ISSUES
A. The next Conservative leader should be Canada’s leading advocate for an elected Senate.
When I joined the Reform Party back in 1990, we cherished the dream of a “Triple E” Senate (Equal, Elected, Effective). By 2019, the party had somehow regressed so far that we were campaigning in favour of returning to direct prime ministerial appointment of Senators. Not only is this undemocratic, it’s also less attractive to most voters than is the NDP’s utopian policy of simply abolishing the upper house.
In a country where more than three-quarters of the population thinks that an appointed Senate is indefensible, the current Conservative policy is so bad that it has in essence given a hall pass to Justin Trudeau’s truly awful process, in which a panel (on which the majority is hand-picked by Trudeau himself), selects a secret list of five candidates, from which Trudeau again selects, with the express goal of locking in a long-term majority whose sole defining feature is that it shares Justin Trudeau’s personal ideology.
So why don’t Conservatives return to endorsing what was once one of our marquee policies?
Naysayers might be tempted to point to that pesky 2014 Supreme Court reference opinion, which states that federally-sponsored advisory elections are unconstitutional. But the Court never ruled that it’s impermissible to amend the constitution to achieve this goal (the Triple E Senate was always understood to involve a constitutional amendment). And besides, it’s perfectly constitutional for a prime minister, right now, to appoint senators chosen by means of provincially-sponsored advisory elections—just as Brian Mulroney did when he appointed Stan Waters in 1990, and just as Stephen Harper did when he appointed Bert Brown in 2007, Betty Unger in 2012, and both Doug Black and Scott Tannas in 2013. The constitutionality of this practice was never challenged by the courts. We Conservatives simply walked away from Senate democracy, all on our own.
Conservatives can, and should, recommit to an elected Senate. Candidates for the Conservative leadership should promise that if they become prime minister, they will appoint the winners of any advisory Senate election which is conducted under the auspices of any provincial statute similar to Alberta’s 1987 Senatorial Selection Act.
There are, right now, a half-dozen provinces with Conservative governments that would probably be happy to enact provincial statutes to make this possible, starting in Alberta in the west and ending in New Brunswick in the east. I’d love to see Justin Trudeau’s explanation as to how his secretive, elite-driven appointment process is superior to these elections.
B. The next Conservative leader should ensure that the people—not the politicians—decide on whether to replace our electoral system.
In 2015, Justin Trudeau (or more likely, Gerry Butts) came up with a wonderful, awful idea: Candidate Trudeau would announce that the current election would be the last one conducted under the First-Past-The-Post electoral system. This promise would win the support of left-wing voters for whom the goal of changing to a system of proportional representation has become something approaching an obsession (as evidenced by the fact that electoral reform has, since 2005, been the subject of no less than seven referenda in various provinces). Once Candidate Trudeau was prime minister, he’d play bait-and-switch by running out the clock on any alternative to First-Past-The-Post that requires a two-year-long riding redistribution in order to be implemented. The only alternative left standing would be the simplest and easiest-to-implement electoral system: a ranked ballot in the existing single-member constituencies. Ranked ballots can be implemented on short notice—and would have the additional advantage of consistently delivering extra seats to the Liberal Party of Canada, election after election. (Those who are interested in the mechanics of how the Liberals would have been advantaged in election after election can read the report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform, with specific reference to the section labelled “Perceived Shortcomings of Ranked Ballots in Single-member Constituencies.”)
In my view, the greatest Conservative policy accomplishment of the 42nd Parliament (an accomplishment in which I was proud to play what was, I think, the key part) was derailing this plan to rig the electoral system. We did this by building a consensus with the NDP, Bloc, and Greens: In return for winning Conservative support for the proposition that the only reasonable alternative to First-Past-The-Post is proportional representation, we would win NDP, Bloc, and Green support for the proposition that no change can be made to the electoral system unless it is approved by means of:
- a referendum;
- on a fully-written statute for a fully-designed new electoral system;
- so that a fully-informed electorate can weigh this system against the status quo.
In the autumn of 2016, when he was presented with a committee report advocating this proposal, Prime Minister Trudeau huffed, puffed, reassigned his Minister of Democratic Institutions, and then declared that he had only ever been willing to consider ranked ballots anyway, since (according to him) proportional representation produces extremist parties. He also argued that the hothouse atmosphere created by referenda are a disastrously bad way of making decisions which the same electorate, in the much saner atmosphere of a general election, would never make. After all, look at Brexit, right?
The point of the foregoing is this: There’s a pretty good chance that the next Conservative leader will, like Stephen Harper in 2006, be elected with a minority of seats. It is possible that the price of the support of the Bloc, and/or the NDP and/or the Greens will be some kind of action on electoral reform. The answer to any such demand must be that the government would facilitate a referendum, but that the referendum would be held in such a way that the people—not the politicians—would be the ones with the final say.
Notwithstanding Mr. Trudeau’s fixation on how awful referenda are, versions of the process which he so deeply dislikes have been tried out in BC in 2005, 2009 and 2018, in PEI in 2005, 2016 and last April, and in Ontario in 2007. Quite frankly, none of the referenda were perfect, since each time—just as with the Brexit referendum—voters were presented with a vague proposal for a general system which would, following the approval of the voters, be fleshed out by the politicians. What should have happened (and what I am proposing that a future Conservative government be prepared to offer, if electoral reform becomes the issue on which our support from other parties rests) is that the system would be designed first, by means of the normal three-reading legislative process, and that the referendum on the fully-designed system be held at the end of the legislative process.
It is possible that Quebec’s forthcoming referendum on electoral reform, promised by the CAQ government for 2022, will serve as a useful model by finally handling the issue of electoral reform properly—giving voters the option of adopting a completed Bill at what parliamentarians call “Third Reading”, when no further alterations to the proposal are accepted, rather than (as has been done in BC, PEI and Ontario), at the conceptual stage that we MPs refer to as “First Reading.” Quebecers will be voting on the following question: “Do you agree with replacing the first-past-the-post system by mixed electoral system with regional compensation set out in the Act to establish a new electoral system? Yes/No.” This is a reasonable model, and a Conservative leader should feel free to offer it, if that’s the price of power. It would not, in my view, be acceptable for a Conservative leader to make any other form of offer.
C. The next Conservative leader should support citizen-initiated referenda.
When was the last time that you heard a Conservative leader speaking about referenda? In the 1990s, our movement was the proud inheritor of a rich, century-long heritage of support for direct democracy. We were proud to say that on the most important issues, it should be Canadians themselves, rather than politicians, who would make the final determination. We were on strong moral ground (most Canadians, then and now, favour this position). And we were on strong legal ground too. The Supreme Court, in its 1998 Secession Reference opinion, acknowledged that the only legitimate basis for initiating the independence of a province is a clear majority on a clearly-worded referendum question.
If referenda are legitimate for resolving questions at that level of importance, why not also as the means of resolving the great social issues of the day, such as whether to legalize same-sex marriage, physician-assisted dying, or the legalization of marijuana? Why not the next great socially-divisive issue to come along?
Perhaps the reason that Conservatives have become so gun-shy about this foundational policy is that we all remember how, in the middle of the election campaign in 2000, comedian Rick Mercer launched an on-line sign-up sheet for a referendum on getting the then-leader of the Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day, to change his name to “Doris.”
Mercer claimed that his goal was to show that if citizen-initiated referenda existed, “any idiot” could trigger a referendum on any question, because it’s just so darned easy to get people to sign an e-petition on anything. Of course, he did not actually demonstrate this point, at all. The exact opposite has been shown by the existence, since 2015, of the House of Commons’ online petition system at https://petitions.ourcommons.ca. Once controls are in place to ensure that a citizen can add only a single verifiable signature to an electronic petition form, collecting signatures proves to be surprisingly hard. Mercer’s stunt would flop if he tried it today. Nonetheless, this incident created a lasting fear among Conservatives that if we were ever again to advocate citizen-initiated referenda, we might again be subjected to this kind of ridicule.
Far be it from me to suggest that in the future, the media will be any more objective in its reporting on this or any other issue, than it was in the autumn of 2000. But this is a very strange reason to simply run away from a policy that was actually quite popular. Citizen-initiated referenda are used all the time in Switzerland and in numerous American states.
But it may be the case that candidates for the Conservative leadership are afraid that if they support citizen-initiated referenda, they will in the future be successfully attacked by the Liberals for opening the door to a citizen-initiated referendum on some extremist proposal or another (such as a change to the Criminal Code to take away women’s right to choose). So, in the interest of caution, let me suggest an alternative proposal that is actually a far more powerful tool in the hands of the electorate, and that even Rick Mercer and Gerry Butts won’t be able to distort into something scary: The right of citizens to initiate a referendum on striking down any recently-passed federal law.
The citizen-initiated veto, which is known in Switzerland as the “Facultative Referendum,” allows citizens to petition to rescind any recently-enacted statute, as long as a sufficiently large number of signatures is gathered within 100 days after the law has been enacted by that country’s Federal Assembly. Such referenda occur only rarely, but that’s because the embarrassing prospect of having a law overturned by the people is a very powerful incentive for legislators to consult widely, before enacting laws. The kinds of highly divisive statutes that are enacted as a matter of course in Canada are unimaginable in Switzerland, and the de facto citizen veto represented by the Facultative Referendum is the reason why.
That’s not the only aspect of Swiss politics that has been changed by the fact that the citizenry have a potential veto over every federal statute. In Switzerland, unlike Canada, parliamentary committees operate consensually and are invariably sincere about gathering information and hearing from concerned citizens. When designing laws, political parties are genuinely interested in working with each other. Regional concerns are always taken seriously. The kinds of highly divisive politics that are frequently the recipe for electoral success in Canada (and in American federal politics too, for that matter), would never be contemplated in Switzerland. And this is all true because the citizens—including any meaningful minority—have the ability to second-guess their elected officials.
In this country, the constitutional validity of citizen-initiated referenda to strike down statutes was tested fully a century ago, in a case involving Manitoba’s 1916 Initiative and Referendum Act. While the courts placed some formal limits on what can be done—Royal Assent, for example, cannot be set aside—there is nothing to prevent Parliament from adopting a law that would have the practical effect of permitting voters to hold a referendum to strike down any law that strikes them as particularly obnoxious. Our constitution would not allow that referendum to be formally binding—any more than our constitution permits us to avoid the formality of seeking the signature of the Queen or of the Queen’s representative on every Act of Parliament. But in practice, the people would be supreme, as they should be.
D. The next Conservative leader should restore Caucus democracy & rules of order.
Supposedly, the parliamentary caucuses of Canadian parties are places where free-ranging policy discussions take place, followed by a decision which is binding upon every caucus member. After the vote, everybody—including those who disagree with the selected policy option—are expected to defend it anyway.
More than 110 years ago, this way of arriving at, and then following through on, collective decisions was articulated in these words: “Freedom of discussion, unity of action—this is what we must strive to achieve.” To ensure freedom of discussion, all caucus proceedings are to be regarded as confidential. Since no outsider can be certain who took which position at this confidential meeting, the secrecy of the proceedings allows for subsequent unity of action. This way of acting is characterized in Canada using such terms as “caucus unity,” “caucus solidarity,” and “caucus discipline.” So familiar is this argument that it may come as a surprise to learn that the author of the quotation cited above was not Canadian—these words are Lenin’s and are taken from his report on the 1906 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (the ancestor of the Bolsheviks). Lenin’s term for this way of making decisions was “democratic centralism.”
The fact that Canada’s parties purport to operate on explicitly Leninist principles is depressing enough. Worse yet is the fact that Canada’s party leaders rarely keep their side of the bargain. Caucus discipline is certainly a real thing, as are the practices of stripping MPs of committee assignments or conveniently-situated offices as punishments, and depriving them, under one pretext or another, of their nomination, when they have had the temerity to speak out, to oppose the leader, or to show other signs of independence or impertinence.
But the other side of the bargain is not honoured: Leaders habitually make decisions on behalf of their caucus without full consultation. Votes are virtually never taken in Caucus. Rules of order are non-existent. The leader decides what will be done by “reading the room”—when he or she can be bothered—and any person who complains out loud about the abuse of process is ruthlessly punished for breaking caucus confidence.
Don’t misunderstand me: respecting the secrecy of what happens in Caucus is genuinely important, and just last month, I myself opened the first Conservative caucus of the 43rd Parliament (which it was my responsibility to chair, as the longest-serving MP in the room), by reminding everybody in the room of the importance of not revealing what we would be discussing. But it is tragic that the primary practical use of the caucus confidence convention is to stifle dissent rather than to facilitate it—primarily by making it a punishable offence to demonstrate that procedural abuse has taken place. A striking example of this, in marginally different circumstances, was Justin Trudeau’s expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould for what he characterized as the “unconscionable” (although perfectly legal) act of recording a conversation in which his minion (or who, at other times, was known as the head of the public service of Canada) had tried to strong-arm her into acting against her view of the public interest. The abuses engaged in by leaders are endlessly forgivable. The act of revealing these abuses is the only truly unforgivable sin.
This deplorable situation was made a bit better when, in the 41st Parliament, Michael Chong’s Reform Act was adopted, permitting the election by caucus members of their chair, and allowing for some other changes, including the adoption by each recognized caucus of the rule that MPs cannot be unilaterally tossed out by the leader. But far, far more is needed.
Candidates for the Conservative Party leadership should commit to following actual rules of order at all caucus meetings. I suggest Robert’s Rules of Order, which are simple and universally understood. Suitable amendments could be made, to accommodate the particular needs of caucus meetings, such as accommodating the leader’s ability to intervene at any point in most discussions, and the need for the leader to be exempted from the time-limits imposed upon the remarks made by other caucus members.
Leaders should be willing—indeed, they should very much want—to hold votes in Caucus. No leader is ever more fully empowered, vis-à-vis dissenting caucus members, than when he or she has demonstrated, to the dissenting faction, that he or she has the support of the majority. No leader is ever weaker, than when he or she is incapable of making such a demonstration.
And yet leader after leader unwisely decides to choose the undemocratic path. I have never understood why. Having served (unlike all but one of my Conservative colleagues) in the caucus of the Canadian Alliance prior to the 2004 party merger, I can remember just how well it worked, to have a proper set of rules of order and to settle the most important questions by means of votes (with the members, rather than the leader, determining what was important and therefore subject to being decided by means of a vote).
Of course, everybody remembers this as being the caucus that rebelled against Stockwell Day. Which suggests, at first glance, that democratic caucuses are powder-kegs. But after Stock stepped aside, the CA caucus ran well under the interim leadership of John Reynolds. It ran even better under the leadership of Stephen Harper, who was able to skilfully use his MPs’ informed consent to build a strong mandate for making the unpleasant compromises that would be needed in order to successfully conclude the merger negotiations with the Progressive Conservatives. Without a truly democratic caucus, I don’t think the merger could have been pulled off—and the dissents that took place afterwards make this point. Harper’s relatively large Canadian Alliance caucus lost a single MP during the merger process, while the PC caucus, which was run on the leader-centric model to which we have since reverted, had shed nearly half its membership by the time of the next election.
E. The next Conservative leader should restore free votes on all matters not otherwise designated and should ensure that no member is disciplined for voting against a party position imposed by a body of which he or she is not a member.
I have worded the header for this section so that it will contain the antidote to what I regard as the terminal stage in the decline of my caucus from one in which (when I was first elected), MPs—including members of Shadow Cabinet–were expected to vote, on all important matters,
- in accordance with the will of their constituents or (as might sometimes prove to be the case);
- in accordance with the dictates of their consciences.
to one in which it is the primary obligation of any non-backbencher to vote as determined by the leader and whatever subsection of the Shadow Cabinet made the decision on behalf of the rest.
Today, an MP who votes his or her conscience, or the will of his or her constituents, on any matter where the leader wants a different outcome will, in punishment for his or her disobedience, be tossed out of shadow cabinet and possibly off of committees. That was certainly my own experience: In January 2018 I was sacked from the party’s critic role for Democratic Institutions, for the crime of having broken ranks two months earlier and voted in favour of Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, after having consulted my constituents and been given a mandate to do so.
One should always be cautious about generalizing from a personal narrative, and it may be that this is true in my case. But I think I’m accurate in saying that the demand that was placed on me—the requirement to vote as instructed, on a question which had never been submitted to a vote in which I was able to participate—has been imposed on many others. This means that, by the end of the 42nd Parliament, the Conservative caucus had become as dictatorial in its demands, and as opaque in its management practices, as Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
The facts, in the case of Bill C-45, are as follows:
- The Conservative caucus was divided on the issue of cannabis legalization. By my estimate, somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of MPs were pro-legalization (although many, including myself, had well-placed reservations about the details of Bill C-45). This is a substantially greater minority than is typical in a united caucus;
- The matter was discussed in Caucus, but no vote, as to the position the party would take, was ever taken in Caucus. Instead, the leadership simply imposed a decision from above. The real motivation for this course of action was never explained to Caucus;
- No vote of Shadow Cabinet as a whole was ever taken on the stand the party would take on the bill;
- I first announced the intention to consult my constituents on Bill C-45, and had actually mailed out the survey (or “Constituency Referendum”) before Andrew Scheer had assumed the leadership of the party and therefore before any of the foregoing had taken place;
- Three thousand constituents responded to the Constituency Referendum, with a majority telling me to vote in favour of the legislation;
- Had I voted against my constituents, I would have destroyed my credibility as my party’s spokesman on democracy issues. My ability to advocate internally on democracy issues—writing this essay, for example—would have been destroyed.
None of this mattered to the leader. I was summoned to his office, informed by him that the Constituency Referendum instrument (which had been used the previous summer by most Conservative MPs, as a way of measuring public support for a referendum on electoral reform) was worthless as a gauge of public opinion, and was presented with a choice between voting against Bill C-45, resigning my post as democracy critic, or being sacked. I turned down the first option, and I was informed that there would be no “road back” (i.e., I would never again leave the back benches) unless I agreed to voluntarily resign.
This was an option that I actually considered, briefly, until I saw the resignation letter that I was expected to sign. Among other things, it contained the following wording:
As you know, the Leader of the Official Opposition and the Shadow Cabinet oppose Bill C-45. This opposition is well founded: doctors, scientists and public safety officials have all warned the Liberal Party of Canada about the flaws associated with this bill.
However, I must always represent my constituents and I cannot in good conscience vote against their wishes. I also will not vote against the Leader of the Official Opposition while sitting as a member of his Shadow Cabinet.
The first sentence left the false impression that I had had the opportunity, as a Shadow Cabinet member, to present my point of view and to participate in the subsequent vote. Nothing of the sort had taken place. The final sentence shows that I was expected to endorse the notion that the supreme duty of every shadow cabinet member is obedience. So I refused to sign the letter, although I did inform the leader that I’m a team player, and that it was not my intention to raise a fuss.
Two months later, when I was sacked, I was true to my word. I had been removed from my post in the evening, with neither notice to me nor explanation in the Leader’s press release, less than a week after Patrick Brown had been removed as leader of the Ontario PCs for sexual misconduct. Naturally, a reporter spotted a pattern, and called me at home, to ask if I had been terminated for a similar reason.
At that moment, I had the opportunity to set the record straight. But instead, loyal to my leader (because, one way or the other, he was going to lead us into the next election, and damage to his credibility, however well-deserved, would cost us votes in other MPs’ ridings), I lied and told the reporter that the removal was the result of my need to juggle some extra responsibilities that I had recently taken on at my family’s business.
(It wasn’t all a lie—I really had taken on the vice-chairmanship of my family’s business, and I really had pre-cleared this with the Ethics Commissioner, as stated to the reporter. But still, in order to protect my leader from the consequences of what I regarded as, at best, a very ill-considered policy decision that was intended to permanently hobble my own career, I had told an outright lie to a reporter, for the first time in my career. It is a sign of just how craven our political culture has become, that there will be some people who will say that I was right to lie to a journalist in January 2018, and am wrong to come clean about it now at the tail-end of 2019.)
At any rate, the reporter (the very intelligent and reasonable Marie-Danielle Smith) bought my story, and Andrew’s obvious desire to avoid the negative publicity associated with his decisions was met. The whole thing would have remained a secret, were it not for the fact that I now believe that making this story public may serve as a way of incentivizing the next leader of my party to foreswear doing the same thing in the future.
I relate the foregoing facts, by the way, not out of a sense of dislike for Andrew Scheer, or resentment about being tossed out of Shadow Cabinet—indeed, as recently as our Caucus meeting on the afternoon of December 12, 2019, (the one that immediately followed Andrew’s public announcement of his forthcoming resignation), I was the first caucus member to take the microphone to say that Andrew would be both legally and morally justified in staying on as party leader until the new one is chosen, thereby avoiding the need for an interim leader to be selected.
Anyway, enough about Andrew and me. Below I outline the policy that I would like to see adopted.
The two Parliaments in which our party was a minority government, and the subsequent one where we held a majority, showed that Cabinet members, and even backbenchers, have to vote with the party most of the time. As leader, you have to be able to cobble together more than 50% of the votes on any given matter or you don’t win the vote. This includes numerous procedural votes which can hardly be described as “conscience” matters, and on which MPs can hardly be expected to poll their constituents. As well, the basis of the Westminster system is that confidence in the Government is expressed by means of voting with the Government on every money-related matter. Want of Confidence on even a single vote triggers an election.
So on the vast majority of votes—well over 90%—it is reasonable to expect that MPs should vote with their party, and that the consequence of failing to do so should be expulsion from their party’s caucus.
Managing the conflicting pressures on MPs has traditionally been managed by means of a system of “whip levels.” An upcoming vote is rated by the caucus based on the level of importance that the caucus assigns to showing a unified face on this particular matter. If absolute unity is absolutely vital (as on a budget vote), then it is said to require a “three-line whip.” All MPs are expected to vote the party line. If the matter is of intermediate importance, then it is said to require a “two-line whip.” All cabinet / shadow cabinet members are expected to vote the party line, and backbenchers can vote as they see fit. If personal conscience or the duty of representing constituents is seen as paramount, the vote is treated as being a “one-line whip,” and everybody can vote as they see fit.
This system is reasonable and fair (or, more truthfully, it is reasonable and fair if you regard the terms outlined by Lenin in 1906 as being the ideal towards which you are aiming) only if each MP who is bound to “vote the party line,” at whatever whip level has been established for that particular vote, had first been given the opportunity to:
- say his or her piece at the meeting at which the caucus’s position was determined;
- vote one way or the other, at that confidential meeting, on what that position will be; and
- at the very least, have a say as to what the appropriate caucus response ought to be, to any decision to dissent.
This last bullet was not a part of Lenin’s original formula, as I have the modest aspiration that our party should take a more moderate approach to visible dissent than the one preferred by the Bolsheviks. But even if that last bullet-point strikes prospective Conservative leadership candidates as wild-eyed libertarianism, I still maintain that if an MP is denied the right to participate in the internal vote, then it is a breach of the principle of Democratic Centralism for him or her to be regarded as being obligated to vote the party line.
There was a time, earlier in my career, when I saw this principle being breached only from time to time. The first large leap in the wrong direction was when, on coming to power, we adopted the practice of the outgoing Liberals, of requiring parliamentary secretaries to be bound by to vote the government line even on two-line whips, as if they were cabinet ministers. But parliamentary secretaries do not sit in cabinet and do not get to participate either in the votes as to what will bind cabinet, nor in the discussions leading up to these votes.
The next leap—and the one that caught me—was the expectation that all shadow cabinet members vote the party line on all matters, even if the decision to vote in a certain direction was made at a meeting of the inner cabinet, or of some cabinet committee on which the individual member does not sit. Votes that are imposed on all members of caucus, including on items of private members’ business, on which debate has been at best pro forma, are becoming more and more common. I would be hard-pressed to say that the Conservative caucus is any more democratic than the Liberals, the NDP, or the Bloc.
Perhaps I really am a wild-eyed libertarian dreamer. In the crazy, Leninist world of Canada’s leader-centric parliamentary politics, maybe the only proper role for any MP other than the one who has been selected as leader is to be silent and obedient—like a Victorian child, to be seen and not heard, except when they are reading a speech prepared for them by a staffer from the PMO or the Leader’s Office.
But I’m hoping that each of the candidates running to be the next leader of the Conservative Party will decide otherwise and will pledge to drag our parliamentary wing back from the situation into which it has fallen. Then maybe we can return to being the party of democracy, openness, and free speech that I thought I was helping to create, back in 2003-04 when I was on the team negotiating the terms of the CA / PC merger.
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