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Harper's Iron-Fist Rule a Nod to Chretien, not Machiavelli

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Lest my friends believe I have fallen on my head one too many times, let me begin by making this point as sharply as I can: Bill C-38 is an utter and absolute abomination. It is a perversion of democracy and a brutal abuse of power. It is a total betrayal of Conservative Party members and those that first voted for his promise of an "open, transparent and accountable" government. It is Mr. Harper's way to once again give Canadians the Bronx Salute.

Many Conservatives agree. In a small public gathering in his riding, David Wilks, MP for the British Columbia constituency of Kootenay, expressed very serious reservations about the omnibus Bill C-38. He stressed that he has no choice but to vote with the government, saying that's "how Ottawa works." Wilks was voicing an entirely sensible perspective that a great many Conservatives and others inside and outside of Ottawa share.

When Wilks' statement made the national news a few days later, he was forced to express his undying support for C-38. That little bit of necessary groveling and eating of humble pie must have been embarrassing to Mr. Wilks. Obviously, he was told to put that genie back in the bottle, and like the good foot soldier he is, saluted and did just that.

In recent days, columnists and political opponents of the Conservatives have been merciless in their attacks on Wilks. I hate to burst the bubble of those in a wild, sanctimonious, and absolutely nauseating rage at David Wilks' "humiliating capitulation" to the caucus and party line. But Wilks is right; that is indeed the way Ottawa works. Those that have been telling you that it isn't, and that somehow Wilks is a spineless wonder, are either hypocrites or have extremely short memories.

Without party and caucus discipline on the legislative program, the House of Commons wouldn't get anything done. Any Conservative that has been close to Stephen Harper in opposition or during his six years in power will tell you that his political hero is not Sir John A. MacDonald, John Diefenbaker or Brian Mulroney. It is Jean Chretien. Harper admired Chretien's political judgment, skills and instincts, and streak of ruthlessness. He had a grudging respect for how Chretien centralized control in his office, controlled his cabinet and managed his caucus with an iron fist.

For Chretien, caucus discipline was incredibly important if he was to implement the very tough and politically contentious measures required during the 1990s to get Canada's fiscal house back in shape. Within caucus, there was far from wide consensus on these difficult actions, but discipline in implementation and communication was central. Without it, caucus would have fractured, the government could not have executed on the massive overhaul of the federal fiscal framework, and Canada would have been much worse off.

Chretien, like his predecessors, rewarded loyalty to the leader and the party handsomely through patronage and other perks. Managerial and communications discipline was enforced very strongly by the PMO under the very able guidance of the late Jean Pelletier. Where did Chretien first witness the political benefits of rigorous management control of the levers of government and caucus? From his mentor, of course -- Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

So, let us not kid ourselves: Stephen Harper has only improved, refined -- and has taken much too far -- the model first introduced by the Liberal Party of Canada and its leaders. Canadians should also be under no illusions that the NDP would be any different; Just look at how they are turning themselves into born-again centrists at the sheer whiff of power under their new leader, Thomas Mulcair.

The Wilks situation has been nothing more than an opening for partisans to criticize Harper -- this time at the expense of a decent man and, by all accounts, a good and hard working MP who doesn't deserve the scorn and ridicule that has been heaped upon him.

If the people who are piling on Wilks were truly honest with themselves -- instead of rabid with sightless bias and blarney -- they would recall that all parties have had many thoughtful MPs shunned, isolated, ridiculed and ignored because they dared speak their minds.

What we should ask ourselves is what reforms -- real reforms -- do we need to make the role of the MP relevant again? How do we restore confidence in the institution of parliament? The organized anarchy of MP's undermining the agenda of their own government and party is not the answer. That would do more harm than good.

The answer, I think, resides in providing MPs with the power, financial resources and procedural changes to fulfill their responsibilities as the ultimate guardians of the public purse. Doing that may not result in members of caucus "going rogue," but it will force prime ministers and ministers to listen to MPs and to work much harder to accommodate the legitimate interests and concerns of their constituents.

A strengthened House of Commons and properly resourced and staffed committee system may not sound terribly glamorous. But it will give our MPs some real influence over the shaping of legislation and force governments to compromise with all MPs, including, and especially, government backbenchers like Mr. Wilks. And another critical consequence of such reforms: quality people are more likely to run for office because their role would be an impactful and meaningful one.

After all, that is the way our parliamentary democracy is supposed to work. The way it is now undermines everything we have fought for and built so tirelessly in the past 142 years. All parties are at fault and none have a monopoly on virtue. But they sure can resolve to repair the cumulative damage that's been done to our parliament in the past 40 years.