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Keith Beardsley

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When MPs Cross Party Lines

Posted: 02/06/2013 8:26 am

Bruce Hyer's comments on the difficulties he faced when he wished to vote against the NDP's position on the long-gun registry highlights the difficulties and pressures felt by MPs when they vote against their party's wishes. It was quite interesting to see that when a vote is in question, even the so-called "progressive" NDP are no different than the Liberals or Conservatives when it comes to enforcing party discipline. In all three parties it's the leader's way or the highway.

Party discipline is a fact of life in federal Canadian politics. It most often shows up on the floor of the House of Commons where MPs dutifully stand and vote the party line on any number of issues or motions. The public would be surprised at how often MPs are handed a sheet of paper that tells them how they are to vote on various motions, proposed amendments to legislation etc. On the government side of the House the "Vote Rationale" is provided to Conservative MPs prior to every vote.

A vote rationale is even provided to Conservative MPs prior to a vote on a Private Member's Bill. However, there remains some flexibility for the MPs unless the bill impacts the party platform or public positions taken by the leader. In that case any MP not toeing the line can expect considerable pressure to be exerted.

On every vote, the Whip will note how his/her MPs voted, who was present, who failed to show (who had urgent and pressing business in the riding that day) and every MP knows that going against the party line may have repercussions. These can extend from being ignored by colleagues, to eventual reassignment to some of the least desired committees, to lack of speaking time, or few if any questions if the MP is an opposition member. There are an infinite number of ways that the leader's office can remind the MP of their displeasure.

This discipline or "thought control" extends beyond the Commons to committees as well. Here members are often briefed by staff from the various leaders' office, minister's office, or critics' office as to how they should vote. By necessity on the government side discipline is usually tighter as its government legislation or positions that are under attack. Disagree with the party position and you will quickly find another MP substituted into your slot on the committee when a key vote comes up. You might even find yourself removed from that committee.

The ultimate power that rests with all leaders is their ability to have an MP thrown out of caucus. Even if that is not the case, every candidate whether brand new or sitting MP, knows that the leader must sign their papers at election time. It is a brave MP who stands on principle and refuses to knuckle under.

This is hardly serving the best interests of your constituents, and parties over the years have promised more freedom for MPs, more free votes etc., but little comes of it. All too often deviance from the party line by an MP becomes a media story and it plays as an embarrassment of the respective leader. It is no wonder then that party leaders react so strongly when this happens.

All of this helps to contribute to the negative perception that the general public has of parliament and MPs. It will only get worse as hyper-partisanship is now deeply entrenched in the House and all parties regard the other sides' MPs as their enemy and not their colleagues. Voting with the enemy is not something most MPs will ever stand to do.

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  • What does this new bill on the gun registry do?

    We keep hearing about scrapping the long-gun registry, but really what we're talking about is scrapping the requirement for people to register their rifles and shotguns - that's what Bill C-19 aims to do by making amendments to the Criminal Code and Firearms Act. Once passed, people will not have to register their non-restricted or non-prohibited firearms. It also provides for the destruction of existing records in the Canadian Firearms Registry for those firearms. <em>With files from CBC</em>

  • What exactly is the registry?

    It's a centralized database overseen by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that links firearms with their licensed owners. It contains information about all three types of guns that must be registered - non-restricted, restricted and prohibited. (All firearms must be registered.) To register a firearm, you have to have a licence to possess it.

  • Does the bill make any changes to licensing requirements?

    No. Canadian residents need a licence in order to possess and register a firearm or ammunition and that won't change. There are a couple of different kinds of licences because of various changes to laws and regulations over the years.

  • What are long guns?

    There are three types of guns under Canadian law: non-restricted, restricted and prohibited. Most common long guns - rifles and shotguns - are non-restricted but there are a few exceptions. A sawed-off shotgun, for example, is a prohibited firearm. A handgun is an example of a restricted firearm. Different regulations apply to different classifications of firearms.

  • How many guns are we talking about?

    As of September 2011, there were about 7.8 million registered guns. Of those, 7.1 million are non-restricted firearms.

  • Why does the government want to get rid of the long-gun registry?

    The government says it is wasteful and ineffective at reducing crime and targets law-abiding gun owners instead of criminals, who don't register their firearms.

  • Who wants to keep it?

    Police and victims' groups are big supporters of the registry. Police say the database helps them evaluate a potential safety threat when they pull a vehicle over or are called to a residence. They also say it helps support police investigations because the registry can help determine if a gun was stolen, illegally imported, acquired or manufactured. This year, the RCMP says police agencies accessed it on average more than 17,000 times a day.

  • When will the registry cease to exist?

    The government has passed the legislation and the registry no longer exists. Except for in Quebec, where an ongoing court challenge means the owners must still register their guns in the province.

  • Why does the government want to destroy the records?

    The government is doing this to ensure that no future non-Conservative government can recreate the registry. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has also made it clear that if any province wants to set up its own registry it would get no help from the federal government. The Conservatives are so fundamentally opposed to the existence of the records, because they say they focus on law-abiding citizens instead of criminals, that they don't want them available for anyone to use.

  • How much does the registry cost?

    The registry cost more than $1 billion to set up in 1995 and the cost was the source of much controversy. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said on Oct. 25 that the government's best estimate is that it costs about $22 million a year to operate. That's the entire registry, not just the long-gun portion, but he noted most of the guns in the registry are long guns. He said he didn't know how much money scrapping the requirement to register long guns would save the government. Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner says there are also "hidden costs" that are borne by provincial and municipal police agencies to enforce the registry.


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