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Why Harper Should Hug His Backbenchers Tight

07/03/2013 12:24 EDT | Updated 09/02/2013 05:12 EDT
AP

One year ago today, few would have predicted the incredible emergence of an empowered backbench resulting from an increasingly agitated Conservative caucus and an unprecedented ruling by the Speaker.

Beginning with Stephen Woodworth's motion to re-examine the issue of the definition of a human being, a number of Harper's Cabinet colleagues, including Jason Kenney and Rona Ambrose, supported the motion despite Harper's wishes to vote against.

Harper noted in January that he had no intention of reopening the abortion debate; at the same time, three Conservative MPs sent a letter on official letterhead asking the RCMP to investigate abortions as "possible murders." I've argued previously that Harper should have enforced collective Cabinet solidarity on this motion to remain true to his word.

MP Brent Rathgeber recently left the Conservative caucus to sit as an Independent in the House of Commons after the Government refused to support his Private Member's Bill on public sector disclosure.

On his blog soon after resigning he noted that:

The Committee hearings (as all are) were a charade. The decisions on amendments were made by unelected staffers weeks before the Committee hearings even commenced. Compliant MPs just do what they are told by PMO staffers. That the PMO operates so opaquely and routinely without supervision is an affront to the constitutional requirements of responsible government and is also the genesis of the current Duffy/Wright debacle.

Perhaps most importantly, the Speaker recently ruled that MPs are able to speak without the requirement that they be placed on the Party Whip's list. Yet another backbencher, Mark Warawa, raised a point of privilege in the House of Commons, alleging that his freedom of speech as an MP was being violated:

Accordingly, the Chair has to conclude, based on this review of our procedural authorities and other references, that its authority to decide who is recognized to speak is indisputable and has not been trumped by the use of lists, as some Members seemed to suggest.

I might add as an aside that the use of lists in general has inadvertently created an ongoing problem for the Chair: in some cases, Members do not stand to be recognized because they are on a list and thus think they will automatically be recognized when their "turn" comes around.

So, as long as an MP actively seeks the floor and gains the attention of the Speaker, then he/she may be recognized at the Speaker's discretion. But, as I've previously noted, the Speaker's ruling can never address the centralization inherent within the Westminster parliamentary system of government.

While the rights of the individual MP have certainly been strengthened, the Prime Minister's Office will continue to exercise dominance. This is the payoff of Westminster parliamentary government: we suffer from much less political gridlock than that which plagues the American Congress, but our MPs have less relative power than representatives in the US. The Prime Minister also has much greater control and fewer checks on his power than the US President does. This is because the executive branch in Canada is drawn directly from the legislative branch ("fusion of powers" approach), while in the US the executive may not contain any members from the legislature ("separation of powers" approach).

The Prime Minister thus exercises considerable control over his caucus colleagues and can provide a system of rewards and punishments based on how MPs behave. He can reward faithful MPs through cabinet or secretary positions, while he can demote, or, in the most extreme case, expel a misbehaving colleague from the caucus.

But now it appears that backbenchers are starting to play a bigger and bigger role, albeit confidentially. Some senior Conservatives are warning Harper to replace House Leader Peter Van Loan and Government Whip Gordon O'Connor; if not, more Tory MPs will defect.

It is more than a little ironic to see the same sort of discontent with unaccountable and opaque government that prompted the Reform Party's rise to power. Those MPs expressing discontent nonetheless continue to fly the Conservative colours. Without a party banner, come 2015, these MPs stand no chance of winning the next election as an Independent. Crossing the floor to parties that they criticized so vociferously would completely reduce any credibility they have. Many of the disgruntled MPs are likely considering the costs and benefits of defecting.

The Conservatives currently hold two fewer seats than than they did after the 2011 election (164 vs. 166). Apart from Rathgeber, the Tories lost Penashue's seat in the Labrador by-election after he resigned. One hundred and fifty-five seats are needed for a majority. Should 10 Conservative MPs leave the caucus, the Conservatives will be reduced to a minority.

An unnamed MP notes that there "more than enough Conservative dissidents to get the required number," most of which have maxed out their pensions and have little to lose from being unruly. As such, Harper has a vetted interest in satisfying the concerns of his disgruntled caucus colleagues. It will be noteworthy to see how Harper attempts to placate his base at the Conservative Convention in Calgary. Will he introduce new policy priorities or make major Cabinet changes? We can stay tuned to find out.

Originally published inThe Prince Arthur Herald.

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