THE BLOG

How a Whip Could Be the Answer, After All

07/11/2013 01:41 EDT | Updated 09/09/2013 05:12 EDT

If we want our politicians to stop behaving like trained seals, it might not be necessary to take the whip away.

That's the conclusion I've reached after doing Ontario and British Columbia screening tours of my documentary "Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline" and talking with hundreds of citizens about how our political system really works.

The documentary -- which premieres on CPAC this week -- investigates why our politicians vote the party line, even when it's at odds with their conscience or the interests of their constituents.

I purposely didn't include suggestions in "Whipped" on how to reform that system.

In part, that's because I believe we, as a country, first need to understand party discipline and figure out if we like the result.

After all, that system gives parties with a legislative majority the power to keep their election promises and make sure the business of government gets done -- regardless of what the opposition thinks.

But I also didn't suggest a way to break party discipline because I think it has more to do with Canada's political culture than its political structures.

Yes, the power of a leader to reward and punish members of their own party helps keep federal and provincial politicians in line.

But that power is as much informal as it is formal -- making it difficult to constrain.

And it's only part of the reason why elected officials follow the party line -- the other parts being extreme partisanship, as well as the social exclusion and media coverage that results when politicians rebel.

So let me propose a different solution to the problem of party discipline- - one that was inspired by a question from audience member Jessica Prince during the Toronto screening of the documentary.

What if political parties had to formally and publicly disclose the amount of discipline they expect from their members on each vote -- from absolute obedience to the party line to absolute freedom?

Of course, graduated systems of voting have been proposed in the past.

For example, Prime Minister Paul Martin's action plan for democratic reform started classifying votes for Liberal MPs.

Under that system, a "three-line vote" would require everyone to follow the party line. But that requirement would be limited to cabinet ministers during "two-line vote." And, during a "one-line vote," all MPs would be free to vote as they see fit.

But the key difference would be legally requiring any such directions to be recorded in Hansard, the transcript of the debates that happens in our country's legislatures.

This would allow Canadians to understand just how much freedom an individual party was giving it's members -- and whether their local representative was exercising that freedom.

Canadians could then factor that information into their voting decisions -- or not.

It would give Canadians an opportunity to choose whether they want disciplined parties and representatives -- or not.

And it would allow political parties to continue whipping their members -- or not.

Of course, there are many other solutions to the problem of party discipline and mine may not be the right one.

But by simply shedding more sunlight on the shadowy system of party discipline, we could give Canadians a choice: do we want legislatures filled with trained seals -- or not?

Whipped airs on CPAC on Thursday July 11 (6:00 pm and 10:00 am PT), Saturday July 13 (3:00 pm PT) and Sunday July 14 (6:30 pm PT).