Co-opting backbenchers

House of Commons

For those of us who get the event notices on a daily basis, it’s something we’re seeing in increasing frequency – backbench MPs making announcements “on behalf of” ministers.  And it’s not just local infrastructure projects either – it’s now everything including foreign policy announcements.  This should be concerning to anyone who respects Parliament as it represents no less than the subversion of the roles in which backbenchers are expected to play.

It bears reminding first of all that the role of a backbencher, whether you sit on the government or opposition sides, is to hold the government to account, and Parliament does this by controlling the public purse.  The flip side of this arrangement is that the government – the ministers of the Crown led by their first minister – will spend that money with Parliament’s approval.  It means that there is give-and-take within the system, and that there are means of holding the government to account, and if the government does not give a proper accounting to Parliament of its spending, then it is the duty of the chamber to withdraw confidence in the government.  Those government prerogative powers also extend to the exercise of foreign policy – they exercise it on behalf of the country because the confidence chamber – the Commons – allows them to do so.  If the government does not exercise its foreign policy in a manner that the Commons approves of, then they can withdraw confidence.  It’s a simple and elegant system when it’s being exercised properly.

The problem with having backbenchers make these spending announcements is that it rather deliberately blurs those lines between members of the governing party and the government.  It goes beyond having the local MP present for a spending announcement in the area (a practice which has become increasingly partisan, where opposition MPs are now rarely invited to attend).  After all, “bringing home the bacon” is one of those particular things that MPs like to be able to crow about for re-election, or in unheld ridings, a kind of teaser of the kinds of things that a government could do if only the riding would return an MP of the governing party.  It’s not particularly pretty, but it happens.  What this newer practice does, however, goes beyond just bringing home said bacon.  Rather, it subverts the role of an MP.

By having them make spending announcements on behalf of the minister, it quite deliberately hampers their actual duty of holding the government to account for that spending.  In co-opts them, making them proxies – something that their role has never intended them to be.  In a sense, it becomes a reward for good behaviour, giving these MPs added exposure for the kinds of announcements that have become the fodder for local media, an announcement with a printed backdrop that gets the government’s message across.  More than bringing home the bacon, this MP now gets to be lauded for something far beyond their actual scope of duties and gets into the kinds of policy issues that are the purview of the government.  And because they get this exposure and this reward, why would said backbenchers want to express any kind of criticism of the government or its agenda?  (In public at least – the caucus room is a different story.)  And with that, oversight becomes that much more strangled.

This particular progression goes beyond just announcements, but has steadily infected most areas of parliamentary business, most especially when it comes to committees.  There was once a time when MPs from the governing party would use committees to do the job of oversight and holding the government to account, and working with opposition parties to agree on recommendations that everyone could live with.  What we’ve seen in the last couple of parliaments, however, is a tendency for those MPs from the governing party to use the process to confirm that everything the government is doing is a-okay.  Parliamentary secretaries, whose roles have again been expanding over the past few parliaments, are now ringleaders for those governing party MPs, and the effect, as Liberal MP Scott Brison has put it, has been to turn committees into “branch plants of the minister’s office.”  Staffers from the leaders’ offices, both government and opposition, now hold the reigns, deliver scripts for MPs to read, and have turned oversight into a joke.

The solution, however, isn’t for the Commons to create a ream of new rules to try and limit what MPs take on when it comes to announcements, or to put in new rules around the election of committee chairs (given that it is rarely the chair that is the problem), but for MPs themselves to come to terms with their actual roles when it comes to oversight.  This precipitous decline toward MPs becoming mere drones, vacuous ciphers for their leaders’ demands, can only be stopped by the MPs themselves.  They cannot be empowered from an outside source, but rather they need to simply grasp the power that they already possess, thanks to their being elected.  Again, it’s the simple elegance of our system.  There needs to be a recognition that opposition is not a negative in our system, and that oversight is not treachery or treasonous.  In fact, it’s the raison d’etre of Parliament.

Sure, everyone wants to be seen as the bearer or good news – especially when you want to get re-elected.  But what about MPs actually standing up in their constituencies and saying, “I provide oversight.  I make sure that your money is not being misspent.  I make sure that the laws that pass the Commons will pass constitutional muster”?  It’s an important job, and one that should be recognized and commended.  Merely cheerleading the government’s agenda is not oversight, and in fact only serves to make MPs look to be as useless as they are in danger of becoming.  For their own sakes, they need to say no to becoming proxies, and keep that dividing line between the government and backbench in place.  The health of Parliament demands it.


Other articles by Dale Smith

Why parties matter
Declined ballots are nonsense
Democracy, not technocracy
Time for a rethink on leadership contests
A looming Senate crisis is history repeating

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

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