Monday morning on iPolitics, Lawrence Martin filed a column in which he proposed that in order to get a handle on the unelected “kids in short pants” amassing power within the PMO, that we may be better off appointing backbenchers to those jobs. It’ll give MPs more input! It’ll make sure they’re not answering to unelected minions! Democracy!
It’s hard to tell where to begin with such a misguided proposal. On the surface, the mere logistical details alone are enough to make one shake one’s head. Why exactly should MPs be doing issues management and strategic communications, and chasing down their fellows to ensure that they are on-message and have their talking points down? Do they not have their own duties to do? Here I thought MPs were supposed to be doing things like studying the estimates, keeping control of the public purse, and engaging with constituents, while debating legislation and doing committee work. I had no idea that they had all kinds of extra time at their disposal to start managing their fellows from under the wing of the Prime Minister.
And really, when you think about it for a second, it’s pretty clear that Martin’s idea betrays a complete and total lack of understanding of the roles that MPs play within our Westminster system of government. Nowhere is there a better reminder of that role than the enduring quote from William Ewart Gladstone: “You are not here to govern; rather you are her to hold to account those who do.”
There is absolutely nothing about the Prime Minister appointing backbenchers to supervisory roles like plum patronage appointments that spells “holding to account.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We already have a big enough problem in the Canadian parliament, where the size of cabinet is large enough that most government backbenchers have a one-in-three chance of becoming a cabinet minister that they become deferential in order to curry favour and get those kinds of posts. It’s different in the UK where there are twice as many MPs and a relatively fixed number of cabinet posts that there are fewer rewards, and more of an impetus for backbenchers to exercise more independence. Instead, Martin seems to think that creating yet more positions to hand out to MPs as rewards will make them do their jobs better. It won’t.
Martin’s lack of basic civic literacy on the role of an MP is hardly surprising in this day and age, and we often find people falling over themselves to try and come up with new and novel ways to make MPs jobs “more meaningful” and to let them have “more input.” Most of the time it’s with the fantasy that somehow giving them more free votes will do that, without necessarily understanding the dynamics of how votes and free votes work. Just because you say that MPs have free votes, it doesn’t mean that they actually do, be it with the subtle bullying that happens within parties about maintaining a united front, being a “team player” or it being unseemly to go against ideological orthodoxy. With others, it’s the fantastical notion that giving yet more time for MPs to conduct private members’ business that we’ll get better results, even though these bills and motions are supposed to be a limited scope, and are increasingly being abused by governments to Astroturf certain agenda items, or by opposition parties to have their MPs use up their spots for the purposes of partisan point-scoring.
But while everyone falls over themselves to try and find “more meaningful” work for MPs to do, we should perhaps instead focus on getting MPs to do the jobs that they are actually supposed to be doing – studying the Estimates and insisting that they be an open and transparent process rather than the opaque stream numbers they have devolved into, and not simply fobbing off that homework to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. They should be actually participating and actively engaging in debate when it comes to legislation rather than reading prepared statements into the record, or killing time while in House by playing on their laptops or signing holiday cards. And they should be doing the basic work of accountability.
There are actual legitimate reasons why the PMO has grown in size and influence over the years, and it’s not entirely about the centralization of power, but about the ways in which our powers structures have become more horizontal over time. We are no longer in an era where one department or line minister can give an order and his or her department will do it. Instead, the overlapping spheres of influence and areas of responsibility mean that responsibility and power is diffuse, and it becomes more incumbent on a central body to manage that structure in a coherent way. That MPs would have time to manage this kind of task is laughable at best, and many of them simply wouldn’t have the management skills to do that. Elections don’t necessarily proffer up a new skill set if someone happens to win one (nor do they confer some kind of mystical wisdom the way that some MPs seem to describe it). Why Martin would want an elected official to do this kind of managerial work is baffling.
If the fear is that elected MPs are kowtowing to the so-called “kids in short pants,” then perhaps the attention needs to be turned back to the MPs. In my experience, most MPs simply need enough spine to say no to said kids. And it does happen from time to time, but it could and should happen more often. After all, we’re supposed to be electing MPs to act as their own people, rather than just as ciphers for the leader or the party brand. Instead of suggesting that MPs to do more things that aren’t their jobs and trying to reward them for obedience to their leaders, shouldn’t we instead be encouraging them to do their actual jobs?
Other articles by Dale Smith
How are those open nominations going anyway?
Chong’s Reformed Reform Act still misses the main mark
Take heed with Senate transformation proposals
There are no interim first ministers
No, we don’t need any more Officers of Parliament
Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale