“The human mind naturally adapts itself to the position it occupies. The most gigantic intellect may be dwarfed by being cabin’d, cribbed and confined,” lamented Prime Minister Charles Tupper in 1865, then just a humble premier, steering Nova Scotia away from partisan secularism and towards federalism.
“I would have to point out in the strongest terms the autocracy of the Liberal structure and the cowardice of its members,” opined a young Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1963, then a raging lefty in the CCF, ironically unaware of how his elder self would centralize power into the hands of fewer and fewer in his office.
“Let’s face it, the average backbench MP is little more than a bench warmer for his/her political party,” Stephen Harper wrote to the National Post in 1998, just a year after he resigned his own warm bench and left the Ottawa bubble for the first time.
Now look at us. The cowards within the boss’ governments are many, and the confined minds of his party are well shackled.
Most of them, anyway.
A small jailbreak earlier this year freed the iconoclastic Brent Rathgeber, but left some of his less independently-minded cohorts rattling their chains. MPs like Stephen Woodworth, Mark Warawa and Maurice Vellacott are known for their seditious socially conservative agitating. On the other end, Maxime Bernier has been known to freelance his lines, to the ire of the Prime Minister’s Office.
But the exceptions are eventually bludgeoned with the rule. This Prime Minister runs a tight ship, and you can either be a deckhand or thrown in the brig.
Across the aisle, incredulity and contempt reigns. It’s downright undemocratic, coo the Conservatives’ moral superiors in the New Democratic Party. They don’t even respect our institution, murmur the members of the upright citizens brigade of the Liberal Party.
The PMO runs the show!
They have more time to chat, now, that their leaders have divested the backbenches of the need to ask questions in the House. That’s the leader’s job, now. Only Thomas Mulcair is allowed to ask about Stephen Harper’s control-freak mentality.
And when it comes to votes, no hair can be out of place. An angry phone call from party whip Nycole Turmel’s office, and you are left with little other choice but to step in line — or, as Bruce Hyer confessed, they’ll threaten not to sign your nomination papers. For Trudeau’s Liberals, marching lock-step isn’t hard when you’re walking behind the country’s favoured political flavour. But if you’re a Senator mistrusting of the government’s shakedown, Trudeau will be writing to tell you how to feel. Even if you’re in the Bloc Québécois, some constructive criticism of your provincial cousins can get you excommunicated.
Every question is vetted. Every statement, written and re-written. Every position, focus grouped, polled and, ultimately, dictated.
And the slide continues. The Conservatives have recently promised to limit the ability of independent MPs and those from smaller caucuses, who do not receive the benefits of sitting at the big-party table, to amend legislation. It turns out the Green Party, the one-woman crusade, was bothersome, with all its amendments to the boss’ budgets.
So the opposition stifled a gasp, clutched their pearls and expressed their most profound outrage. In perfect unison. The Green Party must be allowed to voice their opinion — unless it’s 2008, and May is soliciting an invite to the leaders’ debate. But she simply must, now, because she makes the government look bad.
Meanwhile, in Toronto Centre, the NDP lauds Linda McQuaig for her pop-economic prowess. And then she suggested raising taxes on the wealthy.
Thomas Mulcair tut-tuts. She’s playing as part of a team, now, he said. There will be none of that. We have policy conventions for a reason, he explains.
Flashback to the NDP policy convention in Montreal, as traitors in the Socialist Caucus were asked to leave the convention hall as they tried to hold their meeting. Their dear leader almost escorted from the premises. They resisted the party’s edict that ‘socialist’ must be removed from their constitution, and were thus unwelcome.
Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, stumps for the support of individual members of our venerable institution. Open nominations, he proclaims atop any mountain he can find. Open nominations, of course, also means real challenges to the pig-headed stalwarts in his caucus. It means political cover for when a hand-picked candidate knocks off, say, Jim Karygiannis — the brash thorn in the boy-leader’s lean side.
Oh, bother, sighs Trudeau. That’s democracy!
He shrugs, and glad-hands his newly-elected shiny toy.
Slight changes are pushing the party system faster towards the ravine, and it’s not good. The political rhetoric waxing on exactly that problem is invariably contrived doublespeak, coaxing uninformed political bystanders into a partisan deathgrip.
As messaging tightens, targeting improves, and money becomes scarce, parties will focus ever-more on honing in on their core supporters, digging in hooks and refusing to let go. Partisanship, more than ever, has professionalized. The shimmering vision of openness, transparency and genuine party democracy is a well-crafted myth; a constructed fantasy.
The parties have no real plan to improve openness and transparency, and are all assuming more and more power into the leader’s office as they race to the bottom.
Trudeau says he loves China! and we all rush over there. Mulcair’s candidate met with Hugo Chavez! and we all run back. Harper is bff with Rob Ford! then we all flock to that side.
Politics has become a Reddit meme; a Buzzfeed top 10 list; a vague notion on Upworthy.
No more are the days of grassroots nominations in church basements in union halls. Now-a-days, our three main parties are fast approaching a corporate model of politics — three, near identical operations, differentiated only by marketing strategy and location.
And if we’re destined for this farcical caricature of what our system was supposed to be, why bother?
Let’s elect a president by direct vote, provide them with a well-staffed central office, and cancel the inane charade of parliamentary democracy. Abolish the Senate, shutter the House of Commons, and lock up Parliament.
The last MP out can turn off the light.
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling
Photo: Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press