It didn’t need to end this way… Members should be allowed to vote their conscience

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We need to talk about “caucus discipline” because it is absurd.

The bumper cars-routine that has been Premier Doug Ford’s cuts to Francophone services in Ontario is a case in point that caucus discipline has gone too far.

Amanda Simard, the only Francophone in the Premier’s caucus from an almost-entirely Franco-Ontarien constituency, spoke up against the cuts.

At first, the Ford team seemed to be handily things somewhat deftly, allowing that on this issue, she needed to side with her constituents rather than her caucus colleagues.

But when her criticism did not stop, it seems the government got its back up.  They even went so far as trying to block her from speaking against the measure in the Legislature.

Reporters engaged in a theatre of the absurd performance of reviewing whether she was applauding her government in Question Period — apparently a key performance indicator for Ford and his embattled, mercurial chief of staff.  One reporter even took to referring to her consistently as a “rogue MPP”, when all she was doing was her job.

The fact is, despite the prevalence of party labels and leaders, we still elect MPs to represent our riding’s interests in our parliaments.

In other words, Simard was doing her job.

The Ford government at first seemed to recognise that discretion is the better form of valour, and let her speak out.

Then, they clamped down, and the result is that Simard is now an Independent member of the Legislature.

There are rumours brewing another half dozen Tory Ontario MPPs are similarly discontent and considering crossing the floor.  To lose one MPP in the first six months of a mandate is bad; to lose another six is catastrophe.

To his credit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has allowed a certain degree of latitude for Members to break with the government on non-confidence measures, but if an MP strays too far, they can face internal demotions — see, for example Nate Erskine-Smith or Scott Simms, who lost committee roles and a chairmanship.

Meanwhile, in Westminster, British Prime Minister Theresa May can barely keep her cabinet together on her Brexit deal, much less her backbench.  In the UK, MPs are expected to break with the government, not as a matter of course, but when their conscience or their constituents demand.  MPs vote against the government in Westminster, if not routinely, then as often as necessary to do the job of being the peoples’ servants in a representative democracy well.

Trudeau seems to recognise that a certain amount of leniency is also a way to diffuse an issue; it lets an MP do what they feel needs to be done.  It becomes something of a pressure release and shows some grace from leadership.

Ford should learn the same lesson.  If he intends to govern “For The People” as he claims ad nauseam, it’s to his benefit to sometimes let his caucus show the diversity of views the people actually have.

Even Nancy Pelosi, the almost certain once and future US Speaker of the House, showed enough humility and dexterity to let her more moderate members vote against even her leadership, in order to show independence and freethinking.  It worked; she won the best US midterm results in history.

Of course, the real culprits aren’t the Party whips but the media.  The media — as they did with Simard — cover the story almost exclusively through the angle of caucus disarray.  This is a facile and sometimes farcical attempt at clickbait.

Members should be allowed to be freethinking individuals, not automatons.  They should be allowed to vote their conscience and their constituents’ interests.  And the media should not treat every attempt at diversity of thought as a five-alarm caucus disunity fire.

I was on Parliament Hill earlier this week and was reminded as I walked back to my hotel of Pierre Trudeau’s quip about MPs: “when they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill…they are just nobodies”.

Maybe if their votes weren’t some almost nameless part of a presumed party whip count, that would change.  And we’d certainly have more intellectually honest public debates—for the people.

Photo Credit: The Hamilton Spectator

More from Jonathan Scott   @J_Scott_

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