Monday, June 16, 2008

Normal Parliamentary Procedure

Last week Gordon Brown's Labor government, which holds a comfortable majority in the British House of Commons, came within an inch of defeat on a key element of government policy, an anti-terrorism bill.

Why? Because 36 Labor MPs joined the united opposition to vote against the bill. That was actually good news for Brown. Observers had expected enough Labor MPs to oppose the bill that its defeat had been widely expected.

It is important to emphasize -- because no journalist or political scientist in Canada ever seems to -- that such things are perfectly normal events in parliamentary democracies all over the world. Party caucuses worldwide know the importance of sticking together and they mostly do. But some issues are so important or so contentious that significant blocks of MPs will choose to break with their own party.

The consequences? Well, the breakaway members may get shouted at a bit in the next caucus meeting, and they may miss out on the party leader's next tea party. But the normal Canadian consequences -- ejection from caucus, denial of renomination, end of career, etc. -- just do not happen in other parliamentary democracies. Elsewhere in the parliamentary world, it is understood that the party leader is a member of caucus, and will be obedient to the caucus, not vice versa. If s/he cannot carry caucus with him/her, and if caucus tolerates some occasional defections by some members, that's the end of it.

Actually, you can hardly run a parliamentary democracy any other way. Someday we in Canada are going to have to learn that insane levels of party discipline set by unaccountable and autocratic party leaders constitute a travesty of parliamentary democracy rather than its inevitable consequence.
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