Monday, January 11, 2010

Drivel watch: Ibbitson on parliament

John Ibbitson gets it right:
Canadian MPs cower at the hands of the party whips
and then thuddingly wrong:
Australian MPs and senators enjoy an ultimate weapon not practically available to their Canadian counterparts: They can replace the party leader any time they like. Last month, they did just that.
Actually the only thing preventing Canadian MPs from exercising their authority/fulfilling their obligations is the endless chorus from our journalists and commentators telling them, as here, that they cannot.

Meanwhile, more examples of how these things work in every functioning parliamentary democracy in the world. British Labour MPs last week declined to act on a call to remove and replace their leader, Prime Minister Brown. But the reminder that the power is always there convinced Brown to negotiate with his cabinet and caucus over the forthcoming budget. As The Times reported:
ministers used Mr Brown’s temporary weakness on Wednesday afternoon to warn him that he had to be more collegiate to retain their support....
Why don't Canadian party leaders find themselves negotiating policy with the people's elected representatives? Because Canadian MPs don't insist on it. And they don't because a thousand John Ibbitsons tell them they are not entitled to.

(Thanks Stephen.)

Update, January 12: Clevi comments:
"Many British MPs know that they will never make it into the cabinet, and so feel much freer to take on their own party leader."

That is what Ibbitson, means, I think, by saying Canadian MP's do not have the "practical" option of dumping their party leaders. MPs who defy the whip get the reputation of not being team players, and hence shut themselves out of possible cabinet positions and other patronage perks.
That's certainly been the go-to explanation of Canadian political scientists, back at least to C.S Franks, The Parliament of Canada. But just saying it over and over hardly proves it. In Britain and Australia and Japan and throughout the parliamentary world, it is nearly always ambitious cabinet members who lead caucus initiatives -- including removing the incumbent leader -- and they can offer perks, promotions, and policy changes at least as credibly as the incumbent can.

The real difference, I'm sure, is that in Canada the leader, not having been chosen by caucus, is understood not to be accountable to caucus, while it is accountable to him/her. That's the message we Canadians deliver constantly to MPs, and it's the reverse of how functional parliaments operate.
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