Monday, June 10, 2013

Escape from the Planet of the Bobbleheads

I think it was the Economist that coined "Revolt of the Bobbleheads" to summarize signs of assertiveness among Conservative backbenchers.  Brent Rathgerber's resignation from the Conservative caucus las week suggests if there ever was such a revolt, it is over now.

Rathgerber has been praised for his courage and independence.But his resignation is another failure of Canadian party caucuses in their constitutional obligation to hold leaders and ministries accountable.  Now, out of the party, he will be marginalized and irrelevant until the next election, when he will presumably be replaced. Rathgerber could not find a single Conservative MP to stand with him or even to defend his right to say such things in caucus.

"I stand alone," Rathgerber announces. But in parliamentary systems, leadership accountability works not when an occasional lonely maverick takes an isolated stand in opposition to all his or her fellow MPs and goes into oblivion. It works when organized caucus blocs (or whole caucuses) reach and act and vote on decisions not determined by the leadership clique. This happens all the time in parliamentary systems all over the world.

Here's how it currently is working in Britain, where the governing Conservative caucus is engaged in an important, serious, divisive public debate on European policy, in which senior members of the caucus are lining up on different sides.
David Cameron will risk provoking the Tory eurosceptic right on Monday when he joins forces with the arch pro-European Kenneth Clarke to argue that British membership of the EU remains a vital national interest.
In a speech explaining Britain's standing in the world a week before he hosts the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the prime minister will say that membership of the EU is crucial in guaranteeing Britain a seat at the "top table".
Cameron's staunch defence of Britain's EU membership, a month after Michael Gove and Philip Hammond said they would vote to leave now, will be reinforced by Clarke who will warn that Britain will be "reduced to watching from the sidelines" if it leaves the EU.
The prime minister will indicate his sympathies lie with Clarke and not with his friend Gove when he outlines how Britain can improve its standing in the world.
This isn't a coup d'etat or a sign that PM Cameron is not a "leader" for failing to fire Gove and Hammond and their bloc of MPs. It's just parliamentary democracy working out.  It's politics that is, you know, worth taking seriously. It's not a British eccentricity: you could find similar examples in Poland or the Netherlands or New Zealand.

Could normal parliamentary democracy like this break out here? Not many signs of it.  Here's Heather Mallick in the Toronto Star, no friend to the Harper government, making the case today for top-down authoritarianism as the basis of government.
I understand why the Ottawa press should favour unfettered remarks in the House by MPs. It’s fun. But they’re calling it an issue of free speech.
I see it as a matter of putting one’s best foot forward. If the Liberals or the NDP want to charge ahead on an issue they see as crucial — finding out if Nigel Wright, recently of the PMO, wrote a $90,000 cheque so readily because he knew he’d be reimbursed, for instance — they don’t want their MPs getting up to babble on other matters dear to their hearts.
See why they all become bobbleheads?  Even Heather Mallick keeps telling them it's their duty, it's what we want them to be. 

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