It was almost twenty years ago, in 1997's 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, that I started making the case that the essential democratic deficit in Canada is in the political parties. I posited that until party caucuses of MPs (MLAs, MPPs, MNAs etc, in the provinces) asserted their authority over party policy and over the hiring and firing of party leaders, parliamentary government in Canada would continue to be held hostage by autocratic and unaccountable leaders pending far distant general elections. (Here's a summary of my case, from 2001)
I was NOT being entirely original (sorry, I had omitted the vital negative there). I drew on some comments by political scientist John Courtney of the University of Saskatchewan, and from copious examples in other parliamentary democracies, and from ancient Canadian parliamentary history. But it was not a popular idea in Canadian discourse, to say the least. When I floated my case at a Study of Parliament Group conference in Ottawa in 1998, it was as if I had mooned the room. -- not just disbelief, but real shock. (Actually, in retrospect, my favourite public speaking event, evah.)
The situation has not changed much in Canada. (See my 2012 take on orthodox scholarly opinion here). And several parliamentary democracies around the world have moved toward the Canadian system. (See the current situation of Jeremy Corbyn, unsupported by most of his Labour MPs in Britain but still defiantly holding the leadership)
But there are straws in the wind sometimes, vague suggestions that MPs should not be such cattle, that parliamentary accountability really is linked to leadership accountability, that these interminable billion-dollar leadership "races" are hardly models of appropriate political process.
Here is Susan Delacourt in the Toronto Star, lauding a Toronto Liberal backbencher who has voted against Liberal government bills a number of times in the past year.
He hasn’t been afraid to vote against his party — at least 15 times, by his own count, over the past year. On issues such as assisted dying, decriminalizing marijuana and whether to condemn Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) for genocide, the 32-year-old lawyer turned politician has unapologetically parted ways with his own governing Liberals. He says it hasn’t got him into any trouble, at least not yet.So, progress? Well not much. It's clear that Delacourt's approval is still limited to the lone MP who occasionally takes a charmingly eccentric stand on matters that don't matter. And Erskine-Smith seems to accept that role himself
“If I were voting against the budget or our election platform, I think that would be a major concern. But exercising free votes on issues … in response to constituents’ concerns in many cases, I don’t think anyone has an issue with that.”What we need more than that, however, is a backbench MP who is willing and able to organize the Ontario subcaucus of Liberal MPs, say, or the anti-TPP subcaucus of Liberals, or the fiscally-conservative subcaucus of Liberals, with a view to actually influencing the decisions of caucus on a whole range of substantive issues -- or even, when it comes to it, on sustaining or replacing the leader of the party.
Parliamentary democracy needs, that is, not occasional symbolic acts of independence by individual MPs, but actual assertion of influence by groups of MPs -- sometimes in voting against their government's bills, when needed, but more crucially in working to shape party and government policy within a caucus willing to make decisions and expecting the leadership to carry them out.
Not too much sign of that, yet.