At the time this article was
written John Reid was President of the Canadian Nuclear Association and a
former Minister of Federal-Provincial Relations in the Trudeau Government. This
article was originally delivered in the course of a debate organized by the Canadian
Study of Parliament Group on June 6, 1993.
There is much discussion today
about the need to reduce party discipline. Free votes have been suggested as a
cure for all that ails us. This article outlines some of the reasons for party
discipline and suggests that its elimination might be counter productive.
When I was first elected in 1965,
two individuals took me aside and offered some advice. The first was Senator
Bill Benidickson, my predecessor as MP for Kenora-Rainy River. He advised me to
be myself and to speak up for what I believed. He noted that advancement in
politics came to those who could take the heat and as long as you were serious
about your concerns, things would work out. But you had to be able to take the
heat from both your colleagues and constituents.
The second bit of advice came from
a member of the Whip's office. "Are you going to be successful or are you
going to be a yapper?", he asked. He told me that of the fifteen biggest
talkers in the Liberal Caucus, thirteen had been defeated, one had retired and
one had gone into the Cabinet. He told me to remember that we had
"responsible government". I asked what that meant. He replied that
"the Government is always responsible; the opposition parties are not
responsible, and government supporters are always caught in the middle".
So far as I can see, little in the
House of Commons has changed. There are new rules and new procedures, some of
which have improved matters, but by and large the problems backbenchers have
with their leaders, colleagues and constituents has not changed. I recall one
time when the Government was getting beat up by the Opposition, and I said to
one of my more experienced colleagues, "Why do we have to put up with
being beaten up by our enemies?" He told me I had it all wrong. "The
people across the floor are Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Your enemies are on
this side of the floor." It took me some time to understand what all of
this meant, but eventually when I understood politics a little better, I realized
that this was excellent advice.
Essentially, we accept our Party's
leadership, its policies, its methods of decision as well as its methods of
discipline when we join with them to fight elections on their behalf.
Canadian politics is a team sport, not
unlike football, hockey or baseball. It is dependant on mutual trust, on close
cooperation by all members of the team and confidence that each individual will
play his role. As individuals, we join voluntarily the team of our choice. No
one forces us to join a Party and seek election under its banner; no one
compels us to run in an election. We are all volunteers and we choose our team
for better or worse. We do not accept everything our team does, but we accept
most of what it stands for or we would not last long.
There are no formal rules of
behaviour in politics, and if there were any, they are constantly changing.
There are no rules in the House of Commons Act or the House of Commons
Standing Orders that compel a Member to vote with his Party at all times. I
understand as well that there are no rules in any Party in the House of Commons
today which compel a Member to vote with his Party. Members do have the right
to vote against their Party, and occasionally they do. Yet, by and large,
Members do vote with their Party and when they do not, the exception is well
Why should this be so? Anyone who
has ever played team sports understands perfectly. It is not the Leader, it is
not the Cabinet Minister nor is it the Whip who lashes the reluctant Member
into line. It is the Member's colleagues. Remember that it is the Government
which is responsible in our system. There is a great burden on all members of
the governing party to do what has to be done – especially now that the palmy
days of ever expanding revenue have passed. So if a Member decides to vote
against his Party, it is not his Leader or his Whip whom he crosses, it is his
fellow colleagues, down in the trenches.
What it means is that you cannot have
all the benefits of Party when you want and need them and not pay the price.
You cannot vote in response to your own drummer and expect the members of your
caucus, who must pick up the extra burden you have placed on them, to look on
kindly and applaud your action. The psychological reaction to letting down the
team is a powerful one. And the other members of your team will judge your vote
and take action accordingly.
Now, no one in politics would argue
that a Member should vote against his conscience. In my day, we had a series of
free votes on capital punishment – surely a question of conscience. But when I
look back and examine the votes I cast against my party, none of them had
anything to do with my conscience nor were they about regional concerns. They
did have to do with my judgment against that of my colleagues in cabinet and
caucus. With the wisdom of hindsight, the differences in judgment were not as
great as I had thought at the time. None of them took place in minority
Parliaments nor when we were briefly in Opposition. Fortunately, no harm to
public policy came about as a result of my youthful indiscretions!
One of the great mysteries to
people outside elective office is the role and activities of the Party Caucus.
Each Party, with a different history and philosophy, has a different caucus
system. But each system has the same end in view: to ensure that all members of
the party have an opportunity to debate an issue so that all members will
accept a position that all are comfortable with. This is easier said than done,
but all Parties work hard at it because their credibility rests on their
I always found that debates in the
Liberal Caucus were much more entertaining and enlightening than debates in the
House of Commons, the Committees or even public debates. Members of other
Parties confirm this interpretation. There were real issues fought out. From
the view of the party managers, it was vital that the debate resulted in a
position almost all Members would find acceptable. The debates in the House
were important to convince the electorate that what was proposed (or opposed)
made sense. The Committee debates were about the means of accomplishing the
goals set out in the House debate.
The main job of a Cabinet Minister
with legislation to move through the House is to establish and maintain caucus
support. Without that, the Bill would surely fail. Many Bills do fail, by
attrition or by not being taken up for further debate. None of these defeats
attracts much attention but defeats they are nonetheless.
The Caucus is also the place where
the Party Leadership must come to justify itself and to build up the moral of
the party. If the Leadership cannot do this, then the Party will not last long.
The best attenders of Caucus are the Party Leaders. They understand that their
ability to stay where they are is to ensure that the Caucus is supportive. If
it is not, caucus members will destroy their Leader and render him ineffectual.
This is a continuing problem for Opposition Leaders as they lack the
satisfaction of power to help instill discipline in their ranks.
If we were to change our system of
party discipline so that Members of a Party could choose to vote for party
policy or not as it suited them, who would benefit? If we look at changes, we
should look at where the benefits will likely flow. Perhaps that question
should be rephrased. In any change in the political system, who should benefit?
There are a number of possibilities
– civil servants, journalists, Members, Senators, the Party, the institution,
i.e. the House of Commons or the Senate, the electorate, the Party Leaders,
etc. The list could go on. However, I believe that if there are to be benefits
they should go to the electorate. Any changes should empower the public.
I believe that the public is best
served by a political system that permits it to exercise its ultimate authority
readily and easily. To do that, it needs a system in place to permit it to
judge the performance of the participants. If each Party and each Member can
simultaneously stand for something and against something, the public will not
be fooled for long, but their confidence in the system and in the players will
surely decline even lower than it now is. The system of responsible government
permits the public to judge and decide.
This is difficult for some
politicians to accept. The argument to permit Members to vote anyway they
please when they choose is only an attempt to escape the onus of responsibility
our system places on them. Under our system of responsible government, the
public at an election has great power to make decisions. If the electorate does
not like the government, it knows how to vote effectively; if it does not like
a policy, it knows how to vote effectively; if it does not like the leader, it
knows how to vote effectively, and if it does not like the local Member, it
knows how to vote effectively.
But this ability to vote
effectively results from party discipline. If there is no party to hold
responsible for actions, how can the general electorate act effectively? In our
society, we talk a great deal about rights but very little about the opposite
side of the equation — one's responsibilities. Those who support the relaxation
of Party discipline are very keen on the Member's right to vote as he pleases.
But from the view of the electorate, it must have the responsibility side of
the equation or it loses significant power over its politicians.
Essentially, to relax party
discipline is to put power and authority in the hands of the Member at the
expense of the electorate, and to empower the Member by diminishing the power
of the electorate.
If you look at what we Canadians
have in common, the list of items continues to shrink, in some cases by direct
action and in others because times have overtaken the programmes. It becomes
more difficult to sustain some unifying programmes because Canada no longer is
producing the amounts of wealth necessary to sustain them. Indeed, as our
deficits at all levels of government demonstrate, we are having difficulty in
maintaining what we consider to be essential services.
Parties are under intense attack,
as the attempt to diminish party discipline shows. Our society has broken down
into little interest groups, whose interests are narrow and parochial. I have
never heard an interest group speak of the general good but rather of their
special needs along with their power and right to have these needs met, no
matter what the cost to whom. Parties are one of the few institutions we have
left to control these interest groups. (As Pogo said, "we have met the
enemy and he is us.)" They perform an important integrating function, and
they are one of the few institutions in our country that consider the general
good, and not the special good.
The need to attack Party is
important to special interest groups as the integrating function of Parties is
in opposition to their narrow interests.
One of the questions that always
emerges is whether or not party discipline has to be absolute. Each Party has
its own system for developing positions. These systems will vary with the
quality and inclinations of the Leadership and the Caucus. But essentially our
system of responsible government drives each Party along that road.
To ensure that power goes to the
people, responsible government needs responsible parties, however difficult
that may be for some individuals. There is considerable flexibility in the
system. For example, what constitutes a vote of non-confidence is a decision
for the government of the day to make. I was in the House when the Pearson
Government lost a vote on Third Reading of its budget, the supreme elaboration
of government policy. Nonetheless, the government came back to win a direct
vote of confidence, introduced a different budget and proceeded along its way.
This demonstrates that what is
non-confidence is defined by the parties in the House of Commons at the time.
But it is important to remember that governments do not like to be defeated for
the very same reason sports teams do not like goals scored against them. It is
very hard on moral, they make it more difficult to come back and win and it is
a black mark against the Party and its Leaders and policy. You do not build up
winning habits by deliberately scoring against your own goalie.
It is difficult enough to find
consensus in our country. Electorates, I am certain, do not want to make it
more difficult to govern than it already is, especially by rewarding the
irresponsible among us. Voters want to be able to make their will known.
Responsible government and party discipline give them that power. And that is
as it should be.