Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Brent Rathberger: How to get kicked out of caucus

If you want to know what it's really like being a back bench MP, read today's National Post.

Former Conservative MP Brent Rathberger has written a book about his experiences working in the Harper Conservatives and his book is excerpted in: From an ex-Tory MP, confessions of a former trained seal.

Rathberger clearly shows how back bench MPs have no power whatsoever; are not actually part of the government; are not responsible for any funding that goes to their constituents; don't have to support the government position when voting; etc. Very enlightening indeed.

A few excerpts:
"In modern Canadian party caucuses, blind loyalty is valued over constructive criticism. Such loyalty is beneficial for promoting caucus solidarity. But it has a decidedly negative effect on an individual MP’s self-esteem, and is ultimately detrimental to both democracy and to good political decision-making. 
Governing-party backbenchers like to think of themselves as part of the government. They are not. Under our constitutional convention of responsible government, the executive is not composed of the legislative caucus of the governing party. The executive is the prime minister and his handpicked ministers of the Crown. Each minister heads, and is responsible for, a department of the permanent government bureaucracy. Since parliamentary secretaries (PSs) answer questions in the House when their minister is absent and are frequently dispatched to the cable political news shows to defend the government, PSs must, by extension, be deemed to be part of the executive/government. However, the rest of the legislative caucus of the governing party (i.e. the backbenchers) isn’t part of the government. As MPs, their role should be to serve their constituents by holding the government to account. In theory, this could involve occasionally voting against the government. 
The government — i.e., the ministers and parliamentary secretaries — are bound by what is known as “two-line whips” (instructions from party leadership) during votes. But backbenchers, at least theoretically, are supposed to be allowed to vote independently on all but “three-line whips” (such as confidence votes). 
The convention of cabinet solidarity requires that a minister (or parliamentary secretary) must always support the government position when voting, or in public, or resign from his or her position. No similar doctrine of caucus solidarity exists — but in recent years, an imposed one has been evolving. 
I am always amused when Conservative backbenchers refer to “our government.” As noted above, that’s inaccurate. However, sitting in the Commons, one frequently hears a member’s statement that begins, “Mr. Speaker, our government’s number-one priority is such and such.” Equally common are planted questions, delivered during Question Period, that begin with the same premise. A question such as, “Can the Minister of Finance comment on our government’s recent positive employment statistics?” is founded on the same false premise: that a backbench MP from the governing party is part of the government.
The idea of being part of a team is stressed at weekly caucus meetings. Every caucus meeting begins and ends with an address by the leader. The opening comments usually are mundane. However, the closing comments, which are akin to a half-time locker-room pep talk, would make a college football coach proud. After summarizing the government’s record, Stephen Harper will close a Wednesday caucus meeting with a Knute Rockne-esque speech full of platitudes such as: “Now let’s go back to our ridings this weekend and remind Canadians that we are the only ones they trust to man- age the economy; and that we are the only party with ideas for the economic growth and crime prevention that Canadians want and deserve.” 
In the Spring of 2013, Chief Government Whip Gordon O’Conner took the team analogy to new and disturbing limits. Langley MP Mark Warawa wished to deliver a statement in the House of Commons, expressing his disappointment that his private member’s motion condemning sex-selective abortion would not be allowed to proceed to a debate. O’Connor justified denying Warawa the opportunity to speak in the House by stating that the caucus was a team and that he was the coach. As coach, he argued, he had the unfettered discretion to determine who gets to “play.” 
The problem is that governing a country is not a game. The stakes are much too high and the outcomes too important to trivialize through sports analogies. 
The sad reality is that government advisors too frequently evaluate any initiative in terms of partisan objectives, rather than policy outcomes. Governing has to be more important than just notional winning; it ought to be about achieving effective outcomes for Canadians. 
The Speaker’s ruling on the Warawa matter confirmed that only the Speaker, not the whip, ultimately gets to determine who is allowed to speak in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, the reality is that backbenchers continue to allow themselves to be ruled by the government. Indeed, there rarely are any occasions when the government needs to worry about restraining its backbench MPs — the members restrain themselves." 
Rathberger's full excerpt is well worth the read. I bet the book is even better. I'd love to know what Stephen Harper thinks of this book.

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