MPs, not parties

Power has become centralized in the office of the Prime Minister and party leaders, undermining our Westminster Parliamentary system

I’m in a predicament. I rather like the government’s recent proposal to purchase new fighter jets, but I’m quite opposed to its “anti-crime” measures. What can I do?

Under the current political system, I have the following options: support the government because I like one of their policies, support the opposition because I’m opposed to one of the government’s policies or stay at home/spoil my ballot/vote Green (they’re all pretty much the same thing).

The truth is that few people agree entirely with every decision a political party makes or every policy they enact—and the kinds of people who do, are the most aggravating partisan hacks one can ever encounter.

Most people have a wide and diverse range of ideas and cannot be easily grouped into any political ideology, much less a political party.

So, how do we change this? In my mind, the best way to fix our political system is to get back to basics.

From the eighteenth century until almost the end of the nineteenth, the House of Commons in Westminster was a chaotic chamber, with little absolute stability for governments.

Prime Ministers had to cobble together coalitions of different MPs that would shift with each vote. One may take note of Charles Fox’s crossing of the floor to support Prime Minister Pitt on a debate over Canada.

On every issue, MPs could support or oppose the government, and could cross the floor to express their differing opinions.

Edmund Burke, the great Whig statesman of the eighteenth century, once wrote that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment.” While not the original intent of his statement, it’s entirely applicable to a discussion of the nature of political parties.

At its core, the question boils down to whether MPs should serve as guaranteed votes for a political party, or whether they should exercise their own judgment and independence when making decisions.

Ironic as it may sound today, a young Stephen Harper once decried the House of Commons as being more-or-less the United States Electoral College if the Electoral College continued to sit for four years—a largely ceremonial body that gets together to vote the exact same way on every issue.

The House of Commons was designed as a forum for the people’s representatives to gather together, debate and discuss ideas to promote the general welfare and vote on the adoption of proposed solutions.

The best and brightest were to think and discuss and come out with different ideas. Where are the Wilberforces, Burkes, Pitts or Foxes of today?

Does anybody even pretend that Parliament is a forum to discuss ideas and debate issues?

The closest we have today to an independent thinker in Parliament is the MP from Beauce, Quebec, the much-maligned Maxime Bernier.

And whatever your political position is, it’s certainly a breath of fresh air to hear an MP like Mr. Bernier come out and openly oppose some of the policies of his own party.

The great pity is that Mr. Bernier is in the unique position of being indispensable to Stephen Harper, and so he has the license to say what he wants. Few MPs have such freedom.

So, how does society go about accomplishing this revolution in politics? The first and most effective way is to end the ridiculous practice of requiring party leaders to sign nomination forms for candidates.

A local candidate should be the choice of a local constituency, not the party hierarchy.

This would rectify two problems: first, it would make MPs accountable to their constituents, not their party leadership, and second, it would increase the quality of debate in Parliament.

At present, MPs with independent ideas are stifled by leaders, as any comments may be blamed on the leadership (“why don’t you fire him/her?”).

If MPs could say what they wanted without their leaders taking the blame, then the quality of parliamentary debate would rise and an abundance of new ideas could emerge.

The situation in Canada is unique among Westminster democracies and needs to be fixed.

A final note on one of the more recent proposals (that we adopt a proportional representation to elect MPs): the goal of Parliament is to represent different areas through thinking, ‘small-i’ independent MPs.

The worst thing that our political system could endure is a strengthening of the party structure.

At heart, the greatest problem with our democratic system is the stifling of the legislature by the party structure.

While I appreciate the value of parties in bringing together coalitions of people who broadly agree, a true representative democracy requires that representatives have the ability to decide for themselves and use their own discretion on each issue.

We need more floor-crossing, less party discipline and more debate.

When we start thinking and debating again, then the House of Commons will work.

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