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Op-ed: Party loyalty shouldn’t stifle constructive debate in Manitoba Legislature

June 5, 2017 — 

The following is an op-ed written by Professor Emeritus Paul Thomas, political studies. It was originally published on on June 3, 2017


“Rogue backbencher” Steven Fletcher has delayed the passage of a government bill and presented a series of private member’s bills that are not supported by the Manitoba government — and Premier Brian Pallister should allow it.

In criticizing the Progressive Conservative MLA, Pallister has insisted that the legislative process is a team sport and there is no “I” in team.

Individuals campaign under a party label and if they are elected, they are expected to support party positions, not become free-wheeling policy entrepreneurs promoting their own policy ideas and grandstanding to gain greater visibility, the premier argues. By executing a mandate gained in the last election, a unified governing party enables voters to hold them accountable four years later. Accountability becomes blurred if government MLAs stray too far too often from party positions.

An additional reason for party unity is that government MLAs have the opportunity to express their policy beliefs and the opinions of their constituents privately within cabinet, caucus meetings and in confidential exchanges with the premier and other ministers. If a backbencher like Steven Fletcher fails to convince cabinet and caucus, the argument goes, there is an additional onus on him to follow the party line in terms of speaking and voting for government bills and budgetary measures.

The premier is not the first, and he won’t be the last, party leader to use the sports metaphor to describe how the legislative process is meant to operate and why widespread backbench dissent cannot be tolerated. The image of MLAs entering the “arena” of the legislature wearing team uniforms and competing to defeat their political opponents is a mainly accurate picture of how party politics operates today.

That does not mean that this polarized approach must always prevail or that it best serves the interests of society.

Conceiving parliamentary democracy as simply a game in which there are winners and losers trivializes the processes of representation and deliberation to which all our 57 elected MLAs are meant to contribute.

It is true that our political system depends greatly on a dynamic of government versus opposition to achieve accountability. However, we tend to forget that the system also presumes that not just the opposition but also government MLAs will be prepared to criticize government bills, scrutinize budgetary measures and generally participate in the process of holding the government accountable for its actions and inactions.

There are several reasons why Pallister should not overreact to Fletcher’s recent displays of independence. 

Excessive partisanship

First, opinion polls indicate a large majority of Canadians are fed up with excessive partisanship that leads competing parties to reject automatically and instantaneously any ideas that come from their political opponents. Instead they believe there should be more co-operation among the parties to identify what actions are needed to serve the long-term interests of society.

In a survey several years ago, over 90 per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement that MPs and MLAs should vote as directed by their parties. Nearly three-quarters of respondents believed strict party discipline meant elected representatives quickly lost touch with constituency concerns.

In a seemingly contradictory fashion, voters seldom show support for independent candidates by electing them to public office. We seem to have a “Goldilocks” syndrome at work: like the porridge in the famous fable, we want our partisanship to be neither too hot nor too cold.

Life-and-death political terms

Second, party solidarity has become so routine that we view every example of backbench dissent in almost life-and-death political terms. However, not all measures that come before the legislature are the same.

Some bills were central planks in the platform of the governing party during a preceding election and predictable backbench support for such bills is necessary to allow the party to keep its promises to voters. In some parliamentary systems the government designates in advance which bills are matters of confidence that all government backbenchers must support.

On other bills freedom to disagree and even to vote against government positions is allowed. Traditionally any failure to pass taxing and spending measures has been seen as a vote of non-confidence in the government, leading to another election or, in some circumstances, to another party being allowed to see if it can command majority support in the legislature.

Back in March 1988, the single vote of NDP backbench MLA James Walding on an opposition amendment to his party’s budget policy brought down the government of Premier Howard Pawley. This was an extremely rare set of events, however.

In contrast, nothing that Mr. Fletcher has done to date threatens the political life expectancy of the Pallister government, which will last at least one and likely two terms in office.

Fletcher has declared his loyalty to the government and its agenda going forward. He even announced his intention to eventually vote in favour of the government bill that has been delayed in passage by his filibuster within a committee. Delay is one of the few ways that backbench MLAs can create public awareness of the questionable features of government legislation.

In offering private member’s bills and seeking the support of opposition MLAs for their passage, Fletcher is demonstrating independent thinking and initiative.

For several reasons, private member’s bills and resolutions seldom make it very far in the legislative process. For one thing, they cannot involve the expenditure of public money because all spending must originate with the Crown, which means the government. Time to debate and study private members business is limited because the first priority of any government is to complete its agenda.

These limits lead many backbenchers to regard the bill and resolution process as an exercise in futility.

To his credit, Fletcher has done his homework and risked some popularity with his party colleagues by offering some ideas for public debate. We should not begrudge him the publicity that he garners by his streak of independence.

Backbench morale

Third, Pallister should recognize that a some amount of free thinking and dissent is healthy for party unity and morale among backbenchers.

With a record large party caucus of 37 members, the premier appointed a cabinet of just 12 ministers, small by modern standards. This means more than 20 government MLAs have been left outside the inner circle of cabinet decision-making.

To deal with thwarted ambitions and to forestall dissent, the premier needs to provide opportunities for backbenchers to have their say on how government operates. Pallister knows this because, on almost a daily basis, he ridicules the NDP for its open revolt against former Premier Greg Selinger over his unilateral decision to increase the PST and his general tendency to ignore backbench opinion.

Ambition to join cabinet can be strong motivation for MLAs to toe the party line. In the case of Fletcher, however, this inducement is missing because, as he has observed, his political career peaked with his elevation to the national cabinet of Stephen Harper back in 2008. As an MLA, his mission is to stand up for some ideas and actions that matter to him and his constituents.

Beyond denying him a place in cabinet, the premier could use other disciplinary measures such as removing him from legislative committees or, in a worst-case scenario, threaten not to sign his nomination papers for the next election.

This would be ill-advised.

Pallister has the reputation of being a competitive leader who likes to win. He may feel that allowing Mr. Fletcher to take independent stances will be interpreted in the media as a sign of weakness. In fact it demonstrates leadership strength to accept some divergent views within the governing party.

Most backbench MLAs identify with party positions without any need for inducements or sanctions, so the premier need not worry that Fletcher’s independence will become contagious within the caucus of the governing party. Instead allowing for some limited independence will release pressures that might otherwise build up over the life of a government that typically operates in a centralized manner out of the office of the premier.

Parties in power need a range of opinions in order to stay in touch with thinking outside the hermetically sealed, frenetic world of governing on a daily basis.

Were he to ask, my advice to the premier would be: don’t let strict party discipline stifle healthy debate.




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