Right in the centre - Tradition needs an upgrade


By Ken Waddell

Neepawa Banner & Press

The following is an edited version of a column from May 25, 2018. With two elections looming, these words are even more valid today.

It works like this in Canada. A person can pick a political party, pay a small membership fee and become a member. That membership obtains the privilege of attending the general meetings, the ability to vote for a candidate nominee and to vote for party leader. It also allows you to attend (for a fee) the policy conventions. It’s a pretty simple system.

People who are willing to get involved, get out and sell memberships to help get a candidate nominated to run in an election. Sometimes, there is a race to become the candidate for a party. In a “safe” seat, a party may have several people clamouring for the nomination. Candidates for the various parties are named and the battle begins to win the seat in the provincial legislature in Winnipeg or the federal parliament in Ottawa.

It’s all good, right? Your representative will go and present your views and your fellow constituents’ views in the legislature or parliament. That representation happens, but only to a limited extent. Real life is quite a bit different. Here’s where it goes off the rails.

An idea gets developed into a policy and may get written up as a bill. Bills are usually written by political staff or civil servants. Once a bill is approved by the party leader and/or the cabinet, it is presented to the house for first reading. It goes through three readings and committee debate. This is the point where the trouble really flares up. If a government MLA or MP disagrees with a bill, he or she is not allowed to say anything. The party, or more specifically the leader, and their advisors, have approved the bill and God help an MLA or MP who speaks out against or dares to vote against it. If they do, they are likely to be disciplined by being kicked out of the party. The same goes if they speak in favour of an opposition bill or an opposition member’s Private Member’s Bill.

This strict discipline is called party solidarity or a “whipped’’ vote system. The very wording, “whipped”, is distasteful in itself. Worse than that, it is very harmful to democracy. We naturally and rightfully expect that our MP or MLA will make decisions based on their constituents’ views or at the very least, vote according to their beliefs and conscience. But that’s not how it works. If the party leader or cabinet decides a certain bill is to pass, it doesn’t matter that an MLA or MP doesn’t agree. They must “toe the party line.”

There is a need to have some direction in policy, I get that. The general direction for a government is laid out in the annual budget. It’s important that the budget passes and it needs to have all members of the government vote for it. All other bills or policies should be subject to a free vote, so members can vote according to constituency or conscience. Not voting the party line shouldn’t be cause for discipline, scorn or getting the boot. It should be celebrated.

We usually elect people of integrity, the older fashioned term was statesmen and that term is genderless, by the way. The current system tends to make our elected  people of integrity into puppets. Shame on those who enforce the “whipped” vote system.

Disagreeing with the party line, or God forbid, with the CBC official view or the media’s accepted narrative, or speaking in a politically incorrect manner, shouldn’t be an offence. Until we allow free votes, our parliamentary system will remain broken and will not properly serve democracy.

Disclaimer: The writer serves as a volunteer chairman of the Manitoba Community Newspaper Association. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s personal views and are not to be taken as being  the view of the MCNA board or Banner & Press staff.