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Whose opinions matter most? Disconnect between voters, representatives, and party leaders can be a consequence of party discipline. Illustration: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum

Canada continuously appears atop lists of the world’s “greatest,” in one respect or another. 

In 2019, Canada ranked 12th worldwide according to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which takes into consideration factors such as life expectancy, expected years of education, and gross national income per capita. Canada also placed sixth in the Global Peace Index’s rankings, which compiles data on safety and security, weapon imports and exports, and external conflicts fought. 

However, one list that Canada also tops may surprise Canucks, and it paints the country in a significantly less flattering light: democracies with absolute party discipline. Party discipline, or party solidarity, is the term for the policy that exists in many liberal democracies of parliamentary representatives voting consistently as mandated by the leadership of their political party. 

Some suggest Canadian political party solidarity is the strongest in the world, and this has repercussions on every level of the country’s democratic function. 

The roots of discipline in Canada 

“Given that we have a party system, it is incumbent on parties to impose some discipline,”  says Penny Collenette, who has seen politics from nearly every angle. Her resume spans from the Trudeau era to today, including her own bid for Ottawa Centre in 2008 under the Liberal umbrella. Over this time, Collenette campaign director for former prime minister Jean Chretien’s successful 1993 election, director of appointments for the prime minister’s office, and even did a stint as a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in the early years of the new millennium. She spoke to the Fulcrum on the 10th of September about the strengths and weaknesses of Canada’s party discipline as it stands. 

 “Parties do promise to voters a certain platform, certain policies during the campaign, and then we expect them to follow through when they form government,” she says. “They will not be able to do that unless you have some discipline around major votes. The challenge is to not abuse discipline.”

Bryan Hayes, who served as a Conservative MP for the constituency of Sault Ste. Marie during former prime minister Stephen Harper’s last term, agrees that party discipline is a necessary part of Canadian politics.

“Generally, I think it works. Generally. I think when you join a party — when I joined a party — I went in knowing what the conservative values were and understanding those values, and my approach was that we’re a team, and we’re going to get things done as a team. And we’re not going to get things done as an individual. Because you’re not in this as an individual.”

Indeed, party discipline is flourishing like never before in Canadian politics. Of five bills randomly sampled from 2019, all five followed party-line with zero deviation, meaning Conservatives voted with Conservatives, Liberals with Liberals, and so on. Of five bills sampled over the past five years, the highest percentage of deviation from party-line was a marginal 3.5 per cent. 

Random samples of bills passed in 2019 show 100 per cent party solidarity. Graphic: Zoë Maso/Fulcrum
In the years 2014-2018, samples show minimal deviation from party-line. Graphic: Zoë Mason/Fulcrum

Canada’s reverent adherence to party discipline is justified with two main pillars in a 2018 paper written by Lucie Lecomte published by the Library of Parliament: “It ensures that the government and opposition sides in Parliament are clearly demarcated and it provides a degree of ideological certainty on which the voter can rely.”

Party discipline can be an incredibly useful institution and its part of what helps the Canadian government run efficiently. In the United States, there are no such customs binding American representatives to party-line politics, and within each party, there are many different political orientations.

However, Collenette wouldn’t rush to replace the Canadian system with the American one.

“Our democracy has more certainty in it, in that behaviour in a certain way seems to be expected, and we don’t have gridlock as the Americans often have at trying to get legislation through.”

Affecting change as an individual

The strict policy of party-line voting that imbues Canadian politics can also be measured by the difficulty of passing private member bills. According to a government database, only eight private member bills were tabled in 2019 thus far, and of those eight, only two were passed into law. 

“Number one, it’s hard to even have an opportunity to bring it forward because you have a straw vote,” recalls Hayes on the complex process of putting forward a PMB. “So if you’re lucky enough in your term, you’re going to have a chance for a private member’s bill or a private member’s motion.” 

“A bill means that you’re committing the government to spend money, and if its a motion there’s no money attached to it. I wanted to bring forward a bill but I wasn’t allowed to — I had the straw, so I had the opportunity, but I couldn’t bring forward a bill. I could only bring forward a motion.”

Hayes’ motion was focused on implementing a social work programme to educate youth on matters such as domestic violence, substance abuse, and criminal thinking distortions in schools, with the intention of proactivity and possible prevention for at-risk youth. It was unanimously approved and went to committee.

“They did a study on it and some recommendations are out and that’s as far as it went and that’s as far as it will probably ever go,” he says. 

Without money attached to it, no actual curriculum could ever be implemented.

That said, Collenette can think of several members of parliament who were able to have bills approved and affect real change as a consequence. She points to Michael Chong, a Conservative MP who proposed an act as a backbencher that gave caucus the power to review and ultimately remove the party leader and caucus chair, elect interim leaders, and expel members of the caucus. His bill, called the Reform Act, was given royal assent in 2015.

Hayes recalls a time when the interests of his constituency were threatened by a change in fiscal policy that he was not informed of, and he was able to reverse it.

“I remember thanking the prime minister, because obviously he’s abreast of what the cabinet ministers do, and he looked me in the eyes and he said, ‘I’m still not sure it was the right thing to do, Bryan.’ And I said, ‘Well I believe it was. It was important to my community that we continue to have that funding.’ So you can make change as a backbencher. There are processes. But it’s a lot of work. Because it’s hard to get an audience.”

Appeasement and evolution

In 2004, to appease growing concern over the uncompromising solidarity that defined Canadian political discourse, the Liberal government modified the voting structure to closer resemble Britain’s three-line system.

Lecomte’s paper breaks down the system thusly: each vote that was brought before the House in the three-line system was assigned a ranking. A one-line vote could be voted upon freely by all members of government. 

For a two-line vote, the government would suggest a stance. Government officials of higher rank, including ministers and parliamentary secretaries, would be expected to vote with the government, but backbenchers were free to vote according to their own beliefs. 

A three-line vote was reserved for matters of the utmost importance to the policy of the government or for votes of confidence. In these scenarios, all members of the government would be required to vote according to the stance of the government. 

“If it’s still a somewhat critical vote even though it might not be a confidence vote, the whip still wants to know how you’re going to vote. And you’re kind of directed, even though it’s a two-line thing, they still tell you ‘this is how we want you to vote.’ If you’re not going to vote this way you come and see us,” says Hayes of the three-line system.

There does exist a framework for what’s known as “free voting,” which allows members of parliament to vote according to their own interests and those of their constituency, regardless of party policy. When the Conservative party was elected in 2006 and abolished the three-line voting system, they did so under the campaign promise of making all votes free votes. 

Since 1960, only seven issues have warranted free votes: the flag debate, capital punishment, right to abortion, prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation, constitutional amendments, same-sex marriage, and most recently in 2016, medically assisted death. Despite several promises since 2005 of making free voting more commonplace, only one free vote has been held outside of the three-line vote apparatus. 

“It’s an interesting academic debate,” says Collenette. “But it’s not a practical solution at this time.” 

“You look at Justin Trudeau: his 2015 promise was free votes, but it’s subjective in terms of it falls along the Liberal platform, and there can’t be free votes if it falls along the Liberal platform,” says Hayes.

When asked if all votes could really be free, Collenette has no hesitation: “No, absolutely not.”

When does discipline become a dilemma?

A certain degree of voting consistency throughout a party is a necessary fact of democracy. However, Canadian party leaders have an arrangement of tools at their disposal for the enforcement of adherence to party policy, including but not limited to appointing cooperative members of parliament to higher positions or preventing dissenters from running for re-election. This is where party discipline becomes contentious.

“I’m aware of, just recently, a Liberal MP being prevented from running again, even though they won the nomination in their riding. To me, if you win the nomination in your riding, you should be entitled to run. I don’t think the government should overrule, unless it’s something that is just absolutely blatant, a law broken or something unethical, they should not have that authority. It’s that simple.” says Hayes.

“I don’t know if I can call it undemocratic because the rules are known when you get elected. But it’s certainly very messy,” adds Collenette. 

“All they can do is say no you can’t run for our party. So it’s not preventing someone from running as an independent. Is it undemocratic within a party? That’s a very good question for a party and for party members. And there has been a lot of contention about it over the years, whether or not the party leader should have the sole prerogative to sign or not sign nomination papers, as is the case at the moment.”

In addition, much of whatever dissent exists is smoothed out behind closed doors in caucus assemblies. Some circles argue that the processes that determine policy should be more accessible.

“Caucus has its place and I think caucus is necessary. I think there are things that need to be discussed in confidence with your colleagues,” says Hayes. “The question is whether some of the stuff that is in caucus really needs to be in caucus. But I don’t know how you differentiate what should be versus what shouldn’t be.”

“After caucus, the prime minister or the leader will come out, and discuss what has gone on, so there’s always some sort of transparency about what happened. I would worry about society if you can’t also have private discussions,” agrees Collenette. 

“In this case, the political case, a caucus discussion, a cabinet discussion, is designed to be adversarial in a way, in that under good leadership, everyone is encouraged to speak up, and then a debate happens, and then a decision. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Whether it works that way, that depends a lot on the leader.”

Global trends in polarization have also strengthened partisanship in recent years, and between partisan politics and discipline, debate and collaboration are often stifled.

“What Canadians need to see is the committee work, it’s amazing, and there are times that all parties work together. When I worked on Veteran’s Affairs, I worked with Frank Valeriote. He was a Liberal, I have so much respect for him, what he brought to the table was great. He helped facilitate, coordinate, he brought different angles and perspectives. But then he’d stand up in the House of Commons and I’d want to smack him,” says Hayes.

“Collectively the parties should be working together and coming up with solutions. That’ll never happen. Because it’s just blatant partisan politics. And I disliked it immensely, but I played the game, because you had to.”

Party discipline in action

In Canada and around the world, questions of discipline and of the degree to which party leaders’ authority should extend have been raised as several crises have brought them to the forefront.

“It is a tool, it is a political tool, that should be used wisely. You don’t want it to be so ingrained or so abused that it becomes a constant threatening, intimidating force,” asserts Collenette. “Let’s take the example of Britain right now, where 21 British MP’s had their whip removed, which means they are kicked out of caucus. The House leader last night said ‘well that doesn’t mean they’re not Conservatives.’ Well, I don’t know, if you’re not in caucus, you may not want to stay.”

“Many other members of the Conservative party were extremely concerned about this dramatic removal of the whip. This was without precedent. And this is the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say this must not be used as a weapon.”

The debate struck closer to home this winter when the SNC-Lavalin scandal rocked Trudeau’s government.

“The stuff with the SNC Lavalin, that was absolutely horrible the way the justice committee and the Liberals shut down anything further on that. But at the same time, I remember us doing it for certain things as well. So I understood it, but I disliked it,” says Hayes.

“I think what happened to Jody Wilson-Raybould was atrocious. We don’t know behind the scenes how that happened, but she didn’t break any laws. We had MPs who were kicked out because laws were broken, and you understand that, but she didn’t break any laws. She stood up for her values. Now she’s running as an independent, but I wish she had started her own party, I would’ve gotten back into politics and I would’ve ran under her umbrella. Two cabinet ministers got slandered by the prime minister and it was wrong. What happened was wrong.”

“If you take a look at Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott situation where the caucus made the decision that they should be removed from caucus. It was perhaps naive of them to believe that they would be able to sit in caucus having disagreed strongly with the government,” says Collenette. 

“However, the fact that the caucus came together as a group and decided to expel them, I can’t say its undemocratic. I would’ve been more concerned if the prime minister solely had said, you’re out. But he didn’t. And they were both able to remain as MPs and they are both running again in this election as independents. It also raises the question of, should they have resigned earlier than force the caucus to kick them out?”

The road to the federal election

The federal election is rapidly approaching; the campaign is underway as of Sept. 11 with the dissolution of parliament, and the date has been set for Oct. 21. It’s important to understand how these complex dynamics are at play during a campaign, and how to weigh them when deciding how to cast your ballot.

“The prime minister (and) Jagmeet Singh have been very clear on the issue of abortion and a woman’s right to a safe abortion,” says Collenette. “But Elizabeth May and Andrew Scheer, it’s not that they’re not saying the same thing, it’s just the clarity is less transparent. So I think it’s incumbent in an election to really ask the drilling questions to local candidates and then to push to have questions asked to the leaders.”

Collenette also advises young voters to check on three things before casting a vote. 

“One is your local candidate, and the question of their morals and values as opposed to what their party might be saying. Secondly, the leaders: morals, values, character. Track record, vision for the future, depending on what issues you’re most concerned about: climate change, fiscal challenges, just really zero in on that. And then third, look at the party platform. Sometimes, if you look at what the leader says, or a candidate says, and you look at the party platform, you see a gap. Then you can go, well something’s not lining up here,” she says. 

“So it’s really — and I hate to put it this way for students — it’s a bit of a research project. But going out to the meetings, and actually shaking someone’s hand, looking them in the eye, it’s really the best thing they could do right now.”

Politics and democracy cannot be separated from one another. However, as always in an election, careful scrutiny can help differentiate empty campaign promises from party-line policy. 

And as far as the party-line goes for representatives, all that can be done is hope that if the interests’ of the constituency are at risk, they will do what’s right. Hayes insists that’s how he saw his time in office. 

“If my integrity and principles would’ve ever been challenged by the Conservatives when I was an MP, I would’ve walked across the floor and joined somebody else, or sat as an independent. In a second, I swear, I would have.”