No backbench rebellions, please, we’re Canadians

There has been much media focus in the United Kingdom over the numerous government backbench rebellions among both Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs since May 2010. This is regularly monitored on the website. By September 2011, the number of Coalition Commons rebellions so far this Parliament stood at 150, a rebellion rate of a rebellion in 44% of votes. Sixty-six of those rebellions involved Liberal Democrat MPs, a rate of a rebellion in 19% of votes. More recently, Mark Pack took a closer look at the Liberal Democrat rebellions, and provided quite a few interesting statistics which you can read here.

I have previously written that such large scale rebellions are practically unheard of in the Canadian House of Commons. After reading Mr. Pack’s piece, I decided to try to cobble together some statistics from Canada, using information provided by the How’d They Vote website as my starting place. (Note: How’d They Vote closed down in late 2012. I have removed the link to the website for that reason.)

Because the focus of How’d They Vote is not MP rebellions, trying to collate figures comparable to those from the UK isn’t easy. The current Parliament began in June 2011 and, to date, there have been only two MPs who have voted against their party – neither of them Government MPs. I decided to focus on the previous Parliament, which ran from 18 November 2008 to 26 March 2011 and was a hung Parliament with a Conservative minority government. There were a total of three sessions during the 40th Parliament: the first lasted only 13 sitting days (18 November 2008 to 4 December 2008) and had no recorded divisions. The second session ran from 26 January 2009 to 30 December 2009, while the third session met from 3 March 2010 to 26 March 2011.

How’d They Vote does provide information on the number of times MPs “dissent” from their parties on votes. For example, during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament, 116 MPs1 (out of 308) dissented at least once. Of those 116, 59 dissented only once, and 36 dissented twice, leaving 21 MPs having dissented more than twice. Two dissented 5 times, five dissented 4 times, and 14 three times. The 3rd session was even more “rebellious” with 169 MPs dissenting at least once. Of those, 85 dissented once, 38 dissented twice, 18 three times, 9 four times, one MP five times, another 6 times, two MPs dissented 11 times each, nine dissented 12 times, two 13 times, another two 14 times, one 15 times and one 16 times.

But upon closer examination of these votes, these “rebellions” occurred only on votes on Private Members’ bills. I have a bit of a problem considering these votes “dissensions” since (in theory at least), votes on private Members’ bills and motions are not supposed to be whipped votes, so there isn’t (in theory at least) a party position to vote for or against. Members are supposed to cast their vote based on the merits of the individual bill. Private Members’ bills rarely get more than second reading, therefore there is little danger (at least in theory) of MPs voting in favour of them at second reading or report stage. If the Government doesn’t like the bill, it will simply ensure that it dies on the Order Paper. Votes on Private Members’ bills are supposed to be free votes, thus making “dissent” (or rebellion) impossible since there is nothing to rebel against. The fact that such votes are considered “dissent” only serves to illustrate how pervasive the use of the whip is in the Canadian House of Commons.

If we focus only on the votes on Government bills, since what we are trying to assess here is how rebellious are Government backbench MPs, the picture is very different. There were 63 Government bills introduced in the 2nd session, and 60 in the 3rd. Of the 63 Government bills introduced in 40-2, only 22 had recorded divisions at at least one stage of their progress through the House (several had several divisions). That number falls to 15 for Government bills in the 3rd session.

Looking at the data for every single recorded division on Government bills in both the second and third sessions, there was not a single Government backbench MP who voted against his or her party.

Nor did any opposition MP break ranks with their party during divisions on Government bills and motions.

Granted, on some votes, there were a fair number of MPs who were absent for the vote, but it isn’t possible to know if this was because they disagreed with their party’s position or for some other reason.

Simply put, party discipline reigns supreme, and Canadian MPs toe the party line.


1How’d They Vote lists 117 MPs as having dissented during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament because they include Peter Milliken in the list of MPs. Milliken was Speaker of the House of Commons in the 40th Parliament, and of course, the Speaker does not vote except in the event of a tie, and then exercises the casting vote. There are parliamentary conventions in place which govern how a Speaker should vote in such instances, and thus Milliken’s vote cannot be considered a “dissenting” vote since he was not voting for or against any party position, but rather as per parliamentary convention concerning the casting vote. Consequently, I have not included Speaker Milliken in the above discussion.


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