Legislating free votes

I have written a number of posts on that touch on the issue of whipped votes and MPs toeing the party line (for example, see here, here, here, here and here).

During the current election campaign in the Canadian province of Alberta, the Wildrose Party has promised, if it forms the government, that it will introduce the Alberta Accountability Act, which will legislate into being such initiatives as fixed election dates, voter-initiated recall and referendums, as well as free votes in the legislature. On the issue of free votes, the Party explains:

  • Government MLAs being forced to vote as instructed by the Premier is an undemocratic tradition that has evolved over many years. Legislation overriding this tradition, making free votes mandatory and separating votes of non-confidence from votes on proposed bills, is necessary to make our parliamentary democracy accountable and relevant to voters.
  • If the government can’t garner the willing support of a majority of MLAs for a piece of legislation, the legislation should fail. The government, however, should only fall if it loses a stand-alone confidence motion.

This is an interesting proposal, but I don’t really see how free votes can be legislated into being, as this fails to address what is probably the key reason why whipped votes and party discipline have “evolved over many years.”

The main reason why most votes in the majority of parliaments in Canada are whipped (and even when they’re not, still largely breakdown along party lines) is due largely to the advent of strong, tightly organized political parties. MPs and MLAs tend to vote with their party, even on votes that aren’t whipped, because they owe their very existence as an MP/MLA to the party. It is the party executive which decides who can present themselves to be nominated as candidates for the party in each riding, and sitting MPs/MLAs need their party’s continued support to remain the party’s candidate. There are known instances where party supporters in a certain riding might be very unhappy with that party’s candidate, and seek to have his or her nomination challenged, but are overruled by the party executive. Is it really any wonder why most elected MPs or provincial MLAs almost always vote the way the party whips tell them?

If the Wildrose Party is serious about addressing the issue of ensuring MLAs feel free to vote on the merits of a piece of legislation, what they need to do is work on weakening party control over who gets to run for that party. The easiest way to do that would be to introduce a system of open primaries, as I discussed in this post (which includes links to other posts which discuss open primaries). Without reforming how candidates are selected to run for a party, I have my doubts that legislating free votes will really result in MLAs voting freely.

I also don’t see how one can legislate an end to whipped votes. Even if all votes are declared “free votes”, as I’ve explained above, without reforming party control over the selection of candidates, I still think more MLAs would be rather hesitant to openly defy their party’s stance. They would have to take into consideration what their own party campaigned on, what was promised in their party’s manifesto, and remain true to that, even if the bill were a “good” one. This would be especially true for the party forming the Official Opposition. There is no rule that the Official Opposition must vote against the government every single time, of course, but the main point of the Official Opposition is to oppose. It would look rather odd if the main Opposition party largely voted in favour of legislation which was the exact opposite of what they campaigned on during the election.

Similarly, there are other ways parties enforce party discipline other than via whipped votes. MPs/MLAs who regularly (or even only occasionally) defy their party whip won’t get selected to sit on committees, or to be part of cabinet or the shadow cabinet. And to be blunt, I don’t see how you can really force every party in the legislature to not whip its vote, even if you have legislation stating that all votes on legislation are free votes. The parties will still find ways to make it quite clear to their individual members how they are expected to vote.

The issue of whipped votes is indeed a serious one in Canada, but I don’t think what the Wildrose Party is proposing is the way to go about putting an end to the practice. The issue is much larger, and starts with political parties themselves and how they control their candidates from the very outset, even before they get elected to the legislature. Open primaries would achieve more, I think, than would what the Wildrose Party is proposing. Another initiative which might help MLAs feel more independent would be to adopt some of the reforms around committees that the UK House of Commons has implemented, such as having committee chairs elected by the legislature and committee members elected by their respective caucuses rather than appointed by party whips. You have to remove the party controls at all levels, not solely on votes in the Chamber.

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