Some final thoughts on the Reform Act

In my first post on the Reform Act, I addressed the proposal of allowing a caucus to implement a leadership review upon a petition of 15% of the elected members and a secret ballot vote garnering over 50% support. This was complemented by a brief look at how this process has worked in other jurisdictions. My second Reform Act post focused on the proposal that we remove the party leader’s veto over riding nominations. This last post will focus on Chong’s proposal that caucuses elect their chairs and admit and eject caucus members based on the 15%/50% rules employed to trigger a leadership review.

I will start by saying that I honestly have no real opinion concerning the matter of caucus chairs. I don’t know what procedure is currently used by any party in Canada. I have no objection to caucus chairs being elected, and think that this is probably a good idea to pursue, but honestly – I have no problem leaving this to each party to decide. I will say that I don’t think this is something that should be enshrined in law – much like the leadership review rules. It is something that should be in a party constitution.

I will address the proposal governing the expulsion and re-admission of a member from caucus. The Reform Act proposes that the Parliament of Canada Act be amended to include the following:

49.2 A member of a caucus may only be expelled from it if
(a) the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 15% of the members of the caucus requesting that the member’s membership be reviewed at a meeting of the caucus; and
(b) the expulsion of the member is approved by a majority vote by secret ballot of the caucus members present at that meeting.
49.3 A member of the House of Commons who has been expelled from the caucus of a party may only be readmitted to the caucus
(a) if the member is re-elected to the House of Commons as a candidate for that party; or
(b) if
(i) the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 15% of the members of the caucus requesting that the member’s readmission to the caucus be considered at a meeting of the caucus, and
(ii) the readmission of the member is approved by a majority vote by secret ballot of the caucus members present at that meeting.

I admit to mixed feelings about this proposal. Again, I don’t believe this is something that should be legislated, but incorporated in a party constitution. I do understand why Mr. Chong is seeking to incorporate these reforms in either the Canada Elections Act or the Parliament of Canada Act – it would be the only way to guarantee that every party adopt and abide by such reforms, but ideally, it would be better if parties voluntarily incorporated these reforms (or similar reforms) in their own governing documents.

In the UK, as I have explained in my previous posts on this topic (and repeatedly in other posts on this blog) political parties already have caucus-based leadership review mechanisms in place and candidate selection procedures which do not at all involve the party leader. However, to the best of my knowledge, the decision to expel someone from caucus remains very much in the hands of the party leadership in the House. What is interesting here is that given the relative independence of UK MPs vis à vis their Canadian counterparts, it is very rare that the whip is withdrawn, as they say in the UK.

It is important to understand a couple of points before proceeding with this discussion. In the UK, as I have explained in other posts, backbench MPs from all parties – including the government party (or in the current Parliament, government parties) rebel much more frequently than do Canadian MPs. See for example, this post from 2011 on UK MPs rebellions in the current Parliament, and this post on the total absence of MP rebellions here in Canada. The current UK Parliament is on track to be the most rebellious since World War II, and this is in no small part due to the fact that it is a Coalition government – Conservative MPs in particular feel less loyalty to the government since it is not a Conservative government. However, as Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart note:

this Parliament is on course to be the most rebellious since the war. But before the most rebellious was the 2005 Parliament, and before that the 2001 Parliament. For sure, there has been an increase in assertiveness since 2010, but it is merely the latest stage in the growing independence of the British MP.

There are a myriad of reasons why it is easier for UK MPs to rebel by voting against their party; I go over some of them in that 2011 post mentioned above. Perhaps the most important of these is the system of three-line whips used in the UK House of Commons which means party discipline doesn’t apply on all votes. But even on three-line votes, MPs will still defy their party whips. Because it is a relatively normal thing for UK MPs to rebel – and this includes government party backbenchers voting against the Government as well as opposition MPs voting against their party’s stated position (and perhaps supporting a Government bill, for example), it is very rare that an MP in the UK will be expelled from caucus. And when an MP is expelled from caucus, it’s usually not for voting against a bill. I point this out only because voting against your party in the Canadian House of Commons is probably the surest way of being expelled, and also the main reasons why Canadian MPs very rarely ever do so.

In the current (41st) Parliament of Canada, five MPs have left their caucus. Three did so voluntarily, two because they were facing charges (one has since rejoined caucus), the other due to what he believed to be the “Government’s lack of commitment to transparency and open government.” The other two MPs, both from opposition parties, were expelled because they disagreed with their party’s line. One voted against the party’s stated position (and with the Government), the other was expelled for criticizing her party’s support for a provincial initiative.

In the current UK Parliament, 8 MPs have either resigned the whip (voluntarily left caucus) or had the whip withdrawn (been expelled from caucus). Of those, none were for voting against the party or over policy disagreements. Two resigned the whip while facing accusations or charges of sexual assault – one had the matter settled and returned to caucus, the other is still waiting for the matter to be settled. The other six had the whip withdrawn and the reasons are as follows: for questioning the continued existence of Israel; for taking time off from Parliament to compete in a reality show; for allegations of lobbying; for criminal charges following the expenses scandal.

This is why I don’t have an issue with party leadership retaining the right to decide if an MP should have the whip withdrawn – as long as it is done judiciously and for serious offenses or behaviour. Voting against the party line, except on confidence matters (if you’re a government backbencher), should not be a reason to expel someone from caucus. So while most critics of the Reform Act object to it over the leadership review and candidate nomination proposals, my main objection concerns the caucus control of who gets expelled and re-admitted to caucus. I’d like to believe that if the first two reforms were implemented, this reform might not be necessary.

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Parliamentary reform would work

In a recent article, Don Lenihan argues that parliamentary reform won’t “force a government to engage in meaningful debate” and reverse the fact that Parliament is, in his words “broken”. Lenihan writes:

MPs like Michael Chong and Nathan Cullen remain hopeful. They think that the right combination of rules and procedures can fix Parliament. Unfortunately, if “fixing” it means rekindling meaningful debate, they are wrong. House Speaker Andrew Scheer’s ruling on the F-35s last week inadvertently shows why.

Scheer argues that a minister cannot be charged with misleading the House unless it can be proved that he/she intended to do so. Intentions, however, are slippery things.

(…)

Scheer’s point is that, when a minister declares that he/she is not lying, it is very hard to prove otherwise, which usually results in a standoff between the government and the opposition.

The disconcerting lesson for parliamentary reform is that no package of rules or procedures can force a government to engage in meaningful debate. As long as its members pretend to be sincere, they can weave and bob, dance and spin, and there is little anyone can do to stop them. Good politicians have this down to an art.

I disagree heartedly with Mr. Lenihan. I strongly believe that there are a number of procedural and Standing Order changes which could be implemented in the Canadian House of Commons which would not only greatly improve the quality of debate, but also make it much more difficult for the ministry to shirk its responsibilities and force them to be much more accountable to the House. I will leave aside the matter of Speaker Scheer’s recent ruling referred to above, since the issue of misleading the House is in many ways completely separate from simply making Parliament more effective and functional.

I have written in depth about many of these in earlier posts, and so won’t go into great detail herein. I will provide links to my earlier posts, so that any reader interested in some of these changes can read the older posts. Most of what I will propose are practices which currently exist in the UK House of Commons. I know Mr. Lenihan writes that a similar trend to what he describes here in Canada is occurring in the UK, but again, I disagree. As someone who follows the UK House of Commons very closely (much more closely than I do the Canadian parliament, I must admit), the reality is that ministers in the UK are far more accountable to the House, and the House has been greatly empowered in the past few years.

The first procedure Canada could borrow from the UK is the UK format for Questions to ministers. I have written extensively about everything that is wrong with the current Question Period in Ottawa. The biggest problem is the time limits on both questions and answers (35 seconds for each). How anyone thinks for one instant that they’re going to solicit any sort of detailed exchange of information in 35 seconds is quite beyond me. The UK format sees one ministry only face questions each day (or the one-hour time slot can be split between two or more smaller agencies and ministries). Questions are submitted three days beforehand to give ministers the time to prepare comprehensive answers. They are very civil, even dull at times, exchanges, but at least actual information is exchanged. Ministers must answer the questions. They cannot refuse to do so, as they can here, nor can another minister from a different ministry answer on their behalf, as occurs here.

Along with the UK format for Questions to ministers, we should also adopt both Urgent Questions (UQ), which don’t exist here at all, and revamp our ministerial statements. UQs are initiated by any backbench MP – if the Speaker approves the question, a minister is hauled before the House on relatively short notice to address the question. Other MPs can also question the minister on that particular matter. This normally lasts about an hour. (Urgent questions are described in the blog post linked to above.)

Ministerial statements in the UK are also very useful, unlike their Canadian counterparts. While initiated by the minister, MPs are then able to question the minister following his or her statement. This isn’t allowed in Canada. Ministerial statements also normally last about an hour, but the Speaker can let them go on much longer if there is sufficient interest. Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance minister) was kept at the despatch box taking questions following his statement for close to three hours. This post has video clips from the UK of oral questions (not PMQs), an urgent question and a ministerial statement, to give you a better idea of how these procedures actually work.

Canada would also do well to get rid of time limits on debate and members speeches. Again, these don’t exist in the UK, and the quality of debate reflects that. We should return to the practice of giving way, which we used to do, until time limits on speeches were brought in. By allowing members to interrupt the MP speaking to ask a question or comment on what they’ve just said, the debate becomes much more interactive. Our debates tend to sound like a rota of read speeches.

Make all MPs refer to each other as “honourable”. This may sound quaint, but I think it contributes greatly to a greater sense of decorum and respect in the UK House of Commons. All members refer to each other as “the honourable lady”, “my honourable friend”, “the Rt. Hon. Prime Minister”, etc.

Ban the reading of speeches. The rules already prohibit this, but it is never enforced. No one reads from prepared texts in the UK House of Commons, and any MP who wishes to participate in a debate must refer to comments made by the 3 or 4 MPs who spoke before they did before moving on to their own comments. This is a sign of respect that one was in the Chamber, following the debate, paying attention, etc. Members must also stay around after they’ve delivered their comments to see how their comments are received by the next few speakers. Participating in debates should not be some form of torture or punishment – it should be something MPs want to do and look forward to doing.

The biggest problem in the Canadian House of Commons is the dominance of the Executive, and in particular the Prime Minister, on the one hand, and party discipline on the other. MPs are so whipped in the Canadian House of Commons, they don’t dare speak out against their own party’s position on anything. The Whips have virtual control over everything – when they speak, what they say, if they participate on a committee, etc. This is not healthy and greatly undermines the effectiveness of our Parliament.

The UK has a huge advantage on that front simply because of the sheer number of MPs – 650 compared to 308 in Canada. Most backbenchers in the UK know they will not sit on committees or be on the front bench, and so it is more difficult for the Whips to exert total control over them. Consequently, MP rebellions are very common – on both sides of the House. But while we don’t have the same numbers of MPs here in Canada, there are still many things which could be done which would lessen the dominance of party Whips.

First, Canada could introduce the UK’s system of one- , two- and three-line whips, which would allow MPs more freedom in how they vote on various measures.

Next, committee reform. I’ve written at length about the committee reforms in the UK, but to summarise: committees chairships are divided up amongst the main parties roughly in proportion to their representation in the House. Chairs of most of the select committees are now elected by their fellow MPs. Members of the committees are now elected by their respective caucuses. This has made the committees much more independent and much more accountable to the House, rather than to party Whips. I’ve written about how Committees in Ottawa could be strengthened.

The UK now has a Backbench Business Committee which determines what business will be debated on 35 days each session. This will be business that is of interest to backbenchers. There are plans to bring in a House Business Committee, which in theory would program all business in the House – which is currently controlled by the Executive.

In the UK, ministers regularly appear before the Select Committee oversees their department. Even the Prime Minister is not immune from this: the PM appears before the Liaison Committee, which is a sort of super-committee whose membership consists of the chairs of all of the other select committees, and is grilled by the committee for a couple of hours. You can see Prime Minister David Cameron’s most recent appearance before the Liaison Committee here. (Side note, around the 37:30 mark, they start discussing accountability in general, then more specifically ministerial accountability.)

There are undoubtedly more rules from the UK House of Commons which would be of interest, but as you can see from the above, it is false to say that different rules wouldn’t improve things. If the House of Commons were empowered, if MPs were less whipped, the Ministry would have to adopt a different attitude towards it and engage more fully. The simple reality is that the current government here in Canada wouldn’t survive two minutes in the UK House of Commons if they attempted to conduct themselves in Parliament there the way they do here. They’d be ripped to shreds by the Speaker, the Opposition, and perhaps more importantly, the press and the general public. It simply wouldn’t be tolerated.

And that is another important difference. I think there is a greater public awareness of Parliament in the UK, and greater media focus as well. If you take the time to look at any UK media source online, there is no shortage of political liveblogging and detailed coverage of happenings in Parliament (well beyond PMQs). Perhaps that is in part because it is the only parliament (not counting the devolved assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Canadians – those who bother at least- find their attention divided between City Hall, their provincial or territorial legislature, and Ottawa. And for many, Ottawa is very, very far away.

Finally, regarding Mr. Lenihan’s references to the problems of ministers lying or misleading Parliament, this isn’t really the issue. The Canadian House of Commons is very weak, and it is very easy for the Executive to undermine it – even without outright lying. Adopting any or all of the measures described above of course would not stop a minister from lying, but they would go a long way towards empowering the House vis-à-vis the Executive, and giving backbenchers more freedom from their own parties (it’s not just the government that is the problem here – all of our parties need to stop controlling their MPs to the degree that they currently do). It would be more difficult for a minister to mislead the House, deliberately or otherwise, if the House wasn’t so impotent.

Also, as I explained in this post, charges of misleading the House are extremely difficult to prove. I know that there has been a lot of criticism of Speaker Scheer over the 7 May 2012 ruling, but it was a given that he wouldn’t be able to find that the minister had lied or deliberately misled the House. To the best of my knowledge, there has been only one instance anywhere in the Commonwealth of a minister found in contempt for misleading the House, and that was in 1963, the case of John Profumo in the UK. And he was only found in contempt after he admitted to the House that he had indeed lied, and deliberately so, with intent to mislead. You may disagree with this, but procedural convention is what it is.

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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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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 Revolts.co.uk 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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On toeing the party line: three-line whips

(Note: See this post for statistics on how often Canadian MPs vote with their party.)

In an earlier post, I discussed how UK MPs tend to be far more rebellious than their Canadian counterparts, frequently voting against their own party. In that post, I noted that large scale rebellions were, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in Canada; party discipline is much, much stronger in Canada (and from what I understand, in Australia too).

Tomorrow (24 October 2011) there will be a Backbench Business debate on holding a referendum on British membership of the EU. The motion, from Conservative MP David Nuttall reads: “This House calls upon the government to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the united Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, leave the European Union, or renegotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation.”

The debate was originally scheduled for Thursday (27 October) but due to the growing support by Conservative backbenchers for the motion, it was moved to Monday to allow the Prime Minister and other front-bench MPs to attend and participate. The Conservative Party leadership is imposing a three-line whip to defeat the motion, which many Conservative MPs are promising to defy.

The concept of a “three-line whip” was new to me. While whipped votes are the norm in Canada, I’d never heard of one described as a “three-line” whip. The reason for that is because it has never really been implemented here, except for one brief experiment.

Background

A whip is an official in a political party whose primary purpose is to ensure party discipline in a legislature. Whips are a party’s “enforcers”, who typically offer inducements and threaten punishments for party members to ensure that they vote according to the official party policy. A whip’s role is also to ensure that the elected representatives of their party are in attendance when important votes are taken. The usage comes from the hunting term whipping in, i.e. preventing hounds from wandering away from the pack. Hence a whipped vote is one where Members of a given party are told how they will vote, and if they choose to not obey the whip’s instructions, will be punished by the party. Punishment can range from being removed from a Committee they sit on, or having to resign any frontbench position they hold, or even being expelled from caucus and forced to sit as an independent.

In the United Kingdom, there are three categories of whip that are issued on particular business. These whips are issued to MPs in the form of a letter outlining the Parliamentary schedule, with a sentence such as “Your attendance is absolutely essential” next to each debate in which there will be a vote, underlined one, two or three times according to the severity of the whip:

  • A single-line whip is a guide to what the party’s policy would indicate, and notification of when the vote is expected to take place; this is non-binding for attendance or voting.
  • A two-line whip, sometimes known as a double-line whip, is an instruction to attend and vote; partially binding for voting, attendance required unless prior permission given by the whip.
  • A three-line whip is a strict instruction to attend and vote, breach of which would normally have serious consequences. Permission not to attend may be given by the whip, but a serious reason is needed. Breach of a three-line whip can lead to expulsion from the parliamentary political group in extreme circumstances and may lead to expulsion from the party. Consequently, three-line whips are generally only issued on key issues, such as votes of confidence and supply. The nature of three-line whips and the potential punishments for revolt vary dramatically among parties and legislatures.

A similar arrangement was experimented with by the Liberal Party of Canada during the Government of Prime Minister Paul Martin as part of its “Action Plan for Democratic Reform“. According to Paul E. J. Thomas, the Action Plan for Democratic Reform included categories of whip:

A three-line whip voting system refers to the extent to which the government sees a bill as a matter of confidence. Under the system, bills with a one-line whip are considered to be “free votes” for all members, meaning that the government takes no position on the issue and the outcome of the vote will not affect the Parliament’s confidence in the government. On two-line votes the cabinet takes a position, but government backbenchers are not obliged to follow it and the outcome again does not affect the government’s survival. Lastly, the three-line whip is saved for key parts of the government’s legislative agenda that are matters of confidence on which the government can fall. As such, all MPs from the governing party are expected to toe the party line.

As you can see, the Liberal Party’s three-line whip system differed somewhat from its UK counterpart. One-line whips introduced by the Liberals were free votes, the Government took no position on the issue, while in the UK, the party’s policy is stated, but Members are free to vote as they wish. Liberal two-line whips applied to cabinet members only – backbench members were still free to vote as they wished, while in the UK it is partially binding for voting. Three-line whips were pretty much the same – Liberal MPs were expected to attend the vote and vote as the party dictated they should, the same as in the UK.

The three-line whip experiment was short-lived and applied only to the 3rd session of the 37th Parliament, and the 38th Parliament, and only to the Liberal Party, which formed the Government during that period. The reality in Canada is that almost all votes in the House, for all parties, would be considered three-line whips. From the report It’s My Party: Political Dysfunction Reconsidered:

The  Canadian  parliamentary  system  has a tradition of strict party discipline, meaning that for the majority of votes in the House of Commons, MPs vote with their political party. Party leaders enforce this discipline so they can be as certain as possible about whether legislation will pass a vote. It also helps the public hold parties to account at election time: if all members of a party vote in a particular way, then the party’s positions are ostensibly clearer to the electorate. Voting records indicate that most MPs vote with their party nearly all of the time, so it was a surprise how many MPs emphasized the times they didn’t agree with their party.

Samara Canada found, through exit interviews conducted with MPs who had decided not to seek re-election in the May 2011 election that:

 One MP recalled how difficult a particular vote was for him, and other members of his party. “There was a pounding in caucus. We had to vote for this. And I did. I shouldn’t have. But I saw people who were much more committed to [the issue] than I, getting up to vote and crying because they had to vote for it,” he said.

Most MPs described not really understanding how a party’s position on most issues was determined. “Virtually all MPs, with the exception of maybe the whips, go into the House of Commons with a bill and 18 to 20 amendments, and don’t have a damned clue of what the amendments say,” said one MP.

Furthermore, many said it was impossible to keep track of the bills on which they were called to vote. “I hate to tell you how many bills I had very little idea what I was voting on. That’s not necessarily my weakness, that’s just the reality,” one MP said.

Even the one item of business in the Canadian House of Commons which is supposed to allow MPs free votes, Private Members’ Bills, is largely whipped:

Private members’ bills are traditionally free votes and are introduced into the House by individual backbench MPs from any party, rather than by the government. However, even in this ostensibly independent area, the MPs reported heavy party intervention.

One Bloc MP said his party still pressured MPs when facing a free vote. “There are no real free votes. The political parties will say that it’s a free vote to seem democratic, but if the leader has an opinion on it, he’s going to put pressure on the membership so that you think like him,” he said.

A New Democrat MP expressed frustration that the governing parties rarely adhered to free votes once in power. “All these guys who said they were for free votes end up voting against private member’s business because their government does not want it to happen,” he said.

What makes the use of the three-line whip with regards to Monday’s vote on the motion calling for a referendum on the EU particularly interesting is that this is an item of backbench business, and second, the outcome isn’t binding on the Government. Therefore, there is no real need to whip the vote, since the Government is under no obligation to act if the outcome is in favour of a referendum. Of course, if the motion passes by a large margin, and the Government chooses to ignore the outcome, the optics won’t look very good. The party leadership is justifying the three-line whip saying that the motion is “contrary to Government policy.” Still, resorting to a three-line whip does seem rather heavy-handed. And it’s not only Prime Minister David Cameron facing dissent from his MPs; Opposition Leader Ed Milliband has instructed his party to vote against the motion, but many Labour MPs have said they will vote in favour. you can see a complete list of MPs who’ve signed the motion, indicating they will vote in favour of it, here.

The motion will most likely be defeated, since the Coalition Government enjoys a significant working majority in the House, as explained in this post. Still, it promises to be an interesting debate and vote. You can watch the debate live online here. Debate could start at about 3:30 GMT (10:30 EST), but if there are any Urgent Questions or Ministerial Statements, the start time will be pushed back.

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On toeing the party line

There has been a fair bit of attention paid to the number of “rebellious” backbenchers in the current UK Parliament. By rebellious, I mean backbenchers who defy the party whip and vote against their own party.

Most of the focus has been on Coalition backbenchers who have voted against the Coalition government. Since last May, there have been 110 such rebellions by Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs. Coalition MPs have rebelled on 52% of votes. However, Labour too has seen its fair share of rebellious members, with 37 rebellions by Labour MPs on 20% of all Commons votes.

There is even a website dedicated to tracking MP rebellions (the source for the above statistics).

Over at ConservativeHome, Jonathan Isaby has been keeping track of dissenting Conservative MPs. ConHome also conducts monthly surveys of Conservative Party members, and last month asked a series of questions about whether and when MPs should be loyal to the Government Whip. There was a clear split in the results, with 89% agreeing that Conservative MPs should nearly always vote for legislation that was included in the Conservative Party’s manifesto, but only 51% felt that they should show the same loyalty for legislation that is part of the Coalition’s Programme. In this month’s survey, more questions were asked about the voting behaviour of Tory MPs, with the following results:

Only 8% agreed that Conservative backbenchers “should never rebel against the whip” (88% disagreed), with a huge majority – 91% in fact – taking the view that Conservative backbenchers “should normally support the Government and vote with the whip, but be prepared to rebel occasionally on issues that have a negative impact on their constituencies or on which they have a strong personal view” (just 8% disagreed).

However, 52% went on to agree that “Conservative MPs who regularly rebel should be disciplined by the Whips’ Office” (with 39% disagreeing).

I have not followed UK politics that closely prior to last May’s election, but I do know that even under Labour’s majority governments, there were some notable rebellions by Labour MPs against their own party. The vote on variable tuition fees in 2004 passed by only 5 votes, with 71 Labour MPs voting against, and 19 abstaining. The vote on going to war in Iraq saw 139 Labour backbenchers back a rebel amendment opposing the government’s stance on Iraq, which was defeated, and on the government motion, 122 Labour MPs voted against the government. There was also a significant rebellion in 2003 over the Government’s Health bill establishing Foundation Hospitals.

Large-scale backbench revolts are very rare in Canada. In fact, I can’t really think of any similar examples of significant numbers of government MPs voting against their party and the Government. It’s usually very big news when a single government MP votes against their party on major pieces of legislation (such as the budget) – and they usually are then kicked out of caucus for doing so. The only example I’ve turned up for Canada is a 1937 rebellion in the province of Alberta. (Side note: there is one famous example of a cabinet revolt against a sitting PM, when seven members of Sir Mackenzie Bowell’s cabinet resigned in January 1896 over dissatisfaction with Bowell’s leadership, then resumed their posts when Bowell promised to resign at the end of the session.)

One reason that might explain this difference is simply arithmetic. There are more than twice as many MPs in the UK House of Commons, 650, than there are in Ottawa, 308. In the current Parliament, there are almost as many Conservative MPs as there are total MPs in Ottawa (307 to 308). There are a limited number of extra opportunities for MPs in the UK – by that I mean either serving in cabinet or on a committee. The vast majority of MPs will not have any additional duties beyond serving their constituents. The same is true in Canada, of course, but given comparable cabinet sizes and committee numbers, the odds are better for a Canadian MP that they might end up on a committee or in cabinet at some point.

The UK cabinet consists of 23 members (including the PM), plus an additional six ministers who attend cabinet but aren’t considered cabinet ministers. The current Canadian cabinet consists of 38 members [when the post was written - the new cabinet following the 2 May 2011 election is even larger, 39 members, and this does not include the numerous parliamentary secretaries], including the PM. There are 34 House of Commons committees at Westminster with an average membership of 11 MPs (and some MPs may serve on more than one committee). But if we pretend there is no duplication, 34 committees with an average membership of 11 MPs equals 374 MPs serving on committees (note, this number is not the actual number of MPs serving on committees – I simply did not have the time to do a complete headcount). Meanwhile, in Ottawa, there are 28 House of Commons committees with an average membership of 12 MPs (an MP may serve on more than one committee). Again, if we pretend there is no duplication (same caveat as above), 28 committees with an average membership of 12 equals 336 – which is greater than the actual number of MPs in Ottawa. As well, committees in Canada also have “associate members” which seem to number over 100 for each committee. You can see the complete list of committee membership here, including the lists of associate members for each. I admit I’d never heard of these “associate members” previously, and had no idea what they did. However, a bit of searching revealed that a list of associate members is established for each committee and these associate members may be named to subcommittees. Hence my point that there is simply a better chance that a backbench MP in Ottawa will end up at least on a committee, if not in cabinet than exists for his or her British counterpart.

With such a large number of MPs that have little to do beyond their expected parliamentary and constituency duties, it isn’t surprising that party discipline is harder to maintain in the UK than it is in Canada. Canadian party Whips can more easily use the carrot of committee membership (or even cabinet or shadow cabinet promotion) to maintain party discipline among their backbenchers. As the ConHome article quoted above goes on to state, there isn’t much a UK party Whip can do to discipline an MP who votes against his or her party. Being booted out of caucus apparently happens very rarely. They can’t even use the promise of a seat on a committee as a prize (or punishment) because committee membership is now decided by election, while in Canada party Whips submit names of Members for each committee to the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to be approved by the House.

Another reason why party discipline is so strong in Canada is because party leaders sign off on a candidate’s nomination papers prior to a general election. Therefore, if a sitting MP hopes to run again in the next election, he or she needs to remain in good standing with the party leader, otherwise, the party leader might not sign their nomination papers. Given this reality, few MPs are willing to risk deviating from the official party position (or whatever the party Whip tells them).

Party discipline is so strong in Canada that it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to suggest that the various party leaders could cast a proxy on behalf of all their members without bothering to have them physically present  for votes. Not a very healthy state of affairs for any democracy.

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Whipped votes, free votes and representative democracy

In this post, I explained what representative democracy is:

In countries with representative democracy, we elect people to a legislative body to represent us. The representatives form an independent ruling body (for an election period) charged with the responsibility of acting in the people’s interest, but not as their proxy representatives, that is not necessarily always according to their wishes, but with enough authority to exercise swift and resolute initiative in the face of changing circumstances.

The key point here is that in countries such as Canada, the UK, Australia, the US, etc., elected officials act in the people’s interest, but not always according to their wishes. This means that in some instances, one’s MP (or congressperson, or representative, or MLA, etc.) will vote in a way that might run counter to prevailing opinion in his or her constituency because sometimes, what people want isn’t always the best way to proceed, or doesn’t reflect current circumstances, or might not be in the best interests of the country.

In parliamentary democracies, there is another factor at play. Party politics and party discipline are incredibly powerful forces in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and to a lesser extent, the UK, much stronger factors than they are in the US, for example, where the parties don’t campaign on single national manifestos. While an MP is elected to represent their constituents, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, the vast majority of the time, how an MP votes on various issues will be determined by their party’s whip and not by what their constituents want. The reality is that an MP who regularly (or sometimes, even only once) votes against their party’s official position on a given issue will soon find themselves ostracized by the party, if not ejected from caucus completely. Indeed, in many ways, it is an act of political courage for an individual MP to defy their party and vote the way their constituents want, or according to their own conscience.

What this means is that if a party has an official position on a given issue, its MPs are expected to vote that way if the issue comes up for a vote in the legislature, even if majority opinion in an MP’s constituency differs. While this might seem wrong on the surface, one could counter-argue that voters in that constituency knew what the various parties’ positions were on each major issue, and so it would be expected that whoever they elect will vote according to that party’s position. Consequently, if majority opinion in a riding is against  a carbon tax, for example, one would expect that whichever party opposes implementing a carbon tax would get a majority of votes and their candidate elected.

Of course, reality isn’t as straight forward. Election campaigns are frequently dominated by only handful of key issues – one of which is almost always the economy, and so voters may well ignore party positions on minor or secondary issues, focusing instead on where they stand on the larger issues of the day. There is also the issue of voting systems to take into account. In the UK and Canada, which still use First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), the vagaries of this electoral system are well known. FPTP really only works properly (so to speak) if there are only two parties which are serious contenders. In jurisdictions that have three (or more) very competitive parties, FPTP breaks down. For example, if four parties are contesting for a seat in a given constituency, three of which clearly favour strong environmental protection measures while one opposes it, the pro-environment vote can end up being split three ways,  allowing the  candidate representing the less pro-environment party to win. Such scenarios are not infrequent. Most MPs in Canada and the UK are elected with less than 50% of the vote cast in their ridings. Some win their seats with only a third of the votes cast, some with even less. Is it fair in such cases to say that voters are endorsing the positions on key issues held by the winning candidate’s party?

My point here is to attempt to highlight the fact that how an MP votes on a given issue will be governed by party discipline and not prevailing public opinion in that member’s riding. This is called a “whipped vote” – where members of a party are compelled to vote a certain way or else risk being reprimanded or punished by their party. Most votes in the Canadian House of Commons are whipped votes. The opposite of a whipped vote is a free vote (in the UK, a “free vote” would be a one-line whip):

There are no rules or Standing Orders defining a “free vote” in the House of Commons nor is there any requirement that free votes be identified as such in the Journals. Simply defined, a free vote takes place when a party decides that, on a particular issue, its Members are not required to vote along party lines, or that the issue is not a matter of party policy and its Members may vote as they choose. A free vote may be allowed by one or more parties or it may be allowed by all parties. When all parties agree to a free vote, the recorded division may be called as a row-by-row vote or in the normal manner of a party vote. The decisions taken by the parties (as to whether or not a matter should be decided in a free vote) are not issues on which the Speaker can be asked to rule.

In the Canadian system of responsible government, free votes have a special relationship to the confidence convention. The principle underlying this convention is simply that the government must enjoy the support of the majority of Members of the House of Commons and be responsible for its actions to this elected body. The confidence convention holds that where a motion does not contain an explicitly worded condemnation of the government, or where the government has not declared a particular vote to be a question of confidence, or where there is no implicit vote of non-confidence (such as in a motion to adopt the Budget, the Address in Reply or the granting of supply), then the government is at liberty to interpret the result of the vote in any manner it wishes. Consequently, when under such conditions the government declares that it will treat a matter as a free vote, the convention holds that the defeat of the item does not amount to a vote of non-confidence in the government.

It is not clear when the first free vote was held in the House of Commons; however, since the 1946 free vote on milk subsidies, there have been several free votes on government business. For example, free votes were held on the issues of the selection of a national flag, capital punishment, abortion, the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, constitutional amendments, and same-sex marriage. (House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd Edition)

However, as C.E.S. Franks explains, even free votes often aren’t very free (PDF). The free votes on the issues of capital punishment and abortion were not free votes for the New Democratic Party. On both those issues the NDP has a clear, stated policy, and members were expected to toe the party line. The more recent vote on same-sex marriage (not mentioned in Franks’ article, which was published in 1992) in December 2006 was a free vote for the Conservatives and Liberals, but the NDP and Bloc Québécois whipped their vote.

Franks argues that:

Not only are free votes rare in Canada (and in other Westminster-style democracies), but their use has largely been restricted to matters of morality and conscience where the divisions cross party lines. To expect much greater use of free votes would be to demand massive changes in the processes of representation and decision making in the parliamentary system. It would change the system of responsibility and accountability: if members of Parliament rather than the government makes the decisions, then members rather than government should be held accountable. The opposition, in so far as its members had supported an item of business in a free vote, would no longer be in a position to oppose. The choices facing the electorate would be more blurred than at present.

Franks also points out that while voters frequently call for more independence for elected MPs, that they be more responsive to their constituents rather than the party, the reality is that more voters vote for a party and its leadership than they do for the local candidate representing that party.

Free votes certainly have their place in our political system, but I have to agree with Franks. It is not through increasing the number of free votes that we will strengthen the role of individual MPs – notably, backbenchers. I also agree with him that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if dissent was more generally tolerated by our political parties.

See also:

It’s my party

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