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After recently having a motion silenced, Conservative MPs Mark Warawa and Brent Rathberger spoke out about being “muzzled” by the PMO. Opposition parties were quick to call this a Conservative problem: Bob Rae joked “maybe if the MPs who are unhappy dressed up like Pandas the Prime Minister would pay them some attention.” But this is a cross-party problem, as Warawa was quick to point out in an interview with CBC’s Evan Solomon. The interview can be found here. The loss of MP privileges and the consolidation of the PMO’s power has been an ongoing trend in Canadian politics; perhaps it is now reaching its boiling point.
Question Period has become scripted
Former Speaker of the House Peter Miliken has lectured on this subject. He argues Question Period has become more scripted. Each member is expected to ask a question prepared by the party, and responses are limited to 35 seconds. Before this was institutionalised, the Speaker would choose MPs to ask questions during Canadian parliamentary debates (this tradition remains in British parliament) but now party whips put MPs on debate lists. Furthermore, MPs of different parties no longer dine and mingle together, which creates an atmosphere where ideas and opinions are not shared across parties. This polarises power behind each party’s executive rather than amongst the MPs. Miliken argues the solution lies in empowering the Speaker – an empowered judicious Speaker balances who is able to speak and decreases partisanship as more MPs (both opposition and back-benching) are allowed to critique and participate in shaping policy.
MPs in the Westminster model are meant to check the PM’s power
Traditionally MPs are supposed to check the PM’s power in a parliamentary democracy. Although the Westminster model does not have the ‘checks and balances’ of the American presidential system, Prime Ministers and Premiers must be willing to answer for their actions. In Canada, the executive is required to answer unscripted questions. Thus the House of Commons’ Question Period allows for a time where all members of parliament participate in critiquing and shaping government legislation, empowering both opposition members and government back-benchers. This allows more elected representatives to participate. Inversely, any government attempts to avoid, control, or script parliamentary debates empowers the executive while ignoring opposition and back-benching representatives.
Granted, Canada has changed drastically since confederation. Modern technology means MPs can speak out against the executive on a news program or tweet their discontent, but even this does not allow opposition MPs and back-benchers the ability to participate in shaping legislature that unscripted discussion would. Reversing this trend is not difficult – Miliken argues it simply requires an empowered speaker. While I welcome this proposed change, perhaps the problem is more fundamental.
Making the PMO think twice before “muzzling” MPs – A preferential ballot
Parties are a necessary Canadian political institution because they represent the political cleavages that exist in Canadian society, and powerful parties are necessary in order to achieve political goals. However the over-consolidation of power in this institution has become a problem. When the views of individual MPs are set aside for the mandate of a particular party, the constituents that particular MP represents are theoretically also set aside. To solve this parties should be forced to further reach out to constituents across the country. Instituting preferential ballot electoral system would force MPs to engage more constituents in order to become people’s second or third choice on ballots; this would mean elected MPs would represent a greater portion of their riding. This system would also maintain a strong-party presence. Theoretically parties could still steamroll over the ideas of a particular MP, but by doing this they would steamroll over a greater portion of the electorate. If each MP represented at least 50% if his/her riding, the PMO may think twice before “muzzling” democratic voices.