Opinion

What's the point in having MPs if all they can do is toe the party line?: Robyn Urback

There are obvious reasons why a caucus of trained seals is preferable to one of rogue MPs. But at the same time, voters have signalled a growing fatigue with obsequious, party-focused politics.

Maxime Bernier was booted from the Conservative front bench for expressing mild dissent

On Monday, members of the House unanimously backed a motion defending supply management, but with one member conspicuously absent: Maxime Bernier. The next day, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer removed Bernier from his shadow cabinet. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Many more Canadians would surely tune in to question period each afternoon if we found a way to fill the benches with seals — actual seals — who would clap and honk at each leader's statements.

Mr. Speaker, because of another failure of the prime minister, Canadians involuntarily became shareholders in the Trans Mountain pipeline.

CLAPCLAPCLAPCLAPHONK

Mr. Speaker, we are making investments to protect thousands of jobs in Alberta and across the country.

HONKHONKCLAP

Mr. Speaker, the prime minister knows tha— I'm sorry, Mr. Speaker, point of order. Can you please instruct the member for Louis-Saint-Laurent to take that flailing salmon out of his mouth?

The main obstacle to this, I think, would be that the folks at PETA probably wouldn't have it. Also, members of Parliament are supposed to represent the interests and values of their constituents, and not simply clap and honk along with their party's every policy. But as I say, PETA would be the main problem.

Deriding 'fake Conservatives'

Empowering the backbench and respecting the autonomy of MPs sounds great as a concept, but it's typically much tougher to tolerate in practice. Maxime Bernier has been that headache for the Conservatives since at least back in April (ignoring his, uh, "forgetfulness" a few years back), when the leadership runner-up released a chapter of his then-forthcoming book in which he derided "fake Conservatives" who he says bought party memberships to vote for Andrew Scheer.

These "fake Conservatives," wrote Bernier, were "only interested in blocking [his] candidacy and protecting their privileges" — privileges meaning the supply management system that controls the supply of dairy, eggs and poultry in Canada and keeps consumer prices artificially high.

It was juicy stuff, but Bernier, facing opposition from within caucus, eventually agreed to shelve the book for the sake of "harmony" within the party.

Bernier's position on supply management is hardly news, but it became newly problematic after U.S. President Donald Trump upped his opposition to Canada's dairy cartel last week. In response, members of the House unanimously backed a motion on Monday defending supply management — a sacred cow for all parties — but with one member conspicuously absent: Maxime Bernier. The next day, Scheer removed Bernier from his shadow cabinet.

There was no official reason given, though a Conservative MP said it was because Bernier posted a chapter of his book on his website last week after he had previously agreed to postpone its release indefinitely, following a pattern of somewhat rogue behaviour. That is a legitimate reason if you believe that small gestures of dissent are fireable offences. But surely what Bernier said — and not simply how he said it — had something to do with Scheer's decision also.  

Perhaps the Conservatives believed that having Bernier's opposition to supply management front and centre — a position that appears to align with Trump's — would be too harmful politically, especially considering Canadians' deep disapproval of the U.S. president.

Of course, to oppose supply management is hardly to agree with every aspect of Trump's short-sighted and illogical approach to trade, but Scheer might have feared the distinction would be lost on some Canadians. But even if that's true in some cases, the message left in its stead is one of ideological intolerance on the part of Conservative leadership.

Indeed, there are many beautiful ironies here, including the implicit suggestion that free market advocates have no place in Canada's conservative party, as well as the idea that free speech champion Andrew Scheer would oust a shadow cabinet member for speaking out on an important issue.

A non-partisan phenomenon 

Granted, this intolerance to dissent is hardly a Conservative quirk. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who campaigned on a promise to empower the backbench, removed Newfoundland MP Scott Simms from his role as chair of the Commons fisheries committee after Simms refused to toe the party line on its change to funding for its summer jobs program. And NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh punished Hamilton MP David Christopherson (though he eventually backed down) for breaking rank on the same issue.

There are obvious reasons why a caucus of trained seals is preferable to one of rogue MPs: whipped votes move policy; united fronts deliver straightforward messages; harmonious caucuses inspire confidence. A party risks being defined by its fringes if those fringes become too loud. Stephen Harper clearly understood that risk, and he demonstrated that by snuffing out most every attempt by his MPs to bring up abortion in the House of Commons.

Over the past few years, voters have signalled a fatigue for obsequious politicians. This might explain why some politicians who speak their minds have enjoyed success, including Donald Trump, left, in the U.S., and Doug Ford in Ontario. (Associated Press/Canadian Press)

At the same time, voters have signalled a fatigue, of sorts, with the same tired political routines over the past few years. They are now supporting politicians like Trump, or Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford, who appear to speak their minds — who don't toe the party line like obsequious soldiers — and who claim to represent voters' interests, instead of those of their party. With that in mind, attempts to silence the rogues might not go over as well as they might have in the past.

Clearly every situation is different, and breaking rank on one issue will not be the same as breaking it on another. But Bernier's case is fairly straightforward: he is not advocating some weirdo policy, or even one that's fundamentally at odds with his party's ethos. He hasn't become irreconcilably mutinous. 

Rather, he's reiterating an eminently conservative position, one that ought to be a Conservative position. It's also a stance that is in the best interests of consumers, especially low-income Canadians, and it's the same perspective Bernier championed while earning 49 per cent of the party's support during last year's leadership race.

So he published a chapter of his book. If the party can't tolerate this level of dissent, it might as well slap a "CPC" sticker on a 300-pound sea mammal from the Arctic and call it the honourable member from Beauce.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at:

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