free the sock puppets

Yukon MP Ryan Leef is energetic, affable and feisty. These are all fine qualities for a prime ministerial sock puppet. Conservatives will grumble that's an unfair characterization.

Yukon MP Ryan Leef is energetic, affable and feisty. These are all fine qualities for a prime ministerial sock puppet.

Conservatives will grumble that’s an unfair characterization. But most won’t mean it. Anyone who’s given cursory attention to federal politics knows how little leeway Conservative MPs have in veering from their party’s official script.

Leef’s no exception. Consider his recent letter to Yukoners upset by his decision to support the government’s omnibus budget bill.

He doesn’t bother to try to defend the chief objection to the bill, which has since become law – namely, that it makes many controversial changes that have little bearing on the budget, from gutting the Fisheries Act to allowing the government to overturn National Energy Board decisions.

Tellingly, Leef never mentions any of these non-budgetary changes in his letter. It’s hard to defend what’s indefensible, so he doesn’t try.

Leef also makes an assertion that’s deeply misleading. He claims that “there were hundreds of hours and hundreds of individuals consulted” on the federal budget.

That may be true. A handful of federal ministers visited Whitehorse and, in between cheque-cutting ceremonies, announced they were staging “pre-budget consultations.”

But the public never learned what was discussed at these meetings with local bigwigs. It was certainly never publicly disclosed that the Conservatives planned to stuff the budget bill full of major policy changes, amending some 70 laws. It’s dishonest of Leef to suggest otherwise.

So much for being the Yukon’s man in Ottawa. Instead, it’s clear that Leef is Ottawa’s man in the territory.

Contrast Leef’s behaviour with that of his predecessor, the Liberals’ Larry Bagnell. He, too, had to defend unpopular decisions made by his party, in the case of its support for the federal gun registry. But Bagnell, a longtime critic of the registry, never pretended to like it.

Bagnell once defied a whipped vote to support the registry. He paid a price, of losing his chair of his party’s rural caucus.

Faced with another whipped vote, Bagnell relented and helped prop up the registry. If he hadn’t, he would have been ejected from his party.

Conservatives later seized on this as evidence that Bagnell had abandoned his constituents. He should have stood by his principles, the argument went.

Good luck finding a Conservative who will say the same thing about Leef now. But maybe they should.

Stephen Harper once condemned the Liberals for slipping unrelated measures into their budget bills. But he adopted the practice himself as leader of minority governments. Then, at least, it served a tactical purpose: opposition parties needed to choose between supporting the budget or triggering an election.

No similar rationale is apparent now. The Conservatives enjoy a majority, and so are free to pass what laws they see fit.

In opposition, Conservatives rightfully deplored such behaviour as arrogant, out-of-touch and heavy-handed. Sadly, the governing party has since become all those things. And their supporters have let them.

The government’s hubris in ramming through the omnibus budget was enough to even make some Conservative MPs uncomfortable. David Wilks, a backbencher for Kootenay-Columbia, told voters he’d protest the budget if a dozen other Conservative MPs joined him. But he quickly backed down once these comments became public, after presumably receiving a sound spanking by the prime minister’s staffers.

Parliamentarians – including those, like Leef, who sit on government’s back bench – were once expected to scrutinize the spending of public funds. Not any more.

Instead, Leef brags in his letter about how much money Ottawa has showered on the territory. Federal transfers to the territory have grown by $300 million over the past five years, his letter notes.

That really says it all, doesn’t it? Leef isn’t in office to stand up for what’s right. He’s Ottawa’s bagman.

And let’s be honest: that’s why many Yukoners voted for him. That’s why it’s difficult for some of us to summon too much outrage over his support of the budget.

But let’s be generous for a moment and assume that Leef, like Wilks, had reservations about the omnibus budget bill. As it stands, voting against the bill would likely have been an act of political suicide.

Bucking your party’s position on a largely symbolic issue, like the gun registry, is one thing. Voting against the budget is another. And the Conservatives have exercised far greater control over their MPs than the Liberals did.

There’s no question that Leef would have been expelled from the Conservative party. He’d also run the risk of alienating party faithful, without being able to count on many opposition supporters to vote for him next election.

So while Leef’s support of the budget is completely unprincipled, it’s also completely rational. He’s just playing by the rules.

To fix the problem, you can’t just change the man. You’ll have to change the system.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has proposed one fix that would give MPs greater leeway. Currently, party leaders sign the nomination papers for individual candidates. She’d move this power back into the hands of riding associations.

That would give MPs like Leef more power to speak their minds, with less fear of reprisal from their respective leaders. It’s a modest change, and far more plausible than wholesale reform to Canada’s electoral rules. But it’s still unlikely to happen, thanks to resistance from the leaders of the big parties.

Still, it could, if supporters of all parties make a big enough fuss. This seems to be a more productive goal than simply blaming a sock puppet for its lack of a spine.