We could be a whole year away from the next federal election, but already a long, protracted campaign in the Yukon may have begun. It’s shaping up to be a grudge match between our incumbent Conservative MP, Ryan Leef, and his predecessor, the Liberals’ Larry Bagnell, in which they take turns accusing each other of being a sell-out.
In each case, the charge carries a sting because, in a way, it’s true.
Bagnell promised voters he’d fight the long gun registry, then buckled after being threatened with being booted from his party if he didn’t support it. Leef, meanwhile, once told Yukoners he’d support an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. Now he’s a lot less sure about whether that’s a good idea, after his government made it clear it opposes such a move.
The reality, as noted in a column by Kyle Carruthers in Wednesday’s newspaper, is that both Bagnell and Leef have rarely veered from their party lines. In the rare cases when they do, this usually appears to be a matter of political survival, due to overwhelming public pressure.
This is not unusual. The reality is that most of our current lot of MPs, whether they be Conservatives, Liberals or New Democrats, rarely vote out of step with their party. This gormlessness surely has something to do with the increasingly centralized powers wielded by party leaders.
Both Bagnell and Leef may claim to want to put the interests of Yukoners ahead of the interests of their parties. But they both know that often enough, the only way to advance within their parties is to do the opposite. Mavericks may wind up sitting as independents. Those who conform usually bring back goodies for their constituencies.
That’s not to say it isn’t admirable that Yukoners want their MPs to be more than cogs in their party machines. But for that to happen, we’ll probably need to change the rules, rather than the players.
Here’s one way. Voters should be asking both candidates tough questions about where they stand on Michael Chong’s proposed Reform Act, which recently passed second reading in Parliament. Should that bill become law, party caucuses will, as their first order of business after the next election, face an important choice. In effect, MPs will be asked whether they choose to throw off their chains and empower themselves, or whether they submit to allowing their leaders to continue to exercise dictator-like powers.
As it stands, party leaders hold several potent threats over their MPs. Among them are the ability to pick their party’s individual caucus chairs, and to turf disobedient members from the party caucus.
The Reform Act could help hand these powers to caucus as a whole. It could also spell out a method for MPs to turf an unpopular leader.
Consider how these changes would have changed the gun registry debacle. When Bagnell defied an earlier whipped vote, he was punished by being stripped of his job as chair of his party’s northern caucus. He says he was told that another act of defiance on his part – including staying home during the final vote – would have resulted in his ejection from the party. He weighed the consequences and decided the value of sticking with his party outweighed the pain of breaking his word to voters.
Under the Reform Act’s new rules, such threats would not be available to a party leader. Instead, such disciplinary matters would be handled by Bagnell’s peers as a whole. It’s similarly easy to imagine that an empowered Conservative caucus would allow Leef to act in a less encumbered fashion, should he disagree with his party.
Skeptics will note that the Reform Act has been watered down in order to win the majority support it’s currently received. One measure that would have handed the veto over a candidate’s nomination papers from the leader to the local riding association, for instance, has been changed so that each party decides to appoint a person to wield the veto – perhaps, but not necessarily, the leader. And the bill could become further weakened as it heads to committee for review.
Critics would also note that ultimately, it’s up to MPs to grow spines of their own. Our parliamentarians already possess the power to stand up against their leaders; they simply choose to not do so.
This is all true. But any measure, however small, that increases the likelihood that our MPs will act in the interest of their constituents, without fear of reprisal from their party leadership, deserves support.
And there’s no guarantee MPs will assert these new powers, come next election. Party leaders won’t willingly abandon the powers they’ve accumulated, and will seek ways to persuade MPs to see things their way.
So, if you support either Bagnell or Leef, help your candidate help themselves. Push them to promise to fight in favour of their caucus adopting the Reform Act’s measures to empower MPs.