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Tell our federal candidates that backbone matters

Ultimately, no law can force MPs to grow spines. At some point, they'll have to do that themselves.

Ultimately, no law can force MPs to grow spines. At some point, they’ll have to do that themselves.

So while it seems promising that a private member’s bill is set to become law that would grant MPs the possibility of empowering themselves, let’s not get too excited yet.

Still, if you’ve ever groused about how our MPs, past or present, have tended to serve the interests of their party, rather than their constituents, then you should be paying attention.

The Reform Act, which recently cleared the House of Commons, would require party caucuses to make some serious decisions as a first order of business after the next election.

MPs would vote on whether to strip their leaders of the ability to veto a candidate’s nomination to run under the party banner in the next election. MPs would similarly decide on whether to codify how caucus members, caucus chairs, and even party leaders, could be turfed by their peers.

This is admittedly dry, procedural stuff. But consider how these different rules could have changed the outcome when the Liberals’ Larry Bagnell, as Yukon’s MP, was pressured by his leader to prop up the much-maligned long-gun registry.

Bagnell defied his leader’s wishes once and was stripped of his role as chair of his party’s northern caucus. He says he was told that if he did so again, he would be ejected from caucus altogether. So he plugged his nose and voted the way his leader wanted. A fair number of Yukoners never forgave him.

In an alternative universe in which Bagnell faced the same decision under the Reform Act’s rules, it would be up to Bagnell’s peers, rather than the leader, to decide whether he should be sacked.

Leef, our current MP, insists he’s never been leaned on by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This seems somewhat implausible, given Harper’s reputation as a control freak. And Leef did manage to change his tune about whether a federal inquiry is needed on the matter of missing and murdered aboriginal women, after his boss came out strongly against the measure. Leef initially threw his support behind an inquiry, but later said he doesn’t believe one is necessary.

Yet it remains true that many MPs don’t need outright threats. They will happily debase themselves on a voluntary basis, knowing that the only way to earn a plum job like a cabinet seat is with their leaders’ approval.

Leef deserves some credit for voting in favour of the Reform Act. However, so did every other Conservative MP present in Parliament, so he was not exactly swimming against the tide. It’s also promising that Leef says he supports the Reform Act’s proposals, but it will remain important for voters to pester him to explain what that means.

As for Bagnell, who plans to challenge Leef in the next election, he says he supports removing his leader’s ability to nix candidate nominations, but he’s opposed to giving MPs the ability to remove their leaders. His objection echoes that of Stephane Dion, who voted against the Reform Act, noting some differences between Canada and the Commonwealth countries that inspired the bill.

The United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand all have parliaments in which MPs have been known to dump their leaders. Yet the rules about how to go about doing this were developed by the parties themselves, rather than being imposed by law.

What’s more, in these countries parliamentarians have a big say in choosing their leader, whereas in Canada we have a long history of leaving this decision in the hands of all party members.

These are interesting objections. Certainly, it would be better if Canada’s political parties voluntarily cleaned up their acts, but it seems clear that a nudge is necessary. And, given the choice, many voters would probably favour having MPs that were less fearful of expressing their own views when they happen to be at odds with their leader, even if this comes at the expense of a little logical consistency with how leaders are picked.

The Reform Act has been watered down in order to win majority support. An earlier version would have put approval of a candidate’s nomination papers in the hands of the local riding association, whereas now MPs simply vote on whether to put this power in the hands of someone else authorized by the party. This means it’s possible that MPs could exercise this option, yet still hand off this authority to a lackey of the leader. Yukoners should be clear with their candidates that such a move won’t cut it.

At the very least, the Reform Act should force MPs to have a discussion they wouldn’t otherwise have after every election: should we do something about the dictator-like powers that our leaders wield? They could use all the encouragement we can give them to answer to this: yes.