Yukon MP Ryan Leef called last Friday in a bit of a state. The editorial we had just published, he said, was “inflammatory,” and shouldn’t be considered journalism, but instead, “smut.”
At first, it seemed Leef’s outrage seemed prompted by our description of him as being spineless. But, after some pressing, it seemed that Leef really felt stung by what he considered a much graver insult – namely, being compared to his predecessor and Liberal foe, Larry Bagnell.
It’s easy to see why Leef would be feeling touchy. We are in the long run-up to this autumn’s federal election, after all, and in the Yukon, the race is being popularly framed as a rematch between Bagnell and Leef. The dispute is largely centred on which of the two is the biggest sell-out: Bagnell, for caving on the gun registry issue under pressure from his leader at the time, or Leef, for refusing to commit career-suicide by flamboyantly disobeying Stephen Harper.
Leef phoned up to make an interesting point. In last week’s editorial, we asserted he had fallen back on the party line on, among other things, the issue of whether a public inquiry should be held on the matter of missing and murdered aboriginal women. Not so, he insisted: On Wednesday last week, he supported an NDP motion that called for precisely that. He was the only Conservative MP to do so. Bagnell never did that, he sniffed.
Leef should be applauded for voting in line with the wishes of his constituents, rather than his party. We should include, however, a few caveats that our MP leaves out.
Prior to last week’s vote, Leef had, with some fancy footwork, essentially climbed down on the issue. He had equivocated on whether an inquiry would be needed after all, given the federal government’s response (e.g. to do nothing new). And he knocked the ball into the court of Canada’s premiers, saying they needed to commit to help pay the bill of an inquiry.
So, taken as a whole, Leef’s position on the proposed public inquiry is not quite as sturdy as he’d like it to sound. You could say that he flip-flopped, only to flip once more back to his original position.
It’s also worth noting that the motion had been defeated, thanks to majority opposition by Leef’s Conservative colleagues. The motion’s impending doom was such a foregone conclusion that no major news outlets, as far as we can tell, reported on it until this week. And, we’ll admit, it flew under our radar as well.
Leef finds himself in a tricky position. Many of his constituents feel strongly that an inquiry is needed, while the prime minister has come out staunchly against the idea. Recall that when Harper last visited Whitehorse, he declared that the plight of missing and murdered aboriginal women was not, in fact, a “sociological phenomenon,” but instead simply a matter of having to lock away more bad guys in prison.
So, while Leef says he personally agrees that an inquiry is needed, he also commends the prime minister’s “action.” Yet this action, to date, is simply to draw up a list of existing initiatives.
Similarly, Leef doesn’t fault his fellow Conservatives for ruling out an inquiry, yet he blames opposition MPs who support the cause for being needlessly “partisan.” Taken as a whole, Leef’s stance ends up being a bit of a self-contradictory schmozzle.
Of course, if Leef pressed things much further, he could easily find himself in a similar situation as Bagnell, with being threatened to be booted from the party caucus if he didn’t fall back into line.
We’ll let you decide whether Bagnell and Leef is a bigger sell-out. We don’t harbour any malice towards either candidate, but the broader point we raised last week still stands: party leaders today wield an unhealthy degree of control over our MPs, to the detriment of constituents’ best interests.
It wasn’t always this way in Canada, and it’s not this way in other Commonwealth countries, like Australia and the U.K. This suggests the problem with Canada’s current democracy is not simply to do with a lack of fortitude among those elected to office, but having to do with the rules that govern their conduct.
That’s why Michael Chong’s Reform Act has generated some hope, even in its present, watered-down form, for proposing some modest tweaks to put more power in the hands of MPs. Leef, to his credit, voted in favour of the bill, helping it clear the Commons. Unfortunately, the Senate now looks set to let this bill die on the order table.
Yukon Senator Daniel Lang continues to remain silent on this issue, a week and a half after we asked him what he thinks. Who knows? Maybe he’s waiting to hear more views from constituents. In any case, if you support your MP exercising greater independence, you had better let Lang know. It’s up to him and his colleagues in the Red Chamber whether the bill becomes law.
Some senators have huffed that they worry about the bill’s impact on Canadian democracy. But they have little moral authority to speak on such matters. Our MPs, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Reform Act, ran for office. Our senators did not. It takes a lot of cheek to look beyond that fact.
Leef mentioned in passing something that Conservatives are fond of pointing out, which is that the NDP whips even more votes than they do. The takeaway from this, however, shouldn’t be that the Conservative Party is a bastion of independent thought – everyone seems to agree that Harper wields more power than any prime minister before him, and is a stickler about discipline within the party – but that the consolidation of power within the hands of leaders is a problem that plagues all parties, and so requires some kind of collective response.
Even if the Reform Act does clear the Senate, there is no guarantee that its provisions will come into effect. MPs within each party caucus would also need to vote in favour of empowering themselves at the start of each term. This would let them remove from the hands of party leaders several sticks used to keep MPs in line.
It would be up to an MP’s peers, rather than the leader, to decide whether he or she deserved to be booted from caucus. Similarly, the veto that leaders currently hold over a candidate’s nomination would be appointed to another official – although still one of a leader’s choosing, making the rule easy enough to game, if leaders so chose.
Still, these modest changes would be a small step in the right direction.