Yukoners deserve more than a ‘constituency MP’

We all have our reasons when we mark our "X" on a piece of paper and exercise our right to vote. Research has shown that more Canadians base their vote on their preferred party or its leader than the local candidate.

We all have our reasons when we mark our “X” on a piece of paper and exercise our right to vote.

Research has shown that more Canadians base their vote on their preferred party or its leader than the local candidate. This is actually a promising sign, because it shows that most of us understand who controls the levers of power in this country. It is not the name on the back of the jersey that counts when it comes to the direction of the country in our political system, but rather the logo on the front.

Our local MP can play a role in what we Canadians refer to euphemistically as “representing constituents,” which usually (but not always) translates into bringing money back to the constituency – what Americans more cynically refer to as “pork barreling.” MPs also have a role to play in helping their constituents navigate the vast federal bureaucracy to secure everything from passports to employment insurance.

It is certainly these “constituency” aspects of an MP’s job that our last two representatives to Ottawa have highlighted in their communications with the constituents. Our current Conservative MP, Ryan Leef’s mail-outs tend to highlight transfer payments his party sends to the Yukon, as well as the mishmash of programs that benefit the territory. They also document all the photo-ops and glad-handing he’s done at barbecues and community events recently.

Our previous MP, Larry Bagnell – who received his party’s nod this past weekend and is headed towards a rematch with Leef next October – was no different during his tenure. Bagnell was widely regarded as a constituency MP who made his name helping Yukoners with a variety of concerns.

Constituency matters are certainly an important part of politics, but I can be counted among those who would like to have an MP with some influence in Ottawa, or, if that is not possible, an MP who speaks strongly and forcefully on national issues.

Unfortunately, neither Bagnell nor Leef has been able to become terribly influential on national issues. They can certainly be forgiven for that. Canadians send 308 members to the House of Commons, and no one can reasonably expect Bagnell or Leef to secure a cabinet seat and return our territory to the glory days of “Yukon Erik,” when we enjoyed unprecedented influence at the national level.

But if the Yukon is not going to be influential, is it too much to ask for a little bit more independence, gumption or inspiration from our representatives?

When asked questions about national issues, both Bagnell and Leef have a disappointing tendency to simply repeat their party’s talking points; resort to vague, non-controversial platitudes; attack the other parties; and then return to reciting the various programs that benefit the territory financially. I can’t say that I have ever felt terribly inspired or moved by this type of politics.

Neither Bagnell nor Leef strays far from the party line. In the few instances where they have – Bagnell on the gun registry and Leef on an inquiry for murdered and missing aboriginal woman – local opinion was so lopsided that their positions should probably be chalked up to self-interest rather than principle.

Both are constrained to a certain extent by party discipline, but the power of the party whip should not be overstated. A number of Canadian MPs have made names for themselves by going against the party grain from time to time, including the NDP’s Libby Davies, the Conservative Party’s Michael Chong, and former Liberal Keith Martin.

A few years ago I pressed Bagnell on his party’s support of Conservative-sponsored legislation imposing demonstrably ineffective mandatory minimum prison sentence for a variety of relatively minor drug trafficking offences. He mumbled something about needing to “get the kingpins.” What that has to do with six month mandatory prison sentences for growing six marijuana plants I am not sure.

He was otherwise unable or unwilling to engage in any sort of meaningful debate about his party’s unfortunate policy choice. It was a rather sad display for an MP who should be aware of what he is voting for and be able to offer a meaningful defence of the legislation he supports.

I’m willing to give Bagnell the benefit of the doubt and assume that his feeble defence was attributable to the fact that he didn’t actually believe in what he was saying. But if that is the case, would it be so harmful to say it? Would Bagnell’s committee chairmanships really be imperiled by a spontaneous outburst of honesty to a then 20-something at a community barbecue?

Maybe I am alone in this regard and most Yukoners are content with having an MP who brings home the bacon and makes an appearance at my birthday party but otherwise keeps his opinions to himself. Admittedly, I am not a public relations specialist, and maybe there is some focus group evidence that Yukoners don’t like mavericks.

But as an ordinary voter, my preference would be to see our MP venture outside his comfort zone every once in a while and take a stand on some issues.

Kyle Carruthers is born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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