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Party discipline just as much a problem in Alberta politics

The UCP’s proposal won’t help.

By Derek Baker, February 27 2019 —

Canadian governments are plagued by strict party discipline and leader-dominated election campaigns. Backbenchers rarely vote out of party lines. When they’re allowed to, it’s apparently a big deal — ‘the party will allow this to be a free/conscious vote’ plasters headlines whenever it occurs. 

Likewise, the provincial level is also riddled with strict party discipline and leadership domination. Last November, Robyn Luff, a member of the legislative assembly from the New Democratic Party, was kicked out of caucus after releasing a letter decrying the party’s leadership prohibiting MLAs from stepping out of line. In Luff’s Nov. 5 letter, she claimed that “when Ministers and MLA’s (sic) come into the house to vote they will say ‘what are we voting for? Are we for or against this?’ They have no idea what we’ve been talking about in the house- all they need to know is what they are being told to do.”

The Official Opposition doesn’t look any better. Trampling over a constituency’s nomination process, UCP leader Jason Kenney recently appointed Len Rhodes for the Edmonton-Meadows riding. During the vote for Bill 9: Protecting Choice for Women Accessing Health Care Act, every single UCP MLA abstained from voting during a walkout. You can’t claim that all 26 UCP MLAs independently came to the decision to walk out on the vote.

Restricting the ability of MLAs and MPs to vote as they please is highly problematic for a first-past-the-post electoral system. What’s the point of electing representatives for your riding if they’re just a voiceless rubber stamp for whatever a party’s leadership wants? 

Sure, backbenchers would still likely vote along party lines if they weren’t whipped, but it’s a persistent problem in Canadian politics from a representation standpoint.

That’s why I was initially excited when the UCP proposed their democratic reform policy on Feb. 14. Among several policy points, one was to allow “free votes for MLAs on everything not deemed a confidence vote, or a key platform commitment.” 

On the surface, this policy looks like it promotes the representative abilities of MLAs. But MLAs have always had the power to vote freely. The policy acknowledges that their MLAs already are restricted in their ability to do so. Also, what votes will count as a “key platform commitment?” Again, this will be left to the party’s leadership to decide, promoting leader-dominated politics. 

Showing that the policy is nothing more than a façade to promote the independent decision-making ability of MLAs is the contradiction of the next policy point: “Stopping floor crossing by requiring that MLAs resign and seek a byelection before they can change parties.”

It’s understandable why the UCP would want to prohibit floor crossing. Since 2010, the only MLAs to cross the floor came from conservative provincial parties — 10 from the Wildrose and four from the Progressive Conservatives. We wouldn’t want to have an exodus of UCP MLAs leaving if they’re fed up with Kenney’s leadership, would we?

But strange is the party’s claim that since electing the NDP government, Albertans are frustrated that they’ve been “betraying voters’ trust with floor crossings.” Discounting the floor crossings resulting from former PC and Wildrose MLAs joining the UCP following the merger, the only MLA to formally cross the floor to join another party since 2015 is Sandra Jansen, from the PCs to the NDP. 

MLAs should be permitted to cross the floor as they see fit. It’s the ultimate confirmation of their independence as legislators, rather than just being another whipped partisan cog in a leader-dominated machine.

Yes, constituents often base their vote on the party or leader rather than the actual local candidate. This is true in Canada as it is in other countries that use district-based electoral systems. Look south of the border and you’ll find Republican voters in Nevada still rather elect a dead brothel owner than his Democrat opponent. I’d bet a rock could run as a candidate in some Alberta ridings and still win.

If you’re unhappy that your MLA crossed the floor, it’s your prerogative to not vote for them again. But that shouldn’t inhibit an MLA from crossing the floor if they believe it would make them a better representative for their riding. 

It’s time for strict party discipline to end. It further contributes to the unhealthy polarization of politics. This election season, ask candidates when they come to your door how they see themselves representing the riding itself rather than just toeing party lines. Ask them their opinion on their party’s leader. Eliminating party discipline will take more than a policy that only provides lip service by saying, ‘Okay, we’ll allow free votes — but not on every issue and you still need to be loyal to your party above all else.’ 

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