In the relative intimacy of a mostly deserted House, the discussion can be substantive, even wonkish. Members will address one another cordially and cross the centre aisle to sit and talk with each other. There are moments too of passion and eloquence. “One of the arguments that the NDP members used against the free-trade agreement with Colombia was that there had been some level of illicit drug trafficking and money laundering in Colombia in the past,” says Brison, recalling a previous debate to make the case for dealing with Panama. “I want to address that because if we are serious about working with the government of Colombia and the people of Colombia to reduce that drug trade, the most important thing we can do is provide alternative economic opportunities through legitimate trade.”
As debate proceeds, Liberal Kevin Lamoureux, a newcomer to the House who may challenge Jim Maloway’s dominance of the word count, finds excuse, in discussing the benefits of free trade for the Manitoba hog industry, to note that Manitoba annually produces more pigs than it has people. As he and Maloway go back and forth, several MPs work away at laptops. The NDP’s Linda Duncan, seated nearby Maloway, alternates between listening to him and reading various documents she’s brought with her. A group of five teenagers arriving in the south gallery brings the audience to six. With his fourth intervention of the day, Maloway raises France’s tax treaty with Panama as a point of comparison. He will speak five more times before the day’s business is finished.
Before being elected at the federal level, Maloway served for 12 years in the Manitoba legislature. There, he says, he was less interested in engaging in legislative debate and more interested in media interviews and attention. Now, he figures, he’s making up for lost time. He says he is in his Parliament Hill office most nights until 9 p.m. reading up on legislation. He enjoys the competition of debate, and figures more people are listening than it might seem—a view shared by other MPs who report emails and questions about speeches they’ve made and legislation that is being considered. He also understands his practical value to the NDP side. If he is able and willing to sit in the House and speak to whatever legislation is on the order paper each day, other NDP MPs are free to take care of appearances, speeches, interviews and other demands.
How you view the purpose of the House depends largely on how you view the purpose of an MP like Maloway. What should an MP’s role be? Does he represent his riding or his party? Is she beholden to her constituents or her party leader? Is he a conduit for the wishes of others or is he ever entitled to do what he thinks is best?
On paper, the MP possesses great power, but the idea of the backbencher as a powerless placeholder has become central to our politics. After all, the Westminster system functions, often efficiently, as the product of oppositional “teams.” Elections are presented as a choice of party and prime minister. (In a recent Ekos poll, only 17 per cent of respondents identified the local candidate as the most important factor when it came to voting.) At present, the most highly prized quality in modern Ottawa is discipline, both of behaviour and message. The party leader who exerts it is admired. The MP who disobeys is ostracized. There is a certain logic to this. “We happen to be individual persons, but we were also elected as a group of MPs under a certain set of promises that we also have to respect and hopefully implement,” says Conservative MP Bruce Stanton. “I understood that my role in this was to get my seat elected so that my party could put a new program in place.”
The system is as well, to a certain degree, self-regulating. Individuals who disagree with a party’s policies are unlikely to run for, or remain in, that party. Leaders who fail to heed the views within their caucuses are unlikely to remain in power for long. MPs point out that debate does occur—within caucus and in private conversations between members.
Such discussions may occur beyond the public realm, but then the public may not be interested in the discussion. “I remember the controversy over prorogation,” says Conservative MP James Rajotte. “We were back in the House and it was probably mid-April and people were still saying, ‘So when is Parliament getting back to work?’ ” As Stanton explains: “The whole prorogation thing last year raised the notion that the public often thinks we’re not working unless we are in Ottawa, but the fact is you get more appreciation when people see you out and about in your own riding.”
So perhaps Canadians aren’t really interested in what goes on in the House on a day-to-day basis. By one understanding of representative government, that’s logical enough: we vote to elect representatives to mind such business for us. But amid declining voter turnout—a historic low of 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in October 2008—here may be another of those traps. Because we aren’t concerned about the individuals we send to Ottawa, we have a House of Commons that doesn’t interest us and because we have a House of Commons that doesn’t interest us, we aren’t concerned about the individuals we send to serve there.
When the Conservatives campaigned in 2006, they promised all votes in the House except those on the budget and the main estimates would be considered “free votes”—that most elusive dream of reformers. Five years later, such freedom is only generally applied to votes on private member’s bills and so-called votes of “conscience.” In the past year this led to interesting splits on bills concerning such contentious issues as euthanasia, abortion and transsexual rights. (The bills on abortion and euthanasia were defeated. The bill on transsexual rights passed the House and is now with the Senate.) But the extent and meaning of this freedom is limited by how rarely private member’s bills ever move far enough or fast enough through the House and Senate to become law. In the last decade, only 25 private member’s bills originating in the House achieved royal assent. Six of those were drafted to mark special occasions (for instance, the fourth Saturday of November each year is now officially “Ukrainian Famine and Genocide Memorial Day”). Four of those involved changing the names of ridings.
A vote last September on a private member’s bill that would have abolished the long-gun registry was perhaps the most closely watched in recent years (even if all but the NDP’s members broke along party lines). A result hung in the balance, the votes of individual members mattered and a national debate ensued. If those who seek change have a dream of a more perfect Parliament, this was a peek at that future.
Since announcing that he would not seek re-election, Liberal MP Keith Martin has been searing in his criticism of the present situation. “I’ve never seen morale so low or Parliament so dysfunctional in more than 17 years of being there,” he says. “There’s an overwhelming sense of futility, disappointment and sadness among most of the MPs who are there.” Martin is unmatched in tone, but is not alone in his concerns. One MP uses the term “farcical” to describe the process of debate in the House. “I think the vast majority of MPs are interested in playing a bigger role,” says Conservative MP Michael Chong, “in having greater authority and autonomy to execute their roles.”