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Stifling outspoken backbenchers puts a crimp in democracy

Ever since they resigned from Justin Trudeau’s cabinet in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott have gotten a lot of heat both from political pundits and from Liberals on social media. They’ve been accused of endangering the Trudeau government’s accomplishments, and there have been calls for Trudeau to kick them out of caucus. Instead, he’s let them stay, emphasizing that there’s room for many different views in the federal Liberal party.

Some media commenters are saying that Trudeau letting Wilson-Raybould and Philpott stay makes him look weak and that he can’t control his caucus. That comment illustrates how much modern Canadian politics has forgotten the role government backbenchers are supposed to play in our system of “responsible government.”

Under responsible government, the prime minister or premier and their cabinets can only stay in office if they can keep the support of a majority of MPs or MLAs in the legislature. That includes a majority of their own backbenchers, who are meant to voice their constituents’ concerns to their leaders. Unfortunately, sometimes voters end up feeling like their backbench MPs or MLAs are representing the government’s concerns to them.

This isn’t a new thing in Canada. In 1980, Richard Gwyn wrote in The Northern Magus: Pierre Trudeau and Canadians about how Trudeau senior’s “Supergroup” of officials in his office were isolating him from Canadians, even as Trudeau himself dismissed backbenchers as becoming “nobodies” when they left Parliament Hill. In 2001, Jeffrey Simpson wrote a book describing the Jean Chrétien government as The Friendly Dictatorship. In 2010, Lawrence Martin wrote Harperland: The Politics of Control about Stephen Harper’s tight control of his caucus. Our own Brent Rathgeber quit the Harper caucus for that very reason, and wrote Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada about his experiences in 2014.

The trend towards centralizing power in leaders’ offices and backbenchers seeming unable to challenge them isn’t a change in the actual rules of government so much as it is a change in the way politicians choose to do their jobs.

When they want to, caucuses can still wield a lot of power over their leaders. Here in Alberta, the Progressive Conservatives forced Premier Allison Redford to resign when they thought they’d lose the next election with her as leader. Before that, the PCs forced out Ralph Klein when they thought he’d passed his best-before date. The federal Liberals also forced Chrétien to retire for the same reason.

Wilson-Raybould and Philpott could be said to be holding Trudeau and his officials to account. Other Liberal MPs such as Nate Erskine-Smith and Wayne Long have also called for inquiries into Lavscam, even if officials in the Prime Minister’s Office might have preferred they stay silent. Unfortunately, when MPs openly criticize their leadership like this, the leaders are often portrayed as weak or indecisive.

That’s one of the reasons so many premiers and prime ministers have instituted the controls they do …

… and harmed Canadian democracy in the process.

Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.