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Political parties have become machines for centralizing power and controlling the message. Imbued with a marketing logic, they sell themselves like a product and are on a permanent campaign. This phenomenon is not new, but it has a downside. The private member, crushed by the control of communications and the party line, is losing more and more power in our democracy.
This should concern us.
MPs are the heart of Canadian democracy, in Ottawa and in the provincial legislatures. As legislators, they pass the laws that govern our society.
While all MPs must toe the party line, backbenchers are the first victims. In the British parliamentary system, as in ours, a backbencher is an elected member of the House of Commons or a provincial legislature – in Quebec, the National Assembly – who is not a minister, a house leader, or a whip, nor is he or she responsible for an issue for the opposition. In essence, these are usually members of the party in power who are neither ministers nor officers.
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In a reflexive effort to protect and control the media agenda, the centralization of power around the party leader and the strict control of communications for the sake of a cohesive message have become the norm. This is even more true for the parties in power, which can be attacked from all sides.
This centralization and control come through the party line, which permeates all spheres of government. It also affects backbenchers in the four places where they do their work: in the House, in parliamentary committees, in caucus and in the constituency office.
Statements in the House and in parliamentary committee are generally filtered through the key messages of ministers’ offices and the Prime Minister’s Office. The whip’s research offices assist MPs in preparing their interventions in Parliament, for example, when a bill is passed or when questions are asked during public consultations. Cabinet research staff must perform their work with exceptional skill, manoeuvring between the freedom of MPs to express themselves as legislators and the desire for centralized messaging by departments and the leader’s office.
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Theory and reality
In theory, parliamentarians can freely express their opinions in caucus, develop policy positions and, in the case of the governing party, legislative proposals for the government. In reality, that ideal is hampered by obstacles that vary from government to government, depending on the leadership style of the party leader and his or her inner circle.
In Ottawa and the provinces, caucuses with the leader and elected officials present and no non-elected political staff are still the exception. This can inhibit the free expression of MPs, who may fear – not without justification – that they will be judged and pigeonholed if they express views contrary to the key messages put forward publicly by the government.
Another issue is the management of caucus content. Some parties present the leadership’s position as a fait accompli, a done deal; others require internal consultations before an issue is put to a vote. For example, a party leader may allow members to express themselves in caucus, but may also choose to direct the content of the caucus by narrowing it down to a few predefined themes and outlining the key messages for the week. In the latter case, members may not dare to raise sensitive or substantive issues.
The role of MPs in their ridings is to advocate for their constituents. The challenge is even greater for government MPs because they must also defend decisions that are not always in line with the will of the people in their constituency. How MPs deal with these situations varies according to their personality and experience, but government decisions always have an impact on the relationship between MPs and their constituents.
The party line affects all facets of an MP’s work. It is true that the public votes for a political party more often than for the person who represents it in a given riding. But party solidarity often means complete silence from the backbenchers.
Parties need to remember that they are in the business of politics, not marketing. Debate is healthy, necessary and should be encouraged, even if it means losing a few votes in the next election. It is also important to put into perspective the media environment in which political parties operate.
When the media encourages silence
The media has its share of responsibility for this culture of unanimity. While dissent by MPs is tolerated and even celebrated in other democracies, even a hint of rebellion by backbench MPs is covered negatively in the Canadian media. In a media environment marked by immediacy, social networks and crumbling partisan loyalty, it should come as no surprise that the political class is obsessed with maintaining its image and is fearful of scandal.
The media should stop treating an MP’s dissenting view as a betrayal, get to know backbenchers better and give them positive coverage. Fear of media in the political class is a factor that has not been studied much to date. The public does not generally like bickering. But it certainly appreciates an MP who is more than just a mouthpiece for the party line.
There are several ways to strengthen the power of MPs in their caucus, such as parliamentary reforms or the adoption of innovative management of the relationship between the executive and the government caucus, such as the Cabinet Group Advisory Committees under the Harper government, which required ministers to consult with MPs before introducing policy or legislative proposals.
The media visibility of MPs and the relationship between the media, political staff and elected officials must also be addressed. At a time when the institutions and mechanisms of representative democracy – including the media – are being criticized from all sides, improving our democracies requires addressing these issues.