Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: The Role of MPs

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: The Role of MPs

Article excerpt

Since the spring of 2002, four of the 38 MPs who were elected as Bloquistes on November 27, 2000, have ceased to be members of the Bloc Quebecois caucus. Two of them, Michel Bellehumeur and Stephan Tremblay, tried their luck in provincial by-elections, while Ghislain Lebel had to resign from the caucus after a run-in with the sacred rules of party discipline. More recently, Pierre Brien also jumped ship to join the Action Democratique du Quebec.

These departures led me to reflect at length on the role of a Member of parliament in our parliamentary system. I have come to the conclusion that, more often than not, we MPs are just a kind of "potted palm," decorating the background while the party leaders, ministers and others take the foreground. Freedom of speech and freedom of thought have become forbidden ideas that no longer have a place in our democratic institutions. Party discipline rules! Even though it is difficult to question the status quo, it must be done so that ideas can progress. MPs must be able to express points of view that differ from their party's official position, without attracting bolts of lightning from above.

At this time, our parliamentary system suffers from a serious democracy deficit, since MPs are hobbled in their freedom of expression. Certainly, party affiliation implies respect for a basic philosophy and some degree of unity. Nevertheless, when issues do not involve the essential principles of a party, MPs should be free to speak and vote according to their own consciences. The heavy shackles of party discipline--a plague that afflicts all parties--only support the general public's cynicism about politicians.

But why are MPs so docile and submissive? The rewards they receive, such as the chance to travel abroad and prominent positions in the party hierarchy, including, in the latter case, a nice increase in pay, must have something to do with it. It is easy to understand that those who conform to the wishes of the establishment find they can get closer to the leadership of the party. Would a code of ethics for party leaders be the remedy for this abuse of power?

With its new ethics bill, the government believes it will be able to restore the former glory of our institution. Aside from the occasional case of driving under the influence, it is rather rare for scandals to involve backbench MPs. As a general rule, it is cabinet ministers who end up on the front pages. And yet, all parliamentarians, from ordinary MPs to ministers, are now subject to the same rules. Moreover, considering the Prime Minister's nonchalant attitude to the scandals involving him and his ministers, the new ethics rules we have been promised do not seem very credible. But how could it be otherwise? Stuck in the role of potted palm, or rubber stamp, excluded from the corridors of power, and moreover, with no resources and no discretionary allowance to spend, an MP--even if he or she were the most immoral being on the face of the earth--would have trouble violating any rules. In this context is it really necessary to table a draft bill to establish a Code of Ethics for Parliamentarians? I think not. It is only an exercise in government image-polishing, trying to divert attention from their permanent crisis, and making themselves feel better about their past scandals.

And with respect to ordinary MPs, the new measures are completely pointless, since there are already many rules governing our behaviour. One only need think of the Parliament of Canada Act, which devotes one entire section to conflicts of interest and another to giving the Board of Internal Economy the responsibility to settle financial and administrative problems involving MPs. The Board has the power to govern MPs' use of the funds, goods, services and space provided to carry out our parliamentary duties. …

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