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"People are not trained seals," says P.E.I. MP Wayne Easter. "You need to be able to constructively criticize the position of your party or the government."
In a small place like Prince Edward Island, local political representation matters.
P.E.I., with its four members of Parliament, constantly runs the risk of having its voice in Ottawa lost amid vote-rich regions like the 905 area just outside of Toronto.
In other words, voters in rural P.E.I., Nova Scotia or Newfoundland and Labrador need vocal representatives in Ottawa.
But a new book by Alex Marland, a professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L., argues Canadian members of Parliament (MP) are increasingly being saddled with the role of selling the interests of their political parties rather than pushing decision-makers on behalf of their constituents.
Marland’s book, Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada, is an inside examination of how power is actually exercised in Ottawa. The book focuses especially on the challenges faced by individual backbench MPs, who operate in a world where message discipline is the dominant concern and top political staff often have more sway than elected members.
The book is the result of interviews with 131 political insiders, including MPs, former premiers, cabinet ministers and political staffers.
The list of interviewees includes former P.E.I. premier Wade MacLauchlan, former prime ministers Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney, independent MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, former PC leader Peter MacKay, former NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie and current Liberal cabinet minister Carolyn Bennett.
But Marland’s most illuminating insights come from backbench MPs. Some, like P.E.I. Liberal MP Wayne Easter and longtime Ontario Conservative MP Scott J. Reid, describe the difficulties of providing vocal, independent representation in Ottawa.
Backbench MPs can advocate for local issues within caucus meetings of their parties, but the confidentiality of discussions held in these meetings is strictly enforced. Those who talk about their discussions outside of caucus meetings can be shunned by colleagues.
"The problem for representation is that we don't see what happens behind the scenes,” Marland said. “We end up getting this perception of what some people call trained seals – what other people are calling party robots – the idea that they're just constantly repeating the governing party's message."
Reid describes the role of an MP as being “like a Victoria child to be seen and not heard, except when they are reading a speech prepared for them by a staffer from the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) or the leader’s office”.
Easter, as a 25-year veteran in Ottawa, offers a critique of the role of party “brand ambassador” while also pointing out the advantages of working with a strong team.
“People are not trained seals. At some place along the policy highway, they express their opinions, and they cannot be knowledgeable on every subject out there,” Easter says in the book. “But being a brand ambassador can cut into critical thinking and genuine debate on issues. You need to be able to constructively criticize the position of your party or the government.”
With the rise of social media, Marland believes individual MPs have been increasingly tasked with the role of amplifying government messaging. He describes caucus meetings where MPs are singled out with praise by top staffers for their “authentic” social media posts, which largely reinforce pre-scripted talking points.
“Party discipline has morphed into message discipline,” Marland said.
“Whereas party discipline, as we normally think of it, is about voting in the legislature, message discipline is what you do in the legislature and out. And, of course, that has implications for representation."
Marland’s book also chronicles the impact of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, which peaked with the highly unusual expulsion of two former cabinet ministers – Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott – from the Liberal caucus.
Viewed in light of this summer’s WE Charity scandal, many of the issues that emerged from SNC-Lavalin, including tensions related to the influence of top staff in the PMO as well as the lobbying in government by outside actors, appear to be very much present.
"I think the ME-to-WE controversy shows how Justin Trudeau and the PMO learned from how they handled the SNC-Lavalin situation," Marland said. "A key difference here is how quickly they tried to get out in front of this, relatively speaking, once they realized they couldn't contain it."
Last week’s speech from the throne appears to have, at least for now, successfully moved the issues of ethics and accountability of the Trudeau Liberals out of the national discourse.
P.E.I.’s recent experiences with parliamentary reform might offer some lessons for Ottawa. The minority PC’s under Premier Dennis King have elevated the importance of standing committees and have loosened government control of these committees by giving all three parties equal votes.
"The No. 1 thing I would argue is you need to have healthy, functioning parliamentary committees," Marland said. "They are the real forum where backbenchers are more than just people who are parroting message lines. They actually are sinking their teeth into legislation."