Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Bitter Joke of Canadian Democracy

In the end, we've all got to keep the bastards honest.

Transparency in conduct is a necessary component of a healthy democracy, and I for one am ashamed - though not surprised - that it took the Canadian House of Commons until Wednesday, as reported in the Toronto Star, to place the voting records of our Members of Parliament online for public view. Presently the records are scanty at best, with the House's search engine looking no further back than the 38th Parliament, opened on October 4, 2004. So if you want to know just how the Little Guy from Shawinigan voted on, well, anything, you're out of luck. By purpose of comparison, the Washington Post alone offers a database that includes every U.S. Congressional vote since 1991.

This system is not only long overdue, but is one of the better ways we have to ensure that our elected representatives are doing the jobs we sent them to Ottawa for. At least, that's what it seems to be at first glance. If our MPs are voting out of line with the wishes of their riding, that's good cause to have them turfed come the next election, right?

Not really, because of the magic and wonder of that parliamentary procedure known and loved as party discipline. What's party discipline? To put it simply, a party MP votes the way the party leader wants them to vote, or they get kicked the hell out of the party. Simple, isn't it? I first learned about the magic and wonder of party discipline in my OAC Politics course in high school, and I'm still as disgusted by it now as I was then.

Witness the tale of John Nunziata, the erstwhile Liberal member for York South—Weston, who in 1996 was expelled from the Liberal Party of Canada for daring - daring! - to vote his conscience and against their budget, rather than toe the party line like the good little legislative robot he was expected to be. It's a testament to his personal popularity that he won his seat in 1997 as an independent.

Free votes are notoriously rare in the Canadian House of Commons. The only one I can think of was that regarding Bill C-38, conducted in June 2005 over the national legalization of same-sex marriage. Other than that votes tend to collapse along party lines, and in the modern climate of minority governments it's been the Bloc and the independents who have frequently held the balance of power. In most cases if you want to know how a given MP voted, it's easier to just look up whether their leader said "yea" or "nay."

Transparency in government is a worthwhile thing, but only when it furthers the cause of democracy. Party discipline has made Canadian democracy a joke ever since it was born. Sure, being able to see just how our MPs voted may bring Parliament into the twenty-first century, but it's all just a smokescreen. Whether our MPs voted for or against a bill is irrelevant when their choices on the matter were made for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment