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NDP MPs John Rafferty and Bruce Hyer vote in favour of Bill C-19, a bill to scrap the long-gun registry, on Feb. 15, 2012. Both men lost their positions as NDP critics and were barred from making members’ statements in the House. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP MPs John Rafferty and Bruce Hyer vote in favour of Bill C-19, a bill to scrap the long-gun registry, on Feb. 15, 2012. Both men lost their positions as NDP critics and were barred from making members’ statements in the House. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

'Behave and obey:' How party discipline hurts politics Add to ...

Part of Reinventing Parliament, a series examining how to make Parliament relevant again.  With thanks to www.samaracanada.com.

When Bruce Hyer voted in favour of abolishing the long-gun registry last year, the Thunder Bay-Superior North MP knew there would be consequences.

Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel – now the party’s whip – had warned that he would be “punished” if he voted in favour of the contentious legislation, Mr. Hyer said. But he felt he had no other choice. “I repeatedly promised my constituents that I would vote to end [the registry], and I was going to do that, come hell or high water,” he said.

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Voting records analyzed by The Globe and Mail show that a minority of MPs broke ranks with their parties since the last election. Many of the dissenters were Conservative MPs, while not a single member of the NDP caucus has voted against the party since February of last year. While open sanctions are relatively rare, MPs face a range of other pressures to side with their parties, raising questions about federal politicians’ ability to represent the constituents who sent them to Ottawa in the first place.

After the vote, Mr. Hyer and NDP MP John Rafferty, who also voted to end the long-gun registry, lost their positions as critics and were barred from making members’ statements in the House. Mr. Hyer quit the caucus soon after, despite incoming leader Thomas Mulcair’s decision to overturn the ban and allow him to speak in the House again.

Ms. Turmel acknowledged that the gun-registry debate created a “major problem” for the NDP. But she said she could not think of other, recent issues that caused similar concern and feels confident that the party’s MPs have voted the way they wanted to since that time.

James Bezan, the Conservative MP who has most frequently voted against his party – each time in support of NDP and other parties’ motions and bills – has suggested he may limit his cross-party support if the NDP doesn’t show more reciprocity.

And she added that the NDP might feel more comfortable supporting government and Conservative private member’s bills if there was a better chance the legislation could be amended before it is passed. “There’s no opening at all, on their side, to make sure that we work together to make sure we have the best bill that could be presented,” she said.

Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner was his party’s whip in 2010, during an earlier vote on the long-gun registry that the Liberals whipped. As the date approached, he said he was “in constant contact” with seven Liberal MPs who were feeling pressure from their constituents to vote with the Conservatives. In the end, all seven Liberals voted to keep the registry. “And we had four of those guys lose their seats,” in the 2011 federal election, Mr. Cuzner said. “And three are certain it was the gun registry that cost them their seats.”

Mr. Cuzner said he believes an MP’s first responsibility should be to the constituents, “and if that aligns with your party, then that’s great.” But MPs also have a duty to work with the party whose banner they ran under, he added – particularly on issues that are part of the party’s platform. “If you’re on the team you’re on the team,” he said. “That’s what you put out there as your platform, so you have to support that.”

MP Brent Rathgeber was one of a handful of Conservatives who voted against a Tory backbencher’s private member’s bill aimed at making labour unions’ detailed financial information available to the public. Mr. Rathgeber said he felt “personally troubled” by what he felt was an invasion of union employees’ privacy and received hundreds of pieces of correspondence from constituents expressing their concern. The bill, which had the backing of the Prime Minister’s Office, passed 147-135 last year.

He said there was no formal attempt by the Prime Minister’s Office or the whip to get him to vote with the party on that bill. But his colleagues, “are still lobbying, even though the vote has been completed, attempting to convince me that their position is correct,” Mr. Rathgeber said. “And then of course, there’s more subtle lobbying that goes on, with respect to just how friendly people are to you.”

Some MPs blame a system that requires candidates to obtain their leader’s approval before they can run under the party’s banner in each election. “The leaders use this as a sword of Damocles over MPs’ heads: ‘Behave and obey … or we won’t sign your [nomination] papers,’ ” Mr. Hyer said.

He said he made it clear to former NDP leader Jack Layton from the time Mr. Hyer first ran for politics in 2004 – and again before each subsequent election – that he would not join the NDP in supporting the continuation of the long-gun registry. “The reason I didn’t quit then [immediately after the long-gun registry vote] was I wanted to wait and see who we got as leader and how things had worked out,” Mr. Hyer said. “If Nathan Cullen had been elected leader, I’d still be here. If Jack Layton were still the leader, I’d still be here … But all three of the main parties are way too controlling of MPs.”

Mr. Hyer says he wouldn’t consider rejoining any political party unless it allowed free votes on everything outside the party’s platform – and was in favour of a carbon tax.

“If I can get re-elected as an independent, I plan to do that,” he said. “Because I want to work for my constituents, and not for a party hack. It’s that simple.”

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