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A video grab image shows MPs voting on gay marriage legislation, in the House of Commons, London February 5, 2013. British lawmakers on Tuesday backed legalizing gay marriage in the first of several votes on the issue after a debate which split Prime Minister David Cameron's ruling Conservative party in two. (Reuters TV/Reuters)
A video grab image shows MPs voting on gay marriage legislation, in the House of Commons, London February 5, 2013. British lawmakers on Tuesday backed legalizing gay marriage in the first of several votes on the issue after a debate which split Prime Minister David Cameron's ruling Conservative party in two. (Reuters TV/Reuters)

Ibbitson: MPs, want to be relevant again? Be courageous Add to ...

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

For the past week, The Globe has been examining how Canadians could reinvent Parliament to make it more respectful and more responsive. One message has come through above all: MPs must have courage.

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In story after story, politicians past and present, progressives and conservatives, academics and layfolk said the same thing in many different ways: Prime Ministers and party leaders have stripped so much autonomy from MPs that they have become irrelevant, and Parliament with them.

Voting records analyzed by The Globe show that only a few Members of Parliament have broken ranks with their parties since the last election, on a handful of issues. Fear of reprisals – they will never make cabinet; they will lose their critic’s portfolio; the leader will not sign their nomination papers in the next election – keeps them in line. Whatever these MPs promised their constituents as candidates, the only promise they keep is to obey the party whip.

The result is a House of Commons so scripted, so partisan, and so divorced from genuine debate and inquiry that Canadians feel increasingly alienated from the cockpit of their democracy.

Do other countries do democracy better? Yes. “There may be some exceptions in those African dictatorships that are part of the Commonwealth and so on,” observed Leslie Seidle, a research director with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, “but in the advanced parliamentary democracies, there is nowhere that has heavier, tighter party discipline than the Canadian House of Commons. People are kicked out of their party temporarily for what are really very minor matters.”

Yet despite the many and sometimes conflicting proposals for new procedures, new civility, new powers for the Speaker and for committees and for MPs, it is the members themselves who surrendered their sovereignty to the Centre, and only they can take it back.

Only MPs themselves can decide whether their job on a parliamentary committee is to examine and improve legislation or simply to vote the party line on proposed amendments.

Only MPs themselves can speak their mind on the floor of the House of Commons, rather than simply parroting the talking points shoved into their hand by some flunkey from the leader’s office.

Only MPs themselves can vote their conscience rather than simply bend to the will of the leader.

Only MPs, working collaboratively with other MPs within their own party and across party lines, can restore the sovereignty that once was theirs.

The alternative might be a House of Commons that is simply bypassed by new forms of democratic expression. Social media are already pointing to a potential new era of participatory democracy, with crowd-sourced laws and more accessible politicians.

Activists have embraced the tool to great effect, though within political parties and the bureaucracy an ingrained fear of spontaneity renders it effectively useless.

There are other alternatives: Former Reform Leader Preston Manning is constructing a Model Parliament to train nascent politicians.

Mark Dance, a former parliamentary intern for Conservative James Bezan and Liberal Justin Trudeau, makes the case for a fourth institution of Parliament – a digital House.

There are many possibilities, and many futures. But for Members of Parliament living in the here and now, the choice is plain: Take your sovereignty back, or risk a Parliament that has no meaning or purpose.

No meaning or purpose? Is that why you entered politics?

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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