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party discipline

Conservative MP James Bezan gestures during an interview in his Parliament Hill office Jan. 31, 2013 in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Part of Reinventing Parliament, a series examining how to make Parliament relevant again. With thanks to Samara, an institute devoted to citizen engagement.

After seven years in power, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has cemented a reputation as a one-man government, focused on control and stifling dissent.

Yet a review of MP voting records during the first Harper majority government tells another story: Conservative MPs are far more likely than opposition MPs to break ranks with their own party. And both the dissenting Conservative MPs and the government's chief disciplinarian – Government Whip Gordon O'Connor – insist a free vote is a free vote and there are no consequences for breaking ranks.

"I guess in principle, we're more democratic than the other parties, basically," Mr. O'Connor said in an interview with the Globe and Mail. "I'm not going to get out there and toot our horn, but if you actually check in Parliament, we have the most freedom as backbenchers."

For a full breakdown of MP voting records, see this interactive.

The numbers do support Mr. O'Connor's claim. Much attention has been given to Conservative backbenchers who push socially conservative issues and are later overruled by cabinet. What is not well known is that Conservative MPs are far more likely to support motions from other parties – all of which are to the political left of the governing party. In contrast, the voting record of the official opposition under NDP leader Thomas Mulcair shows ironclad discipline. Not a single vote has been cast that is out of step.

Still, this is not a rebellious crop of MPs – on either side of the House. Even Conservative MP James Bezan, the MP who voted the most times – eight – against the majority of his fellow caucus members, votes with his party nearly 99 per cent of the time. Every other MP in the House of Commons has a voting record even more in sync with his or her party.

The Globe and Mail conducted an analysis of the voting records of MPs in the current Parliament, covering the 600 votes that took place during the period from June, 2, 2011 through to the start of the current sitting, which began Jan. 28.

Measured another way, looking only at private members' business (bills and motions introduced by backbench MPs rather than the government), since Mr. Mulcair became NDP leader last March, his caucus has voted unanimously 100 per cent of the time. The Liberal caucus was united 90 per cent of the time, and the Conservatives were united 76 per cent of the time.

Canada's parliamentary system suggests MPs are sent to Ottawa by constituents in their ridings to be their voices in Parliament. In practice, MPs are far more likely to be the voices of their political parties.

Under long-standing traditions, all party whips issue one of three possible instructions to their MPs before each vote. A "three line" vote is a completely "whipped" vote. In a "two line whip," the cabinet must vote a certain way but backbench MPs are free to vote as they please. A "one line" whip is free for all MPs, including cabinet ministers.

One Ontario NDP MP, Bruce Hyer, quit the caucus last year after he felt he was punished for breaking ranks with the NDP in supporting a Conservative bill to end the federal long-gun registry. He later offered to return to the caucus if Mr. Mulcair let him vote freely according to what his constituents want. Mr. Hyer remains an independent MP.

After Mr. Bezan's leading eight votes against the majority of his party, Conservative MP David Tilson follows with seven votes. Three other Conservative MPs – Mike Allen, Michael Chong and Brad Trost – voted against the majority of their party six times, and Conservative MPs Terrence Young and Patrick Brown did it four times.

There were 10 MPs who voted three times in ways at odds with their parties, including Mr. Hyer during his time in the NDP caucus. NDP MP John Rafferty and Liberal MP Scott Simms are among this group. The remaining seven are all Conservative MPs: Rod Bruinooge, Gordon Brown, Stephen Woodworth, Royal Galipeau, Ben Lobb, and David Wilks.

The dissenting votes all involve private members business.

In an interview, Mr. Bezan - whose eight dissenting votes were all in favour of opposition proposals including the NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois - said he may rethink his approach if the NDP doesn't start returning the favour by supporting the odd proposal from the Conservative backbench.

"Every election I've been in, we always get hammered as Conservatives saying that we're the ones that speak as one voice and we don't have any individuality in caucus and that's not the case, if you look at the facts," he said. Mr. Bezan said he gets "incensed" when he hears that criticism from the NDP.

"They vote as a block every single time," he said.

NDP whip Nycole Turmel played down her party's voting statistics, arguing there simply has not been an issue over the past year that caused much internal debate.

Still, Conservative MP Mr. Wilks made clear last year that the influence of the Conservative backbench is pretty slim in Ottawa. He made headlines last may when a video surfaced of him telling a small group of constituents that backbench MPs have very little influence in Ottawa.

"Certainly it concerns some of us backbenchers [that] decisions are made predominantly by the cabinet and then they come back to us informing us how this is going to move forward," he said in the video. "One MP is not going to make a difference."

Yet other Conservatives – speaking both privately and publicly – insist they are pleased with the level of input they receive on policy and the party's success at keeping internal debates behind closed doors is partly why – seven years in – it is rare for Conservative MPs to publicly criticize the government.

Yaroslav Baran, a former chief of staff to Chief Government Whip Jay Hill, said a system in which Conservative MPs on specific committees are also members in behind the scenes policy caucuses with the relevant cabinet minister is a big reason why internal dissent is dealt with long before a policy measure makes it to the floor of the House of Commons.

"You can win a lot of goodwill by involving someone in the process," he said.

In some Conservative votes, the majority of the Conservative caucus voted differently than the cabinet.

For instance Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, generally viewed as Mr. Harper's most senior cabinet minister, voted differently than the majority of his caucus on two occasions. He voted against Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth's motion for a study on the beginning of life, which was criticized as a re-opening of the abortion debate and was defeated.

Mr. Flaherty also voted for a private member's bill by Randal Garrison, that would add "gender identity and gender expression" as prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. The vote passed in June to send the bill to committee, even though most Conservative MPs voted against it.

The Prime Minister also voted against the Woodworth motion, which was the only time he voted differently than the majority of his MPs.


Most divisive votes this Parliament

Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth's motion that a committee study the definition of when life begins. The motion was defeated 203-91 on Sept. 26, 2012, with 78 MPs voting differently than the majority of their party (78 Conservatives and 5 Liberals).

Liberal MP Scott Brison's motion that the Commons finance committee study income inequality in Canada. The vote passes 161-138 on June 13, 2012, with 22 MPs (all Conservatives) voting differently than the majority of their party.

Liberal MP Ralph Goodale's motion that the House support Canada's firefighters with a $300,000 Public Safety Officer Compensation Benefit for families of firefighters or other public safety officers who are killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty, as well as other measures. The motion passed 150-134 on Nov. 21, 2012 with 18 MPs (all Conservatives) voting differently than the majority of their caucus.

Second reading vote on NDP MP Randal Garrison's Bill C-279, would add "gender identity and gender expression" as prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. The vote passed 150-132 on June 6, 2012, with 15 MPs (all Conservatives) voting differently than the majority of their caucus.

Second reading vote on Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan's Bill C-280, which would establish a national strategy for Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency. The bill was defeated 139-133 on Feb. 29, 2012, with 11 MPs (all Conservatives) voting differently than the majority of their caucus.

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