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'I'm not whipable': Ontario MP quits NDP caucus over gun registry

NDP MP Bruce Hyer votes for a government bill to scrap the long-gun registry in the House of Commons on Feb. 15, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A Northern Ontario MP has ended a long struggle to vote according to his conscience on issues like the gun registry by quitting the NDP caucus to sit as an independent.

Bruce Hyer, the Thunder Bay-Superior North MP who once held the high-profile post of environment critic under the late Jack Layton, said the decision was precipitated in part by the fact he was left out of the shadow cabinet named last week by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

But mostly, he said in a telephone interview Monday, he is frustrated the existing system of government does not always allow elected politicians to speak their minds and vote as their constituents dictate.

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"I have always been an independent thinker and, I will be honest, it's been a struggle for 3½ years," Mr. Hyer said. "I don't want to be controlled by any party. I don't want to vote 100 per cent with any party all the time. And my first loyalty is to my constituents and the people who elected me."

In February, Mr. Hyer and fellow New Democrat John Rafferty, MP for the neighbouring riding of Thunder Bay-Rainy River, voted in favour of Conservative government legislation to put and end to the federal long-gun registry.

Nycole Turmel, who was then interim NDP leader, had warned her caucus members they must vote to oppose the legislation and both Mr. Hyer and Mr. Rafferty were sanctioned for their misbehaviour. They were stripped of their critic roles and were not allowed to make statements or ask questions in the Commons chamber.

Thomas Mulcair lifted those sanctions last month when he was elected NDP Leader. But he also promised to restore the long-gun registry if his party forms government after the next election.

"Mr. Mulcair – I think not wisely – has made it clear that he's going to bring back the long-gun registry and he's also made it clear that he's going to whip the vote," Mr. Hyer said. "And I have just decided that I'm not whipable."

When Mr. Mulcair named his shadow cabinet, Mr. Rafferty was given a position but Mr. Hyer was not. That also played a role in his decision to leave caucus, he said. "It's not about ego. It's not about me. It's about the fact that I have skills and experience to bring."

Mr. Mulcair said he would have preferred not to lose Mr. Hyer, who is the second MP to depart the New Democrats this year. In January, Quebec MP Lise St-Denis stunned her colleagues by crossing the floor to sit with the Liberals.

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But Mr. Hyer has made it clear he is not willing to follow decisions that have been taken by the caucus, Mr. Mulcair said. "It's quite obvious that you can't name someone to the shadow cabinet when they are telling you up front that they're not going to follow the decisions of their colleagues."

In "the Canadian parliamentary system, there is a caucus system. You vote with your party and you vote with your caucus and there will come times when you have to impose that," the NDP Leader said.

For his part, Mr. Rafferty said he believes Mr. Hyer made a mistake. "Bruce obviously feels that sitting as an independent is a better way to stand up for his constituents and be a voice for his constituents," he said. "I don't agree with that."

Mr. Hyer said he will now turn his attention to what he sees as the biggest problem facing Parliament: the democratic deficit and the need for electoral reform.

He said he is not going to drop his NDP membership and will vote with his former party 95 per cent of the time. But "I will now be able to say what I want, think what I want, and vote the way I want."

With a report from Daniel Leblanc

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