Happy New Years and welcome to 2020 everyone. Over this holiday period it’s been a good time to take some time with family, reconnect and do some deeper thinking. We’ve seen a fair bit of that last part happening from some of the political community, with a couple interesting developments coming from it. One on how leadership races should be run is one I will come back to in another piece at a later date, but another piece came out just before New Years Eve that has a lot of people talking, for good reason:

Conservative MP Scott Reid released the first of what he is promising is three essays on the direction of his party as they go into their leadership race. In this first essay, he went into the real story behind his stepping down as the Democratic Reform Critic for the Conservatives back in 2018. As it turns out, he didn’t step down as much as he was removed, for voting against his party line and supporting the government on the legalislation of marijuana. This is another example the issue of party discipline coming to the fore.

The issue of internal party discipline, how leaders use their powers to whip and how party caucuses govern themselves has been a long standing issue that some commentators love to go at. Reid refers to the structure of how his party governs itself as “Leninist”, which while a bit hyperbolic is not so far off the mark as to be dismissible. And the fact is that in our modern political party structures, no one has gotten this right so far. While the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP all use some form of whipping votes, under whatever circumstances they determine, there has become a lack of flexibility in that system that allows for something a bit more representative. On the other end of the spectrum, the Greens claim that they never whip votes, which may seem virtuous until you run into the cold reality that if you never whip any votes, how do you ensure that your MPs represent the policies and ideals that they ran on? The Green “solution” of never whipping any vote is simply impractical and leaves voters wondering what they are actually getting when they vote Green.

Some moderation in the whipping of votes or how a caucus is governed is needed, not only to ensure that MPs can be more responsive to their constituents, but also to help those MPs feel heard within their own caucuses. In Reid’s case, he actively took measures to gauge the view of his constituents on this important issues. He used different ways of doing this, including using his parliamentary mail outs to ask for his constituents’ opinions. The results of his outreach came back that he should vote in favour of the Liberals cannabis legalization legislation. Given that the bill was going to pass anyway, as the Liberals held a majority and they didn’t need anyone else’s votes for it to pass, so you think that it would have been reasonable for the Conservatives to give Reid a pass on this, and maybe even make a virtue of his vote.

Ironically at the time, the Conservatives were going after the Liberals for voting in a block and never voting against their own legislation, saying that only the Conservatives had the freedom to represent their constituents.  But when you look at the basics of this, a very simple thing happened here that the Conservative leadership should have understood; Reid faced a strong opinion from his constituents, and he had pressure to respond to that in way that didn’t involve saying “No” out of hand. Someone who was managing their caucus well would have recognized that and worked with that MP to deal with that pressure in a constructive way. Instead of doing that, Reid’s party left him on an island with no help then punished him for responding to that pressure, all over a vote that was going to pass anyway. Would a bit more flexibility on the use of the whip there been a good idea? Probably.

When I read Reid’s story it reminded me so much of my own experiences when I first started to work on the Hill for the NDP when we went through the Conservatives attempts to repeal the long gun registry. I worked for John Rafferty, one of the NDP MPs who had run on a promise to vote to repeal it if given the chance. With Rafferty, we did everything that Reid did; we held extensive outreach with constituents, we used the mail out program to do surveys, we responded to every email and letter and took in every meeting on the topic that was requested. To his credit, John didn’t duck any of this when many would have; he made a promise and he was going to hear everyone out before he voted. In the end, at each chance he got, he kept his word and voted accordingly.

But the reaction from the caucus leadership was different each time. When Jack Layton was still leader, in a minority government no less, Jack refused to whip the vote. He knew what the consequences of that decision could be, but he understood the pressures that his caucus members faced on this issue. This was not an area of consensus within the caucus, and he knew that whipping the vote was not the ay to go. In the end, Jack ended up talking with every member of the caucus who had concerns, asked what he and the leadership could do to help and how could he make it easier for them to vote to save the registry. From that, we saw the NDP introduce legislation of it’s own to help address the concerns some MPs had, showing that they were listening to all sides. But for others, there was no compromise position that was going to work; they made a promise and had to keep it. So Jack let that happen, and in the end the Conservative bill didn’t pass, and all of those MPs were able to do what they needed to do to respond to the pressures they faced.

That wasn’t how it played out though after Jack’s passing. The Conservatives had their majority and were moving to kill the registry. It was going to happen, no matter how the NDP voted in this case. But this time, under interim leadership, the whip was imposed and there was no compromise, understanding or willingness to work with the caucus. In a vote where the party stood no chance of actually stopping anything, they tried to use the threat of punishment to stop those MPs from keeping their word, one that their voters had just re-elected and shown their trust in these people. In the end, Rafferty and Bruce Hyer held the line, keep their word and then took their punishment. Unlike in the case of Reid, who was allowed to have a public cover story so that he wasn’t embarrassed publicly, Rafferty and Hyer were punished in full view of everyone.

When you look at these example of how different leaders dealt with these tough situations, one thing is pretty clear; a lot of this comes back to the leader leadership style and their comfort in their own abilities to lead without using blunt force. While Layton took a greater risk onto himself, trying to work with his caucus to achieve a solution that worked for all, Scheer when the other way, leaving his MP completely to his own devices, offering no support or help, then punished him severely for it.

So while sometimes the whip is needed to be used by leaders, this story serves as a good reminder of how this balance been either absolute needs to be re-balanced. This is true of every party in the House of Commons and better is possible. Hopefully Reid’s disclosure will help to spark a bit of debate about how to best balance the needs of leaders to lead and of MPs to represent their constituents. That would be quite an interesting way to start this new year and decade.