Bruce Hyer’s decision to leave the NDP caucus yesterday – mere hours after Nathan Cullen crowed about how united and focused the party was – got me thinking about a few things, both when it comes to parliamentary democracy, and the state of the NDP in general.
Hyer, lamenting the “dysfunctional” state of parliament, gave the primary reason for his departure as the heavy hand of the whip. Specifically, on the issue of the long-gun registry, which Mulcair wants to bring back and said that he was going to whip the party on. Hyer bristled, said that this wasn’t party policy (which gives one real pause as to just how much power party leaders have accumulated when it comes to dictating policy, which is supposed to be the role of the membership). That may very well be true, and if the leader is using a three-line whip on an issue that is not party policy, then that is something the NDP has to resolve for themselves.
I do have to take some exception with Hyer’s wailing and gnashing his teeth about how awful it is that MPs are whipped in the first place – and just as much as I do with Mulcair waxing on about “caucus solidarity” as the way our system works. In this case, both need a remedial lesson in civic literacy. You see, parties form in order to have enough votes in order for the government to maintain the confidence of the Chamber without having to go about horse-trading with every single MP every time there’s a confidence vote. Cabinet solidarity is part of that, but caucus solidarity is actually not that big of a part of our system. While whips are useful in ensuring that a government can maintain the confidence of the chamber, or that a party can be united on certain issues, it cannot be denied that they are abused, but in large part, they’re abused because of the need for the optics of solidarity. I won’t deny that We The Media have fuelled this need for optics, because every time there’s dissent, cries of “Is [insert leader here] losing control of his/her MPs (or occasionally Senators, even though THEY’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE ABLE TO WHIP SENATORS)?” start to echo around the column inches of the nation. But that doesn’t mean that parties should be behaving in undemocratic ways for the sake of optics. Far from it – they should be challenging those media organisations by reminding them about what it means to be in a democracy.
Which leads me to the point about the state of the NDP. The NDP has had, in my observation, a growing issue of making it unseemly for anyone to show any kind of dissent in public. They feel the need to have everything voted on unanimously, even though they later grumble about not wanting to have voted so but went along with it so that they wouldn’t be making trouble (such as when they all elected Nycole Turmel as interim leader unanimously and later regretted it once her separatist ties started coming to light). And some of this starts to affect the way that they treat parliamentary procedure. Private Members’ Business becomes party policy rather than actual initiatives of private members – and they expect other parties to behave the same way and crack down on MPs who bring up PMBs that don’t match party policy. They will assign certain bills to MPs when their private members’ slots come up rather than let them have their own initiatives. And there is certainly a rather draconian centralisation when it comes to staffing practices.
That Hyer was bristling under that central leadership makes him the latest case. From what I’ve heard, that centralisation was part of why Lise St. Denis crossed the floor to the Liberals. The NDP like to crow about how “democratic” their party is, but when you’re afraid about showing dissent, or you get punished for it when it’s not an issue of major party policy (and there have been plenty of examples of this, and I can think of some of examples of when Bill Siksay was reprimanded when he stood up for certain queer issues that the party sided with the Conservatives on), it does give one pause about the culture inside of the party. Which isn’t of course to say that it’s all the party’s fault – it’s also the fault of the MPs who allow themselves to be bullied and browbeaten, and the membership who goes along to get along in order to have those optics of always being united, and of pushing anything too controversial off to special national council sessions instead of having public disagreement. In a democracy you can’t always be united one hundred percent of the time. Perhaps the NDP need to remember that lesson, before they bleed more of their MPs.