As Wilks demonstrates, ignorance is democracy’s biggest danger

Its plaintive wail echoing through the halls of the Langevin Block, the independent thought alarm sounded earlier this morning, and something needed to be done. Young staffers in the PMO rushed into action, and by shortly after noon, the bilingual press release was out, and independent thought was quashed. In all, a good morning’s work.

What we are referring to was the musings that BC Conservative MP David Wilks would contemplate voting against the omnibus budget bill – provided that Canadians could convince twelve other Conservative MPs to also vote against the bill. That, of course, simply wouldn’t do. I mean, it was a bone-headed thing for Wilks to say considering it’s a confidence measure and finding twelve other Conservatives to revolt would actually cause the government to collapse – but there did seem to be a moment or two of worry that he might actually take a stand against his party – providing of course that he had enough cover with which to do so. But it was not to be.

Throughout all of this, however, runs a few more disturbing underlying currents, which really only come out in the videos of the constituents’ meeting that Wilks was just the sense of pervasive helplessness that individual MPs are imbued with. Wilks continued to insist throughout that as a single MP he couldn’t do anything, which is a) not true, and b) indicative of just how far we’ve fallen as a democracy. The degree of central control over individual MPs is reaching crisis proportions, and Wilks’ explanations for the way things work are a testament to that fact. Oh, and smug partisans and Kool-Aid drinkers of all stripes: this applies across the board. All parties are guilty of centralised messaging and levels of control, whether that’s the formal exercise of the whip or by quiet bullying and shaming if someone should dare deviate from the “united front” that they feel they must present.

While Wilks’ description of how the three-line whip system operates is actually wrong, and he seems completely oblivious to the realities of what a confidence vote actually is, it is his sense of place within the party that should really make one uncomfortable – that they get their marching orders with almost no discussion, that the only time that backbenchers can air their grievances are a mere ten minutes a week during national caucus on Wednesday mornings, and that there is no room for disagreement. And if that description is in fact true, then it should be the warning signal – one that should ring louder and more forcefully than the PMO’s independent thought alarm.

At the core of this, which Wilks demonstrates so admirably, is the fact that our own MPs have become victims of their own ignorance. (Again, smug partisans and Kool-Aid drinkers: this applies to all parties). Look back to the Samara study that showed that the vast majority of MPs don’t even know their own job description. Aside from a first-time MP like Wilkes not knowing how confidence votes work, or the three-line whip system (which apparently isn’t really used in the Conservative caucus, if his comments are to be believed), he seems ignorant of his own powers and responsibilities as an MP – that as a backbencher, it is his job to hold the government to account, and if he has reservations about the omnibus nature of the budget bill as his constituents do, then it is his job to speak up. As a single MP, it would make a very big statement if he were to vote against the budget based on the will of his constituents, as Bill Casey demonstrated a few years ago. Yes, he was kicked out of caucus, but he was elected again as an independent, which is a rare accomplishment, because he had the respect of his constituents because he stood up for their interests. And even if Wilks didn’t vote against it, joining together with his fellow backbenchers behind caucus doors to push back against the bill would have an effect – just look at how the Lawful Access bill has been delayed indefinitely. As much as people talk about the public outcry, it was also because a civil liberties/libertarian segment of the Conservative base also woke up and didn’t like it, and those MPs let it be known.

For Wilks to claim that he is powerless is simply not true. It’s a question of whether or not he exercises the powers at his disposal. The first and best tool that MPs like him need for empowerment, however, is actual civic literacy about the roles of MPs (which, remember, is not about being “lawmakers” but about holding the government to account), and their powers, which are actually considerable, no matter what the “twenty-year-old jihadis in the Prime Minister’s Office” (to coin a phrase) tell him.  Confidence votes exist for a reason – that’s why political parties gained prominence in fact. If a government is to maintain the confidence of the chamber, that it becomes easier to wrangle MPs if you have a party that offers the kinds of brokerage that enables the votes to carry forward without having to “horse-trade” with each individual MP in the chamber before a confidence vote. But that brokerage has to go both ways, and it can’t just be about the central party dictating what will be done. MPs need to hold their party leaders to account internally as well, and there seems little indication that it is happening, nor that MPs like Wilks even believe that it’s their job to.

As for Wilks, he has a choice about not blindly following the whip, about letting his constituents’ wishes be known behind the scenes at caucus, of choosing not to simply parrot the talking points fed to him by said PMO, and of exercising independent thought. It may require taking a stand that could get him kicked out of caucus, or it could mean leading other MPs to also take a stand against the abuse of power by the PMO (or the leader’s office in any other party), where there can be strength in numbers. But for Wilks to simply back down and have a press release issued in his name within a couple of hours shows that he’s made his choice, and that it’s not the stand that he appeared willing to take just yesterday.