Navigating Party Discipline

Article 3 / 13 , Vol 44 No 4 (Winter)

Navigating Party Discipline

Parliamentarians are rarely forthcoming about the furtive phenomenon of party discipline. A recent public event at Memorial University of Newfoundland brought together four political mavericks to discuss their experiences with the constraints of party discipline. Two of them were sitting members of parliamentary assemblies who in 2019 accomplished the rare feat of being elected as an Independent. The discussion was moderated by the Samara Centre for Democracy.

On February 6, Memorial University hosted a public discussion called “Navigating Party Discipline,” sponsored in part by the Royal Society of Canada. Moderated by the Samara Centre for Democracy’s Michael Morden, the St. John’s event brought in a 300-person audience for a frank discussion with four politicians who have experienced first-hand the harsh reality of party discipline in Canada.

The panellists included Independent Member of Parliament Jody Wilson-Raybould, former Liberal MP Jane Philpott, former New Democratic Party MP Ryan Cleary, and current Independent member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly Paul Lane. Participants were selected based upon their experiences of chafing against the Canadian party system. In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removed Wilson-Raybould and Philpott from the federal Liberal caucus for speaking out during the SNC-Lavalin affair. They ran as Independent candidates in the ensuing federal election, with Wilson-Raybould retaining her seat in the House of Commons. Cleary, a former chief editor of the Independent newspaper, sat as an NDP MP from 2011 to 2015, and soon thereafter ran as a provincial Progressive Conservative candidate. Lane was elected to the Newfoundland House of Assembly as a Progressive Conservative in 2011, as a Liberal in 2015, and as an Independent in 2019. It was a rare opportunity for two sitting Independents from two different legislatures representing constituencies at opposite ends of the country to participate in the same interactive forum.

The event began with a word from Memorial Political Science Professor Alex Marland. Marland provided an overview of his research on the phenomenon of party discipline in Canada and his new book Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada (UBC Press, 2020). He emphasized the intrinsic difficulty in collecting data due to the private nature of political parties and the constraints on parliamentarians placed on them by party leadership.

Marland further remarked that “party discipline has left the legislature.” The phenomenon, he said, has evolved into a wide-reaching system of control wherein party leadership brandishes an iron fist over nearly every tenet of a parliamentarian’s life. Parliamentarians are rigidly trained to adhere to a team mentality and denounce individualism. The group psychology aspect of party politics cannot be understated. Every morning, MPs receive talking points and are encouraged to repeat them as much as they can in order to bolster the leader. Marland also emphasized the ability of parties to effectively blackmail their incumbents by dangling nomination papers over their heads. If a party refuses to back a candidate’s re-election bid, they are left without any of the party’s resources. This is a powerful way to ensure that parliamentarians toe the party line and are incentivized to adhere to party protocols. He closed by commenting on the rarity of Independents in Canadian politics: “if we were to take all of the individuals who have been elected at the federal or at the provincial level as an Independent…they would barely have enough players to put forward a hockey team.” Marland said this indicates the strength of political parties in Canada and the influence they wield over the system.

Ryan Cleary’s opening remarks equated the life of a parliamentarian with the loss of freedom. Cleary recounted his excitement over being appointed to the House of Commons standing committee on fisheries and oceans; however, he “soon learned that any questions posed to a witness who appeared before the committee had to be in line with the party’s stand on the issue, a stand that was taken before the study even began.” He had a particularly difficult time dealing with the party dictating which questions he could pose to expert witnesses and was ultimately removed from the committee and assigned to another one after giving the party’s critic “a hard time.” He recounted another story of being disciplined by party leadership for an interview in which he stated his fears for the Newfoundland fishery. According to Cleary, the party had larger concerns about the pending Canada-European Union trade deal and was paranoid about being publicly perceived as anti-trade. “My ability to take a stand for my riding, for my province, the only province to lose something in the trade deal, a constitutional right from my perspective, was limited by the party’s bigger political challenges.” Further underscoring his notion that the national party’s broader agenda hampered his ability to represent constituents, Cleary admitted “in ways I had become what I promised not to become, a sheep. But there’s no choice with the system as it stands.” He floated the idea of taxpayer-funded political campaigns as a way to get money out of politics and level the playing field for Independent candidates. Cleary’s past life as a journalist, relatively uninhibited by higher powers, was not conducive to his new one as an MP. Like many others, he found out after his election that his personality did not gel with the type of authority inherent in Canadian political life.

Following Cleary, Jane Philpott began by emphasizing the importance of exposing the inner machinations of party discipline. Philpott, a medical doctor, said that she was stunned by “the toxicity of the system” of party discipline upon her entrance into politics. In medicine, she explained, one is implored to think independently and to speak their mind: “Mistakes happen in medicine, people die because of mistakes, but doctors are taught to speak up, to confess if you have made a mistake … politics hasn’t quite figured all of that out.” Philpott further said that despite not being a particularly partisan individual, she was proud to run as a Liberal candidate in the 2015 federal election and stand behind the party’s platform in order to “serve Canadians.” She expressed profound disappointment at the practical operation of the House of Commons, as she saw it, when she went to Ottawa: “I found myself in this place where there are hundreds of other people whose full-time job is to make me fail.” She denounced the unhealthy practice of blindly labelling opposing parties as malevolent and explained that one should not feel guilty about seeing parts of themselves in other camps. Philpott further opined that a fundamental flaw of Canadian democracy is the fact that party discipline obliges MPs not to the people of Canada, where she argued loyalty ought to lie, but to the party’s top brass. As the former federal Minister of Health, Philpott said that she was concerned with the well-being of all Canadians, not just those in her riding who voted for her. According to Philpott, MPs should serve their country first, riding second, and party third. Party discipline thus hinders the ability of the politician to do their job effectively. In response to a question from the audience, Philpott called on citizens to demand independent voices and accountable leaders.

Building upon her former cabinet colleague’s remarks, Jody Wilson-Raybould highlighted her unique status as the only woman elected as an Independent MP in Canada since party labels appeared on the federal ballot in 1972. Wilson-Raybould compared her experience in federal politics with her past time as an Indigenous leader, arguing that mainstream politics has much to gain from a study of Indigenous politics, where vigorous discussion serves as the foundation of administrative decisions. She further said that the party process, while not evil, is debilitating to representative democracy and hinders MPs from being responsive to their constituents. She emphasized the need to do politics differently and stated that she takes great pride in being able to serve as an Independent parliamentarian. Despite her personal experience, Wilson-Raybould does not advocate for the complete dismantling of the party system, but rather the decentralization of power. She remains skeptical that she will ever be a member of an organized political party again and said that “[as an Independent] I’m more motivated than ever to ensure that I exercise my voice.”

Paul Lane began by describing his lifelong indifference to politics and the resulting naïveté that follows and manifests itself when one decides to enter politics themselves. He stated that his early days as a politician were marked by toeing the party line, repeating party utterances, and doing exactly what he was told. Lane soon found out that such obedience resulted in positive affirmations and promotions, “but when you get this affirmation for doing things that when you really think about it you have to question: are they really in the best interests of your constituents?” Unsatisfied with the provincial PC party, Lane crossed the floor to the Liberals hoping that the party would be different, but he found more of the same politics as usual. He was removed from the Liberal caucus for expressing concern about a controversial aspect of the government’s budget. Running as an Independent presented unique problems, particularly the importance of financial donations in campaigns. Like Cleary, Lane called for electoral reform as he believes the system as it stands plagues democracy. Lane echoed Wilson-Raybould in saying that he was highly satisfied with the freedom inherent in serving as an Independent: “If there’s anybody here from the government who’s here having a look or whatever, nobody has shut me up, nobody is shutting me down. I’m going to continue being me.”

A lively Q&A session indicated that many citizens are frustrated with party discipline as well. The panellists made clear that enacting parliamentary reform is vital to the health of democracy. Expressing sympathy for the concept of teamwork and cooperation, the panellists agreed that party discipline is more akin to playing the role of a yes-woman or man to the party’s top brass than playing on a team. Philpott denounced the hyper-partisanship that has become salient in Canadian politics: “we can find good in all parties and every party has a lot of work to improve itself as well.” Regardless of former political affiliations or personal credos, the panellists opined that the House of Commons and provincial assemblies need independent voices who are willing to defy the status quo, remain true to their values, and represent their constituents’ interests in the face of myriad external pressures that are ubiquitous in Canadian politics.