Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Representative Independence versus Caucus Control

Behind all the Sturm und Drang engendered by Dr. Raj Sherman's letter, comments and subsequent removal from the PC caucus there are several stories. The specifics of what happened and why are known only to those involved, and I won't speculate. There is a good post at the Enlightened Savage about which line Dr. Sherman crossed: http://www.enlightenedsavage.com/2010/11/paging-dr-sherman.html
The basic outlines can be found here: http://www.calgaryherald.com/health/Sherman+suspended+from+Conservative+caucus/3867417/story.html

It is important to note that Dr. Sherman has been suspended, as opposed to Mr. Boutillier who was simply expelled. What requirements have been communicated to Dr. Sherman for his return, if any at this early stage, I certainly do not know. It is, however, clear that the PC caucus and the PC party both want Dr. Sherman as a member, something that was not the case with Mr. Boutillier.

Dr. Sherman's suspension from caucus is part of an ongoing conversation in Canada about the role and independence of our elected representatives vis a vis their parties.

Dr. Sherman was an emergency physician before he became an MLA, and continues to practice while he sits in the legislature. His sincerity and passion on the issue of emergency medicine are not questioned by anyone so far as I am aware, and he possesses a professional's knowledge of the systems strengths and faults. Dr. Sherman was entirely right to act as he did in order to bring the greatest possible profile to an issue he felt was vital. Conversely the government caucus was entirely within their rights to suspend him. This is the creative tension between the individual representative and the discipline of the group, and the latter is essential in order to make the system work.

The problem is that the individual representative has been pushed into the background by group discipline. Both Federally and here in Alberta the governing party keeps all conversations behind the closed doors of caucus far too often. Party discipline for votes on the floor is an essential element of a representative system, don't get me wrong. Without the ability to whip votes you wind up needing the kind of earmark system which has so bedeviled the American Congress in order to deliver enough votes to pass legislation and do the basic business of government. The tendency, however, to follow the logic of control past the point of necessary and into the realm of convenience.

Avoiding the presentation by your MLAs of alternative views to that of the government makes communications and messaging easier, avoids some public frictions; fundamentally it is easier to manage than diversity. The problem is that the diversity exists anyway - in a caucus of 68 members does anyone believe that the PC MLAs all agree on anything? Behind the closed doors of government caucus the debates and alternative views are guaranteed to be lively, but we the public don't get to see it. This disconnect is worsened by the lows to which question period has sunk, shortened legislative sessions and the steady reduction in the independence of committees in the legislature. As a result there are fewer and fewer arenas in which the individual MLA can be relevant outside of caucus, which we can't see, and constituency work, which is profoundly local. The latter is important, and many of our MLAs do it very well and build important and useful two-way relationships with their communities. Our public dialogue would be greatly enriched, however, if individual MLAs were more engaged and engaging on the provincial stage.

This does not require a revolution in political procedure - here in Canada we have a tradition of ministerial responsibility and representative independence. Even in this age of tight party control there are individual MLAs (and MPs) who, by force of personality or sheer competence, have carved out independent voices for themselves. Does this mean that Doug Griffiths or Jim Prentice don't vote with their party on matters of confidence? Of course not. We as citizens need to demand more from our representatives, however.

Equally important party organizations and party leaders need to examine what they lose by keeping the reins short, as well as what they gain. Simplifying the messaging has to be balanced against the separation created between party and citizens. Openness has the advantage of creating conversation and engagement, which can be harnessed and directed in positive ways. True discipline doesn't mean there is no debate on what to do, it just means that when the time comes to act everyone supports making the decision work. We need to work on a parliamentary culture that embraces the diversity of views expressed publicly for examination and debate. The biggest gainers will be the parties, in the end.

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