B.C. ELECTION: Are B.C. MLA’s Dominated by Party Whips?

Like other democracies, parties in B.C. should be less disciplined
Tristan Johnston, Coordinating Editor

Comment 8 - Party Whips by Scott

(Scott McLelland)

In the United States, it’s not bizarre to see Republicans speaking against their party. John McCain has spoken against the judgement of Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger has talked about climate change, and Ron Paul voted against the war in Iraq. Very few Republicans voted in favour of Trumpcare, despite it being a key promise made by the president.

It’s not that the United States is unusual in this, but Canada is. Our nation has some of the most disciplined party members of any country in the world, thanks largely to party whips who keep them in check.

Right now in federal parliament, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith has voted against the Liberal party 22 times, but he’s only one MP, and still votes with the party 87 per cent of the time. Finding members like this is even more difficult in provincial legislature. According to data from imagine-x.ca, only 1.8 per cent of votes by MLAs in B.C. from 2013-2016 went against party lines.

In theory, our first-past-the-post system is supposed to be good at geographic representation, and Canada in general is great when it comes to electoral maps drawn by independent commissions. Even if everyone was in the same party, the desires and opinions of people in different geographic ridings would surely be different. Fishing regulations will mean something different to someone living on the coast compared to someone living inland. Someone in the city will likely need transit more than someone in a rural area. All voices and constituencies should be heard regardless.

On one hand, party discipline is beneficial if you like absolutely everything the party is promising. It isn’t if you want your MLA to be more than a $104,009.66 warm body who stands up when votes are called. Sure, if your MLA said they were in favour of having an LRT going through your Surrey riding, they better stand up when transit funding is being voted on, but they should also speak up if the party decides to drop the promise.

MLA’s do have an opportunity to go to caucus meetings and talk about whether or not a bill would make them look bad to their constituents, just like in national parliament and in the United States. However, according to the 2013 documentary Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline by Sean Holman, some of these meetings might never take place. One MLA reportedly was made aware of a major government decision 45 minutes before it was announced.

In the same documentary, Paul Willcocks, the former publisher of the Times Colonist in Victoria, mentions that sometimes parties don’t want to deal with the overreaction from journalists when there’s a small disagreement amongst MLA’s. Going against the party is so rare for MLA’s that journalists have a tendency to turn it into a story, regardless of the degree of disagreement.

The fact that parties in B.C. don’t even allow for dissent with permission is painful. While majorities have been narrow in recent legislatures, surely a Liberal MLA from Surrey can’t possibly agree on everything with a Liberal MLA in Nechako Lakes. Even in a theoretical scenario where a few votes won’t prevent a bill from passing, voices still aren’t being heard in the current system.

Consider this: the last time a government bill in B.C. was defeated, it was in 1953 and tabled by the party in power, which was a minority government.

When going to the polls on May 9, ask yourself whether or not your MLA will do what they’re told. Not by the party, but by you, the voter.

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