Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Put The Whip Away

Liberal Party Whip Karen Redman was asked if there would be any sanctions against MP's who supported renewal of the anti-terror clauses. Although vague, when asked about "nomination papers", Redman said that was a severe response, but it was one of many options. I don't believe there should be any sanctions whatsoever for an MP who decides, in good conscience, to extend the two provisions.

The Liberal Party should stop worrying about the need for cohesion, at the expense of freedom. There is a certain irony of arguing about Canadians rights, and then engaging in arm-twisting and threats to silence varying opinions. I realize that this issue is largely a question of appearances, in other words, there is a fear that Liberals leave themselves open to criticism of "division", "weak leadership" and "confusion". In whipping the vote it shelters the party and projects a united front.

The bottom line in this debate, everyone already knows the Liberals don't have an unanimous opinion on the matter. Whatever the final vote today, it is largely irrelevant to the perception that has already cemented itself. Many Liberals disagree with the opinion forwarded by the leadership, that is clear. Therefore, what good does it do to force people to vote against their conscience? You don't really achieve anything politically, you just make matters worse by forcing people, leaving the impression that elected MP's are merely pawns, unable to express themselves freely.

My real point, it is high time that the Liberal Party embrace its diversity. Instead of worrying about Harper and Layton calling Liberals "divided", make the case that complicated questions sometimes lead to varying opinion, which is a realistic condition for a party that reflects mainstream Canada. Canadians are largely divided on many of the questions that Liberals are accused of lacking clarity. Let the other parties engage in the goosestep, let them stifle opinion and get their talking points from the PMO, it is the Liberal Party were the serious debate occurs. Debate implies messy, weighing different factors leads to different conclusions. It isn't a negative if MP's vote their conscience, in fact it is a better manifestation of democracy. On any issue where there exists considerable internal opposition, allow a free vote, remove the distaste of arm-twisting.

Let's say every Liberal MP votes against the extension today, what does that say? Will the media say, "wow, look at those united Liberals", "that Dion sure knows how to lead"?. No, they will say the exact same thing they will if a dozen MP's vote against, the Liberals are "divided", they were just whipped. I would rather a spirit of openness, a respect for an elected representative, an egalitarian mood. There is a way to make "division" look "progressive" and "respectable". Canadians don't expect unanimity on every issue, that isn't realistic and the real world we confront everyday reinforces that notion.

26 comments:

JimBobby said...

Whooee! Good boog writin', Stevie. I'm pretty much alongside you all the way. I reckon maybe there's a few extreme examples where a whipped vote might be okay. If most of a party's ready t' kick dissenters out over a bigass fundamental issue, then maybe they gotta whip an' be ready fer resignations. It oughta be a dang rare thing, sez I.

If they're gonna whip the votes all the time, we might as well not have 308 MPs. Just have 4 or 5 party bosses callin' all the shots an' save the taxpayer a pile o' dough. Better yet, just have one person callin' the shots an' leave off havin' all them time-wastin' debates.

Leaders has gotta lead an' they gotta convince by logic an' not convince by whippin'. Whippin' only makes 'em look like dumbass bullyboys who can't convince with logic.

JB

Steve V said...

"Whippin' only makes 'em look like dumbass bullyboys who can't convince with logic."

Xactly.

rockfish said...

I think you're onto something that stretches beyond just this issue. The general response to the corners our opponents paint us in seems pretty timid on most accounts, shellshocked on others. I know what Dion is trying to do here and I see some merits but I also see your argument.
I'd argue that we are lacking in a solid attack plan on certain issues because of what we're afraid it says of us. Take harpor's lashing us to 'weak-on-terrorism' and his whole Bains scheme. He's doing it on the premise that things stick. Why aren't we shooting back more forcefully, noting that the PM has had a habit of stirring up 'McCarthyisms' for political points in the past, and refer specifically to him and the Cons' stand on Arar before the 'New Government' tune change. Get into those media scrums and point out about Harpor's judiciary board changees and note how this flies in the face of his 'open and accountable', less decentralization slogan of 13 months ago. You don't have to say 'hidden agenda' but certainly one can allude to it just as well as Harpor alluded to the things he's trying to paint Liberals. The only difference is what we'd be saying of him is true.

Anonymous said...

Agreed.

This is one issue where it is not worth bringing the whip out.

There is no electoral advantage whatso ever in presenting a united front on this issue.

lance said...

This is probably the single best post on liberal 'should-do' strategy that I've read since the election.

I don't mean the subject, I mean the theme.

In one post, Steve manages to layout a framework that would:

1) isolate Layton's "working for Canadians" shtick,
2) remove the capability of the CPC to paint the Liberals into a corner,
3) allow the liberals a reason to come back to the "big-tent",
4) allow the MP's to vote on behalf of their and their constituents beliefs,
5) move back to the centre.

But, with the "win now" crowd pushing the Liberal train, it isn't going to happen.

Too bad.

Cheers,
lance

Gayle said...

I agree on this too. It appears Dion allowed Harper to paint him into a corner by calling his leadership into question over this, so Dion made the decision to whip the vote.

I understand why, but this is the wrong hill to die on.

Miles Lunn said...

Very well said. I actually see the party not being united as a sign of strength not weakness. It shows we are a big tent party who represents the large middle and is one people with different opinions can feel welcome in. The idea of free votes is not just limited to the United States, even in Britain it is quite common to vote against the government. In fact in 2003, despite the fact the Labour Party had a 166 seat majority, the authorization for the Iraq War would have not passed had it not been for the support of the Conservatives.

In the United States, part of the reason the Democrats won in places like Colorado, Arizona, and Montana is they are allowed more free votes. This means they aren't forced to support the more liberal policies that are popular in Boston and San Francisco but not Middle America. Likewise the Republicans in the Northeast often tend to break ranks with Southern Republicans as the conservative policies that are popular in the South don't sell well in the Northeast.

If we had more free votes we might have a better chance at winning in places we do not now. For example, during the 90s, most our MPs from Rural Ontario were social conservatives (and as much as I despise social conservatism) forcing them to support socially liberal positions that were popular in the GTA but not Rural Ontario probably costs us there.

lance said...

Oh, Miles tweaked a couple of other things too:

More free votes forces the local rep to canvas their constituents, this moves the election debates from "what would _we_ do" to "this is what I did/would do". (This can go _horribly_ wrong though.)

That's a distinct difference in the CPC election strategies. The CPC uses a centralized message whereas this would be more of a populist movement. (Heh, whoever would have thought that the term 'populist' would be in a comment about the Liberals.)

And because the MP's become involved in the grass-roots, it opens up all sorts of channels for things like . . . fund-raising. (Ka-Ching!)

Guess we'll see in about 10 minutes, eh. (Assuming it isn't just an absentee surrender.)

Cheers,
lance

Steve V said...

This might be a case where the "leader" failed to thoroughly consult with caucus before a position was taken. The position was rigid, which obviously didn't reflect the wishes of many MP's. If the final stance had come from the ground up, I'm not sure we would be in this mess.

Miles Lunn said...

Steve - Even if done from the ground up, it is very difficult to unite every single MP. I think if you have 90% of the MPs on side, you've done a good job of uniting caucus. Other than confidence votes, I think backbenchers should be able to vote their conscience. Cabinet ministers should be whipped since they are part of the government, but backbenchers should be able to vote their conscience as well as represent their constituents.

What is ironic is although this was something the Reform Party advocated, the Conservatives under Stephen Harper allow for no debate even in caucus on any issue and everything is decided by the leader. In fact the split between Manning and Harper was not over ideology, but between a populist leader and a more controlling one. Both are neo-conservatives to the core.

Steve V said...

miles

Take this for what it's worth, but Duffy is saying that the consensus "off the record" is that all this could have been avoided if there was more consultation. This was said during an interview with Bob Rae, who is supposedly developing the platform, yet seems completely out of the loop, even though his insights are particularly valuable on this topic.

ottlib said...

Steve:

I have to disagree with you on this one.

The way this is supposed to work is the leader of the party consults his caucus, via caucus meetings, and listening to individual lobbying. He listens to all sides and then he does what a leader is supposed to do, he makes a decision.

At that point the caucus should support his decision, although there is no problem with revisiting the issue again via the methods described above until the vote takes place.

For that vote the party whip should do her job and remind the MPs that party policy is ... and they are required to support it.

Such a system does leave some folks disappointed but the nature of the system ensures that you will not always be on the losing side.

By all accounts (some of which were not positive) Mr. Dion consulted with the caucus. They had two or three caucus meetings where this issue was the main agenda item.

Mr. Dion listened and he made a decision as he is supposed to. If the Liberal caucus really wants to support their leader then they should accept that decision.

Of course there are exceptions, the SSM debate being one of them. The Afghanistan vote should not have been but there was not much Mr. Graham could do about it.

Steve V said...

ottlib

Point taken. I wonder if the caucus discussions were as open as we are lead to believe. Remember this all took place while Dion was under fire for his leadership, I think his handlers decided he need to be assertive and this was the chance. To have so many dissenters, openly questioning the decision, suggests that there was some confusion in the process. I don't think this whole exercise was handled particularly well.

lance said...

Ottlib, the problem with the whip system is that it takes the issue out of debate and into theatrics. If there is no point in trying to convince, then there is only the point of vote-getting.

This issue is much too divided in the public mind to have gone that route but it did, so that's what we got. Politics with a capital P and all the crap that means.

Cheers,
lance

ottlib said...

Steve:

I think the problem is the Liberal caucus was without an effective leader for too long and they are just adjusting to the new reality.

Mr. Graham was an excellent interim leader but he lacked the leverage of a permanent leader. As well, there was a leadership race on and in such a situation the caucus should be given some more leeway to voice its opinions.

Well that is all over. The Liberals have a new leader and his caucus does not do themselves or Mr. Dion any good by giving the impression that they do not support his decisions.

I would point out that Mr. Dion learned his trade under Mr. Chretien and he was famous for allowing spirited debate in the caucus room. However, once he made a decision and it was time to vote he expected his members to follow the party line. Obviously it worked if Mr. Chretien's electoral success is any indication.

Lance:

It all depends what leads up to the whipped vote.

If it is just the leader imposing his decision with little or no debate then you are correct.

If the party position is arrived at after a complete internal debate then you are not correct.

I would also point out that tonights vote was covered by the TV media because they were hoping for the theatre of seeing a bunch of Liberals vote with the government. They would not have done that if the Liberal MPs would supported Mr. Dion's decision from the outset.

Miles Lunn said...

Ottlib - It is true the idea of free votes does make a leader look weak, but I would argue it is the right way to go even if caucus does reach a consensus. In the UK, which uses our British parliamentary system, they allow free votes on every bill that is not a confidence vote. In fact any time the party votes in unison, there is often questions about how much of a control freak the leader is rather than on how divided the party is. Party divisions are only raised when a large number of MPs vote against the party. In fact if the Liberals allowed free votes, they could argue they are party that tolerates different opinions, while the Conservatives aren't.

ottlib said...

Miles:

This is not the British Parliament. The Canadian Parliament has different traditions and conventions. And the Canadian electorate has different expectations.

Many people say they want to see more independence from their MPs but invariably whenever they show that independence the Party they represent usually suffers. It is a paradox in Canadian politics and a reality that Liberals better accept if they ever want to get off the opposition benches.

The Liberal Party does tolerate different opinions.

I see nothing wrong with a complete internal debate followed by a decision and presenting a united front after the decision is taken.

On the other hand giving the appearance of not supporting the party leader is not worth the cost. Especially when that leader has been on the job less than three months.

The Liberal Party and all of the leadership contenders spent a great deal of blood, sweat, tears and theasure in order to choose someone to be responsible for making decisions on behalf of the Party. To do so and then tolerate those who choose not to support that leader's decisions kind makes me wonder why the Party put so much effort into choosing its leader.

Mr. Dion is the leader of the Liberal Party so let him lead.

Or to put it another way. Roy Cullen was of a mind to lead a little revolt against Mr. Dion's decision. So tell me does it look good for the Liberals if it appears they consist of little factions with individual leaders who believe they are not bound by Mr. Dion's decisions?

Steve V said...

"So tell me does it look good for the Liberals if it appears they consist of little factions with individual leaders who believe they are not bound by Mr. Dion's decisions?"

That is a great point. You can't have complete anarchy, there does have to be a structure. But, in this instance, with so much obvious difference, why not make the vote a free one and avoid the spectacle of forced votes and no-shows. "How they look" is equally undesirable, whether you are rigid or look divided. Given that the dye was cast as soon as we heard of dissent, in my mind the best course would have been a conscience vote, on a complicated matter. In another time, I think we would have had just that, but it just so happened that we are in the era of Dion needing to assert himself, and this was the opportunity.

This is just a hunch, but I think there are different levels of dissent here. I'm not even sure a majority initially agreed with Dion. I honestly can't see Ignatieff holding this view independently, given his other positions. Some fell in line immediately, others lingered and needed pressuring.

Miles Lunn said...

Ottlib - It is true that Canada isn't the British parliament, but we use the same model in terms of using the Westminster system. More importantly, prior to the 60s, it was quite common to vote against the party. In fact voting with the party is a very recent thing.

In addition I disagree it would hurt our party. If there are large rebellions, absolutely, but if only a few were voting against, it would show our party is a big tent. I should note that when Paul Martin was PM, 2/3 of votes used the second line whip which is where cabinet members are bound to vote with the government, but backbenchers can vote differently. Only 1/3 of votes used the third line whip.

While many people complained about Paul Martin being a ditherer, most of the unity problems came from outside the caucus from former Chretienites trying to backstab the party, not within the caucus.

Susan said...

One can debate strategy, and if that's the case I agree with ottlib, but in this situation I care a great deal more about the outcome of the vote and I applaud a party that can deliver the outcome I believe in, namely the end of those provisions. That's what I'm sure many Canadians wanted and Dion ensured that it happened.

rockfish said...

As Miles noted, Harpor is again quite hypocritical (that's the theme we should hang around his neck until it sticks) in that his party prides (perhaps past tense) itself in not being whipped, but has been nothing but since forming gov't -- which is probably symptomatic of that dilemma, however... The only dissention we saw in the Cons' group on a non social-conservative issue was the Quebec question. The result was a man turfed from his cabinet post and banished to the back bench. Now we know, going by past statements, that the number of MPs from Alberta alone who would kick up a storm had this been put forward by another party would number 28. Harpor carries an effective stick, his serfs tote the line and wear the ball-gag with glee. But it is not what his party presented as its modus operandi, in fact, Hansard is littered with the slags and arrows by the dozen from harpor and his gang in opposition about Liberals' whipped votes.

Scotian said...

Steve V:

While I agree with the sentiment of your post, overall I have to agree with Ottlib. Ottlib brought up most everything I would have as well, including the timing. I would be less inclined to think the need for strong unity shows if this was not still soon after a nearly year long leadership race. Especially when we consider that the winner was not seen as a likely outcome even on the morning of the vote, although by then he was certainly considered a credible outcome. I also think though that one of the greatest strengths of the Lib party is not only when it is able to thrash out issues in caucus and disagree in public during the debate phase, but also to (for the most part, no one is perfect and we all have our own hobby horses in which we can never quite detach ourselves as best we try) unite for a vote publicly. It is almost important though to unite when it comes time for the vote behind the decision taken by the leader after the consultation process has finished as it is to have the consultation and thrashing out element both in public and behnd the closed doors of caucus in the first place.

I also think Ottlib raises a very important point to recall about how long the Libs went with no leader actually defining policy instead of a caretaker that only reacted (as opposed to acted/initiated/ as we are now seeing with Dion) to events while maintaining the status quo. It was because of that kind of leadership vacuum after all that Khan was able to become that advisor and remain within the Lib party for as long as he did, Graham did not feel he had the moral authority as interim leader to prevent it. The party is getting used to having that kind of leadership again and like all skills left dormant for a time they are rusty and some missteps are inevitable. It is how quickly and well they are corrected within the first six months or so that I think really counts.

Indeed, I think it is a good thing that we are seeing what we are now instead of during an election campaign. When is the better time for shakedown and debugging, while you still have time to correct or when you have to make your final sales pitches/presentations to the marketplace in an election cycle?

I will admit I think Dion is trying to match Harper's style to a limited extent, and while I understand why he is trying to do that I also think like most people here do I believe that he simply is not well suited for it. However, I do think the fact he is willing to challenge Harper with as strong language as he does is necessary, since we are not hearing it from anywhere else with the exception of the Separatist party of all people. His delivery though in QP still leaves something to be desired, but again Harper helps by comparison by being as nasty as he has been as of late.

It is very jarring and contradictory for Harper and the CPC to be decrying the way Parliament is sounding these days while essentially washing their hands of it and blaming the opposition parties for it, especially the Liberals. This only a week after the PM himself linked a MP to the Lib foreign/security policy position being as a result of his father in law supposedly being on a secret potential RCMP witness list that could only be compelled by one of the ATA clauses expiring (despite that clause not being intended for looking backwards at old cases but forward to prevent/investigate new ones when it was written) by the position of *all* the Opposition parties not just the Libs. He is poisoning the atmosphere with his reckless charges of terrorist links and Liberal policy being dictated by extremists/terrorist sympathizers and Dion himself being in their pockets owing such people his position as Liberal leader (Who did Harper owe for support for his bid to become CA and CPC leader again? Did he ever fully disclose all of that informaiton,e specially regarding his CA run? I don't think so.). Yet where is the actual evidence? Ah, that's the question, isn't it...

Harper has to go, his actions over the past week in particular have yet again underscored for me why I must fight him and denounce him as intensely as I do. This man is willing to take what should have been an issue handled with minimal partisanship because of its nature and instead used it as nothing more than a crude blunt instrument/club to whack only the Libs with over their votes on the ATA clauses sunsetting. They took something which is a complex and careful balancing of competing interests of security and basic civil rights/freedoms and turned it into maximum partisan attack fodder. They used the bloody shirts of both 9/11/01 and Air India and yet the CPC and especially Harper himself claims he and his party/government has no responsibility for how bitter and ugly things have become?!?!?!?! This is why it is dangerous to give Harper the openings of dissent after an issue has been well thrashed out in committee and caucus (if it has not when there is time for it to be done so well that is another matter IMHO) and the decision is taken for the party's position to vote. While I do think some matters of personal conscience should be free votes, things like the death penalty for example, I am not one of those that think most votes should be free. While the idea sounds good I have a strong suspicion that in reality it would make the practice of such partisan sniping and politicking as we have seen recently even more common and inevitable.

We may be descended from the UK model of governance but we have evolved our own rules and our own traditions, and despite all the flaws and problems one can find with the way we have done things in our 139 years as a nation I think we can say we have done exceptionally well for ourselves overall. I happen to like how this country turned out so far (pre Harper anyway) and most Canadians I have ever enountered/spoken to about this country also seem to think so, there is a quiet yet strong and fairly pervasive pride on this nation, something Harper and many of his followers appear to lack. This is one of the reasons why I do not like the idea of mucking about with our way of governing in a piecemeal fashion, especially when there is no overall guiding set of principles in place to show where it is all leading towards and that the ripple effect/ramifications from these changes have been thought out in terms of how they interact with everything else. Nothing operates in a vacuum, and when you change one thing you change the way it interacts on others elements, when it is multiple elements brought in over varying periods of time instead of together then it is several and the dynamic chaos that will almost certainly engender rarely results in a good result/outcome.

So I don't have that much problem with whipped votes so long as it is kept in reason and for issues of serious importance, and I think the ATA clauses fell into that category, so long as vigourous debate happens beforehand in a caucus. I think this is true for all parties in our system btw, and not just the Libs. It is, after all, how the system is designed to operate and has generally speaking since at least the end of WWII.

Anonymous said...

Why is no one complaining about Harper's permanent whip?

Steve V said...

scotian

Valid points. Ottlib does make an important point about the leaderless caucus.

In general, I agree with a lot of the reasoning, but on this issue I don't see the benefit. If the goal was the perception that the Liberals are united and Dion is assertive, then I think the final result is a failure. The issue was already framed prior to the whip, so I'm not sure, in this instance, that it really accomplished anything, except adding another unflattering element.

What we can learn from this issue, it is important to keep the discussions internal, while people work through the merits. The media already seized upon divisions, all kinds of off the record commentary, which made unity a pipedream in the end.

ottlib said...

steve:

Little late rejoining the discussion. Damned job keeps interfering with my blogging. :)

I was speaking in general terms and I was really not speaking to this particular issue.

I agree that the cat was out of the bag on this issue so the whip was not going to give the impression of unity. However, what it might do is provide a reminder to the Liberal caucus that they now have a leader and that it is in their best interests to support his decisions.

Steve V said...

ottlib

Bloody work! I think we find some agreement in a general sense, my view starts from this particular issue. Discipline should really start with not airing the discussions in public.