Saturday, July 13, 2013

Whipped

For those who haven't yet seen Whipped, Sean Holman's documentary on party discipline in the B.C. legislature is now available through CPAC's website. And it's well worth a watch (particularly on a stormy Saturday).

But I will point out that there may be an important distinction between an elected representative speaking up about issues in a way which differs from a party's position, and actually voting against a party position on a specific bill. And we may be best served if parties and the media alike offer more leeway on the former in order to better determine when it is or isn't appropriate to limit the latter.

As Holman shows, political journalists may only serve to reinforce the perceived helplessness of individual legislators by always taking a public statement of disagreement with one's party as a sign of weak leadership.

Ideally, that could be addressed in part by a leader explicitly encouraging differences of opinion: after all, it's much harder to make the case that an action constitutes a challenge to the authority of a leader who's explicitly approved of it in advance. But either way, the media would seem to have an important role to play in treating independent thought as an expected attribute for an elected representative - not an opportunity for a gotcha moment.

Once it's time to vote on legislation, though, I can see the case for a different standard. In that respect, I have plenty of sympathy for Mike Harcourt's comments which are used as a foil to Holman's message - even if the need for solidarity on the points required to keep a party and a government functioning should be paired with a presumption of free votes on matters which aren't classified as core party policy issues or confidence votes.

In addition, I'd also see reason to address the relationship between a party's leadership and its membership - which surely has some valid role to play in setting the direction of a caucus elected under a party banner.

Ultimately, though, it's tough to disagree with Holman's conclusion that the line between party discipline and MLA independence has been drawn in the wrong place in British Columbia (among other legislative assemblies across Canada). And it'll take a shift in focus by the media, constituents and party membership alike to challenge the amount of power that's currently wielded by party leaders.

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