Breaking party discipline

A few weeks ago the Conservative Party put forward a motion in the House of Commons that challenged the most recent Liberal Party policy that requires organizations applying for Summer Jobs funding to sign an attestation saying that "both the job and the organization's core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression."

This requirement came under fire as soon as it was announced but they have stood by their decision.

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At least in part, the attestation stemmed from earlier times in Trudeau's ascent to power. He told Liberals that anyone who ran under the Liberal banner would not be able to vote their conscience on reproductive rights in the House. As a result of this unilateral statement about House votes, it seems that subsequent policies needed to follow suit.

The Conservative Party argued against the attestation after many organizations came forward saying that they could not tick off the box and would therefore be denied Summer Jobs funding.

So they put forward this motion: "That, in the opinion of the House, organizations that engage in non-political non-activist work, such as feeding the homeless, helping refugees, and giving kids an opportunity to go to camp, should be able to access Canada Summer Jobs funding regardless of their private convictions and regardless of whether or not they choose to sign the application attestation."

This story raises important questions about the legality of the attestation.

In other words, is it in itself a violation of the Charter? I will leave this question for another time because today I want to talk about party discipline and the outcome of the vote on the Conservative motion. Briefly, the story is that David Christopherson, an NDP MP, voted in favour of the motion against the instructions of his party as did Liberal MP Scott Simms.

Liberal John McKay simply left the House and did not vote. The story of Christopherson's break from party discipline became headline news particularly after he was "punished" by NDP leader Jasmeet Singh (he later reversed that decision).

At least in part, the controversy here was over the rule of party discipline which is a key part of our model of government in Canada. I have explained a number of times that our parliamentary system requires that governments pass a bill in the House by maintaining confidence.

Important votes in the House must be passed by a 50 per cent plus one margin. Thus, parties require that their members follow party lines on votes. Failure to achieve this outcome means that Parliament is dissolved and that we go to a new election. Thus party discipline exists to ensure that governments maintain confidence but not every vote in the House is a matter of confidence.

So why is it that party discipline has become so strict?

In a study that was published in 2015, authors Jean-Franois Godbout (editor's note: we're not directly related, at least as far as I can tell by looking at my family tree website - NG) and Bjorn Hoyland looked at the evolution of party discipline.

They examined "recorded votes from the Canadian House of Commons from 1867 to 2011" to see what factors explain the development of strict party unity.

It is interesting to note that voting strictly along party lines was not a feature of Canada's earliest parliamentary practice. The authors demonstrate that it was not until after the First World War when the number of private members bills were reduced and more control was put into the hands of the government to regulate the legislative agenda that strict party unity was enforced.

In fact, their overall findings suggest that the control of the legislative agenda is the key factor in the rise of strict discipline.

The central question in all of this is when should MPs violate these rules?

In this case, Christopherson and Simms both felt that the attestation was simply unfair. Neither were arguing against their party's legislative agenda.

They were both simply asserting that, in their view, the attestation was wrong.

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