People and Places

POLITICS CHATTER: Whipped: Documentary asks “Who comes first?” — a politician’s party or his constituents?

You’d think a film called Whipped would be the kind of thing that you’d watch after the kids are asleep. But Sean Holman’s new documentary didn’t come in the 21st century equivalent of a plain brown package. Still, it provokes certain emotions that might leave you a bit shaky.

Holman, founding editor of the pioneering British Columbia-based online investigative political news service Public Eye, made Whipped as his Master’s thesis at Carleton University. The film is about the bind that so many members of legislatures and parliament find themselves in: are they employed by their political party or their constituents?

It’s not a simple problem. What happens when your political party comes up with a policy or a law that you know would enrage the people back home? Do you stand with them, or do you listen to your party’s leadership, including the party whip who enforces party solidarity?

Holman got a string of BC MLAs to talk about the problem. A few had quit to sit as independents, rather than vote in the legislature against their voters. Others had simply gone for a nice long walk, rather than stand up and be counted in a recorded vote. Years later, some of the former politicians Holman interviewed were still very upset at the decisions that they’d made when their arms were being twisted by their party.

Holman, who now teaches at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, asks a very interesting question: does an MP or MPP work for constituents or the party? The party raises the money and helps in the candidate’s campaign and many candidates are elected — or lose — on the coattails of the leader and the national campaign, but this is supposed to be a democracy.

MLAs that Holman interviewed in BC  often saw themselves as no more than trained seals, people who are seen by the leader and those around them as PR flacks who took the party’s message back to the boonies. They were also required to vote on cue in the legislature.

Holman found young governments sometimes listen to backbench members, but as a party gets used to power, there is less and less interest in what ordinary MPPs have to say.

Of course, it’s not just a problem in BC.

In 2008, after losing twice to local Liberal machine politician Joe Comuzzi, Bruce Hyer was elected as the NDP MP in Thunder Bay-Superior North. It’s a very large Ontario riding that takes in dozens of small towns and hamlets, along with seven First Nations communities.

Hyer won again in 2011.

His constituents, who live in an area where moose hunting is both an important source of food for local people and a big tourism draw, made it very clear through the years that they supported the Tory plan to scrap the controversial long gun registry.

Hyer says he could not ignore the opinions of his constituents. He told the NDP leadership that he would support the Tories on the long gun issue, and was warned that he would be “punished”. When he felt isolated and alienated by his own party, he quit to sit as an independent.

Hyer spoke at this week’s Ottawa showing of Whipped. He says being an independent allows him to speak out for the voters who sent him to Ottawa and to take stands on issues based on what the voters want, rather than what the party dictates. Paradoxically, he says he knows his chances of re-election are fairly slim unless he joins a political party before the next election. The Liberals are courting him. So are the Greens.

He now sits in the far corner of the House of Commons with Brent Rathgeber, who quit the Tories late in the last parliamentary session. On his blog, Rathgeber now delights in the fact that he was finally able to ask a real question in the House of Commons last week, rather than one handed to him by a party functionary. Like Hyer, Rathgeber said he was sick of being a “trained seal”.

But leaving a political party is a tough thing to do, and it’s unlikely the Hyers and Rathgebers of parliament are unlikely to change things.

For one thing, they may not be around long. Getting re-elected is a huge challenge for independents. Parties can fundraise constantly, but independents can’t raise money until an election is called, they’ve filed their nomination and paid their deposit. Their former parties work very hard to make sure they are not re-elected. A few, like former Reform Party MP Chuck Cadman and Conservative MP Bill Casey, are so popular in their community that they make it back to Ottawa. Most don’t.

Hyer thinks proportional representation is part of the answer. He also wants an end to the 30-year-old Election Act rule that no one can run under a party banner unless their nomination is signed by the party’s leader.

Until then, people like Hyer and Rathgeber are marked men, targeted by their former parties as traitors and by other parties who see an opportunity to pick up their riding. It will be up to their voters to decide in the next election whether they want a sentient person or a trained seal to represent them.