Is it time for a backbench revolt?
Prime ministers of the United Kingdom and Canada have risen to become the most powerful leaders in the G7.
Not having any real separation between the executive branch — Prime Minister's Office/Privy Council Office, cabinet, federal agencies and departments — and the legislature — the House of Commons and Senate; and with iron fisted caucus discipline the combination gives almost untrammelled authority to our PM and his advisers. And almost as much control over their caucus to successful opposition leaders.
The U.S. executive branch is supposed to be kept in check by Congress and the Supreme Court. With a Congress behaving like poodles and a semi-packed Supreme Court, though, Donald Trump has revealed how much power an American president can wield.
But wind too tightly the straps and leashes on Type A personalities, who are used to being the king of their tiny kingdoms, well, something inevitably snaps. Pierre Trudeau smeared opposition MPs collectively as “nobodies.” Fifty years ago, it was less than truthful. Today, sadly turned many of the nobodies become flower pots, polished and displayed for photo ops from time to time, in each of the caucuses. But in the U.S. and the U.K., there are signs of life in the legislature.
Following the Tories’ crushing defeat on its Brexit strategy, and their whisker-thin escape from being thrown out of office altogether, there began quite open and flagrant mating dances between MPs across tribal lines. Leadership level discussions have finally begun, but like the U.S. stalemate they are bedevilled by red lines on each side. So, MPs have begun a “Commons-led” rebellion — in open defiance of their own leaders. The backbench on both sides, unlike their leaders, seem to have realized that voters have one priority: “Decide, now!”
In parallel in Washington, Senate majority leader — whose role is similar to our house leader and whip combined — in the wake of his humiliation by Trump has disappeared on a work-to-rule, allegedly fishing in Kentucky. A few enraged senators, such as Lindsey Graham, have continued back room negotiations, producing deals only to be slapped down as well. Now GOP and Democrat Congress members have ratcheted up their back room negotiations. The goal is the same: “Get the government back to work, now!”
When these two stalemates are over, maybe life goes back to normal. The poodles return to being muzzled and stroked, and the flowerpots are happy with a fresh coat of paint and a selfie.
But I doubt it.
When confidence in leaders has been so completely broken it is tough to reimpose by threat. Backbench Labour and Tory MPs are appalled at the behaviour of their dinosaurs in leadership, as are GOP Senate and House members in theirs. The new Democratic radical caucus is bursting with threats of insurrection: “No more compromise politics!” is their rallying cry. On each side of the Atlantic, they believe they have a greater connection to the pulse of the electorate. That is, “Less partisan political games, more action, please! The rebels may be right.
Which asks the question, “What’s wrong with Canada?!” In fairness, we have not faced an existential crisis threatening to break up the country in a while, nor have we ever had a lunatic PM. Some were a little quirky — MacKenzie King’s most trusted advisers were his dead mother and his dead dog.
We may be heading toward three humdingers as challenges to caucus discipline in Canada, though: a potential refugee crackdown, escalating violence at pipeline sites, and a tax rebellion over carbon. One can see many in each caucus being tempted to hit back at their leaders on both sides of these issues. They know they are raising passions and anger among their own voters.
British and American politicians have demonstrated that representative democracy can include division between the executive and their legislators. As a recovering party enforcer, I sheepishly admit that such a rebellion in Canada might be a good thing in re-establishing some credibility, authenticity and authority to parliamentary politics.
Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years. He is a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears