Last night I attended the Ottawa screening of “Whipped“, a new documentary by journalist and professor Sean Holman that investigates the practice and impact of party discipline at the Legislature of British Columbia. While this might seem to be a narrow focus, the similarities between that legislature and the other federal, provincial and territorial assemblies means that the documentary raises some important questions about the system of parliamentary democracy in Canada as a whole. However, despite doing a good job of pointing out the problems, it is not clear what the solutions should be.
“Whipped” focuses on how the legislature is no longer a place for genuine debate or representation, but rather a meaningless theatre where politicians talk at each other and vote according to positions given to them by their respective parties. Particular emphasis is placed on the very low number of dissenting votes, with Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) going against their party line less than 0.03% of the time.
More importantly though (and of greater relevance to my own research), Holman goes beyond what happens in the legislative chamber to critically examine the answer that parties give in response to concerns raised about this lack of dissent – namely that MLAs have influence over party positions before they are decided via the regular meetings of the party caucus. Through interviews with past MLAs and cabinet ministers, Holman shows that while individual politicians can on occasion have influence through caucus meetings, there are often times when the government acts unilaterally without consulting its backbenchers, or even some cabinet members.
Overall, his findings match quite well with the existing academic literature. Holman’s observation that the influence of caucus depends on the approach and personality of the party leader corresponds directly with what Paul G. Thomas (no relation) found during his investigations of the federal caucus system in the 1980s. Similarly, the fact that all of the rebel MLAs profiled by Holman were men echoes findings from the UK on the greater loyalty of women MPs. Finally, his description of the broad coalition that MLA Lorne Mayerncourt developed to push for changes on panhandling legislation parallels the research that Jane Hilderman and I conducted at the federal level, which found that backbench members are more likely to obtain policy changes from government if they take time to develop allies and build a strong proposal.
However, while it is good at diagnosing the problem or party discipline, and how it can prevent the expression of diverse views, “Whipped” fails to provide much in the way of solutions. At several points the film points to the UK to highlight the greater amount of rebellion that takes place at Westminster. Statistics are presented to show that there were rebellions on 22,000 of 1.35 million votes; that the most rebellious MP went against his party 20% of the time; and that the government was defeated on 7 motions over the past decade. But in many ways this data is quite misleading. While it might look impressive, the rate of rebellion is just 1.6% – which is hardly a large increase in absolute terms. Moreover, no mention is made of the fact that the UK has experienced coalition government, which lead to a significant increase in rebellion (see Cowley and Stuart’s “Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions” for more), or that the UK parliamentary system has no equivalent of the government caucus. Finally, while the most rebellious British MP, Phillip Hollobone, is certainly more rebellious than BC’s biggest rebel, he is an exception in the UK parliament, with most MPs rebelling dramatically less often.
Yet as well as highlighting the greater rebellion in the UK, “Whipped” also seems to suggest that democracy would work better if there were more independent MLAs. Several former independent MLAs are interviewed, and one is praised for being able to vote against a bill simply because it is not in the interest of his constituents. However, this praise is not matched with any discussion of the potential problems that could emerge if every MLA thought only of his or her own constituency.
Overall, no clear picture is presented as to what action should be taken going forward. Are more independents the answer? Or should reforms be introduced so that MLAs are more free to speak out from within their parties? And if so, how much freedom should there be? Should MLAs be able to vote against major elements of party policy, like election commitments, if they go against the interests of their community? Should caucus or cabinet meetings be made public? And why was there no mention at all of the idea of a three-line whip?
Perhaps the medium of the documentary is not well suited to conversations on what reform might look like. However, while doing a good job at presenting the problem of excessive party discipline, without such proposals “Whipped” seems incomplete, and does leave the impression that a system with much less discipline could be desirable, even though it would have substantial trade-offs.