As the Federal Election of 2015 looms ahead, this seems an appropriate time to reflect on our political atmosphere and take a look at some of its many players. As Canadians and realistic citizens, it is quite natural for us to focus on the major parties and party leaders of the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDPs. We often set the Independent MPs off to the side and give them far less attention than we do to those who belong to political parties. But how large is the discrepancy between Independents and Party members? The truth is that there are significant, tangible differences which fail to create a level of equality between the two types of politicians.
Within the Federal government, the presence of independent MPs is almost non-existent. Among the 311 seats in the House of Commons, set to increase to 338 for the next election, only 3 are held independently. Only 6 of the 105 members of Senate are independents. So, with numbers like this, one would expect that these independent MPs are at least given their fair share, and have as much say as another member in the House of Commons or Senate. The truth, however, is that these members are at a major handicap when it comes to the political decisions. This past week, Alberta Independent MP Brent Rathgeber, a member of the Conservative party until 2013, voiced his concerns as an independent politician. The Pirate Paaaaargggghty of Canada reiterated these statements, explaining the challenges of being a political party outside of the major parties of the Conservatives, New Democrats, and Liberals. :
The current system already stacks the odds against these types of candidates and the proposed changes significantly increase that difficulty. A hurdle that independent candidates already face is the requirement that all remaining funds at the end of the election must be surrendered to Elections Canada. This handicap is placed upon independent candidates alone and is not shared by candidates running under a party banner. As a result of this, while party candidates can retain these funds for the next election, independents are faced with having to rebuild their entire funding with each election.
Currently, elected MPs that take a public stand against their party, their leader, or their party’s position on any number of issues are left with a choice to make: leave their party, risk being ejected by their leadership for standing their ground, or backing down on the issue. With the proposed changes, and the current rules, MPs will find if even more burdensome to leave their party, whether by their own choice or not, and thereby further strengthening party discipline.
Within the major parties there’s something called party discipline. In the House of Commons, you’re expected to tow the party line and vote with your party. This discipline has led to the current scenario, where “politicians vote as their party leaders dictate nearly 100 per cent of the time. Few private members’ initiatives get past first reading.” A research director from Institute for Research on Public Policy went so far as to suggest some “African dictatorship that [is] part of the Commonwealth,” when pressed to find another comparable democracy.
To make matters worse, the Conservative Party’s “Fair Elections Act” could make it even more difficult for Independent candidates to acquire seats in the House. The proposed changes in question includes mandating that campaign money remaining after the election be held in trust by a third party, to be returned to the independent candidate in the next federal election. All amounts of interest (something the non-partisan team at Elections Canada has little of) would go to Elections Canada, who would also keep all of the funds in the event that the independent decides not to run in the next election for whatever reason. The hill for IMP’s is indeed a steep one. So steep, in fact, that some Independent candidates have said that they have greatly considered starting their own political party to avoid the disadvantages of the current Canadian Elections Act, but starting one’s own party in itself can be quite a challenge. Not to mention, the last thing we need in this country is more political parties with ridiculously specific agendas. Throughout the provinces, we have seen the likes of the “Excalibur Party of British Columbia”, Le “Bloc Pot” of Quebec, and the oh-so-fun “unparty” of British Columbia. Suffice to say, the party system is watered-down enough at this point.
The majority of Canadians won’t find this news particularly alarming, as they often choose to vote for the bigger parties, regardless of what individual member is going to be representing them (thanks first-past-the-post!), but let’s not forget the value that comes with being an independent MP. With no party backing, there is no requirement whatsoever for the MP to follow strict party discipline, thus allowing them a wider range of motion in how they serve their riding. While independent MPs will remain a vast minority in the House and in Senate (while it lasts…), it appears that the ship hasn’t sunk just yet.