A Mature Country Does Not Demand Absolutist Party Discipline

The Dorchester Review recently published my article last month “Party Discipline and the King Doctrine”, in which I recount a brief history of party discipline in Canada over the last century, the Reform Act, and the significance of what we witnessed one year ago in January-February 2022, when Conservative MPs ousted Erin O’Toole as leader and when two backbench Liberal MPs overtly and ostentatiously criticised the Prime Minister, both his rhetoric and his policies.

The current minority 44th Parliament has continued to break barriers and pierce through long-held taboos about partydiscipline in Canadian politics.

The National Post reported yesterday under the headline “Trudeau’s Control Over Caucus in Question as Liberal MPs Break Ranks Over French Bill” and breathlessly recounted how some backbench Liberal MPs representing majority-English ridings in Montreal disagree with a government bill to amend the Official Languages Act. The article quoted one Geneviève Tellier, a professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, who – rather bizarrely, in my opinion – admonished Liberal MPs for publicly and openly disagreeing with each other.

“Those are conversations that should normally stay in caucus. I can fully understand some MPs don’t agree, and there are tough conversations. But at some point, there’s a position and you need to defend it. It’s as if they had completely forgotten about the good of the party.”

But, why? Why should backbench MPs not be allowed to disagree in public amongst themselves and with the Ministry? This Bill C-13 should not, strictly speaking, be regarded as an a priori matter of confidence by default like supply bills, and thus as unamendable; MPs of all parties should remain free to introduce amendments to it at committee and then let the House of Commons as a whole decide in Third Reading what to do. The Trudeau government could of course declare the bill a matter of confidence and perhaps thereby force all Liberal backbenchers into line, but such a blunt instrument seems like a disproportionate over-reaction to the airing of genuine and sincere disagreement.

The National Post further speculates that Liberal backbenchers have mounted a broader rebellion, and that these amendments to Bill C-13 only represent the thin end of the wedge, because of some other recent controversies. For instance, even two cabinet ministers from Quebec – Pablo Rodriguez, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, and François-Philippe Champagne – spoke out against Amira Elghawaby and denounced her characterisation of Quebeckers as inherently Islamophobic. This incident admittedly poses a greater problem, because cabinet ministers must all maintain collective ministerial responsibility and thus solidarity with one another and the Prime Minister.

The confidence-and-supply agreement between the Liberals and New Democrats has probably enabled this dynamic and, paradoxically, liberated both Liberal backbenchers and New Democratic MPs with greater latitude to criticise the Trudeau government. Since they have already pledged to support the government on true matters of confidence, they now have licence to criticise the same government more overtly at the margins on other policies, especially on those where genuine and sincere disagreement has always existed within parliamentary parties and the Canadian public.

The chaos and lingering aftermath of the pandemic, coupled with the surprisingly liberating confidence-and-supply agreement that keeps the Trudeau government in power until the 44th Parliament must dissolve in September 2025, has given the 44th Parliament a free-wheeling dynamic rarely seen in Canadian federal politics. And this, in turn, has also shown that backbench MPs can exercise more autonomy and disagree with or even criticise the Prime Minister and Cabinet without destroying the entire system and without withdrawing their confidence altogether from the government. The House of Commons and its committees now host genuine debates and air sincere disagreements in public, which, if anything, we should all applaud. Perhaps we have finally begun to evolve in Canada away from this facile and infantile absolutist partydiscipline which started in the 1920s after the Liberals and Conservatives deprived their parliamentary parties of the authority to elect and oust partyleaders and transferred that function to delegated conventions and later to partymembers.

As I noted in February 2022 in “The Disgrace of Boris Johnson,” British MPs have long shown us the way. Backbenchers in the Westminster Parliament have long maintained more independence and autonomy than ours not only to criticise publicly but even to vote against the government, and the island of Great Britain has not slipped beneath the waves and sunk into the sea. Nor has the sky fallen. A mature country which values the free exchange of ideas not only allows but encourages open debate, even within a single political party. But this depends on the broader political culture – not only on what MPs themselves do and say, but how journalists cover their actions, and how voters react and judge their decisions. Journalists should stop portraying every public disagreement within a parliamentary party as evidence of total chaos and start regarding it as not only necessary, but encouraging. Voters already grow tired of absolutism and rigid conformism within Canada’s political parties.

Only cabinet ministers need to vote in line with all government bills all the time, or else resign; backbenchers on the government side of the House of Commons do not. Backbenchers are and should remain free to disagree with the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and they should be allowed to vote against government bills, especially on matters of policy like The Official Languages Act which fall outside strict matters of Royal Recommendation and taxation.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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8 Responses to A Mature Country Does Not Demand Absolutist Party Discipline

  1. Jim Whyte says:

    Heh…le plus ça change and all that. My dusty files still have my reply to a Globe and Mail letter-writer, who insisted, back in April 1996, that “the principle that an MP cannot vote against his own government’s money bills…was known to Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Gladstone.”

    Possibly so, if the writer meant Winston Churchill, the shoe salesman in Aylesbury, Benjamin Disraeli, a casual worker in Shoreditch, and William Gladstone, a Kirkby barman. But not if he meant the prime ministers.

    I referred the Globe and the writer to Forsey and Eglington’s 1984 essay, “Twenty-five Fairy Tales About Parliamentary Government,” to ease his confusion about the collective responsibility of the Cabinet.

    Also, being as I am in sympathy with the Shetlandic folk, I assert that GB is an archipelago. There are rumours – I swear I didn’t start them – that Wee Jimmie Krankie is planning a canal project between the Solway and the Tweed to increase the number of islands.


  2. Rand Dyck says:

    Well, James, I will not quibble with anything your wrote. As usual, I think it is solid!


  3. Purple Library Guy says:

    “and the island of Great Britain has not slipped beneath the waves and sunk into the sea. Nor has the sky fallen.”
    Arguably Great Britain’s sky is falling in rather, actually. People are freezing in the dark and going hungry and dying from lack of health care. But it’s true that independent backbenchers didn’t cause that–to the contrary, backbench rebellions have given Britain chances to try to salvage the situation. Chances they have failed to use, but still.


  4. Ronald A. McCallum says:


    “The chaos and lingering aftermath of the pandemic, coupled with the surprisingly liberating confidence-and-supply agreement that keeps the Trudeau government in power until the 44th Parliament must dissolve in September 2025, has given the 44th Parliament a free-wheeling dynamic rarely seen in Canadian federal politics.”

    Actually, the Constitutional life of the House of Commons is five years from the Day of the Return of the Writs, not Election Day:

    “The duration of a Parliament—the period of time between elections during which the institution of Parliament exercises its powers—is calculated from the date set for the return of the writs following a general election to its dissolution by the Governor General. At the same time, the Constitution Act provides that, five years is the maximum lifespan of the House of Commons between general elections, calculated from the date fixed for the return of the writs, and that there must be a sitting of Parliament at least once every 12 months.19 In addition, revisions to the Canada Elections Act, adopted in 2007, require that a general election be held every four years.20 This legislation provides that a general election must be held on the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year following a previous general election.21 However, the powers of the Governor General, notably the power to dissolve Parliament at his or her discretion, is not affected by the legislation.”

    Also, the Canada Elections Act, Part V — Conduct of an Election, Section 57(1) require that the Governor General to issue a Proclamation of Dissolution:

    “57 (1) The Governor in Council shall issue a proclamation in order for a general election to be held.”

    Also, the Governor General or a Deputy of the Governor General with the Chief Electoral Officer will issue writs for each Federal Electoral District to command the Returning Officer to conduct an election of a Member of the House of Commons — Member of Parliament.

    Naturally, there is a lot of confusion with conflicting clauses, but would you not say that the Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982 takes precedence over the Canada Elections Act 2000 As Amended?

    Ronald A. McCallum


    Constitution Acts 1867 to 1982: https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/const/




    • I do love when pedantic old men presume to “correct” me when they are, in fact, themselves wrong.

      First, this has absolutely nothing to do with the substantive arguments that I made in this post.

      Second, you can read my full argument on this subject in my article from 2016 “When the Bell Tolls for Parliament: Dissolution by Efflux of Time”. I know that you haven’t read this already because you think that the maximum life of the federal parliament continues to be five years under section 4 of the Constitution Act, 1982, and since you’re posting this irrelevant commentary on the return of the writs. I addressed both those points fully in that article.

      In fact, the only concrete thing that the fixed-date election law has done is shorten the maximum life of the parliament from five years to somewhere between four and five years. Parliament alone can enact a statute that *decreases* its own maximum life to something less than than five years, because *decreasing* the maximum life does not violate the provision in the Constitution Act, 1982. Of course, only a constitutional amendment under the general amending procedure could *increase* the maximum life beyond five years in general.

      You misunderstand the interaction between the Constitution Act, 1982 and the Canada Elections Act and the nature of the provision in the Constitution Act, 1982. You can picture these provisions as a series of walls or concentric circles the outer layer of which would be the Constitution Act — which cannot be breached — and the inner layer would be the statute, which Parliament can change at will provided that it does not breach the outer layer.

      The provision in the Canada Elections Act has lowered the maximum life of a parliament by obliging general elections at least once every fourth October, both in principle and in practice.


  5. PierreB says:

    Hear, hear! I, too, found the comments from Professor Tellier odd. The MPs are not there for the good of the party, but of their constituents.

    A quibble: Is Great Britain an island?


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