Why party discipline is bad for Canadian democracy.

This essay was originally written for a Political Science course in September 2015.

Canadian democracy is the outcome of the Westminster system inherited from British tradition where Parliament falls within the Legislative Branch of the Government. Parliament is composed of the Senate, also known as the Upper House because these are 106 seats physically found in the upper level of the Chamber, above that of the House of Commons, or Lower House. The latter is formed by 308 Members of Parliament (MPs), all elected officials commonly associated with a political party, although it is also possible to sit as an independent, from which the Prime Minister (PM) and his/her cabinet are selected.

The Senate, on the other hand, is appointed by the PM. The purpose of Parliament is to either approve or disapprove a statute by following a structure of government. Both chambers have a leading opposition to generate debate during the legislation process. The House of Commons is obliged to conduct two readings of the proposed policy followed by a report stage in case it passed after the debate performed in second reading. At this point the bill has been referred to a committee that will take into consideration the say of witnesses before voting and referring it to the Report Stage. A third reading proceeds where MPs vote on the overall policy. The process repeats in the Senate. If the majority of senators vote for it, the bill is sent to the Governor General for her Royal Assent for it to metamorphosize into law. The Executive Branch is responsible of introducing the bill, whereas the Judicial Branch interprets the law to apply it.  

Party discipline happens when a party leader has substantial control over the voting power of MPs from his party bloc. Based to the level of dedication and loyalty demonstrated to the leader and party in general, the caucus members are entitled to rewards such as promotions or aperture to more privileges in their current positions, among other possibilities (Brooks, 2012). If say a caucus member does not align to the demanded discipline, expulsion or further restrains and punishments are expected to follow (Brooks, 2012). Indeed, loss of confidence is regarded as undesirable by most politicians, since often times the success of their careers depend on the quality of their relationship with party leadership. Otherwise, the political ladder would be nearly impossible to ascend (Kilgour et al., 2006). Elected officials are worth for the seat they occupy in parliament, which can make a significant difference in the passing of a bill or amendments proposed by their party.

Notwithstanding, as ex-MP from British Columbia, Dr. Keith Martin, noted in a text published in Box 8.7, pages 264-265 of the textbook, party discipline creates a democratic deficit. What this means is that although MPs are democratically elected by Canadians to represent them in the government, they actually render accountability to their constituents (Brooks, 2012). Such behaviour can be judged as an obscene act that should not be tolerated, yet it is a reality in Canadian politics. Back in May of this year Bill C-51, or the Anti-Terrorism Act, passed third reading with 183 votes in favour and 93 against. Backed up by the Liberal Party, the bill was a Conservative Party initiative that was not well received by public opinion (The Canadian Press, 2015). Forum Research (2015) published an opinion poll this March 14 revealing that of the 1370 people considered for the study, about 50% disagreed with the bill legislation, especially concerning certain provisions that allow “security services to infiltrate and track environmentalists, First Nations and pipeline protesters,” as well as “the lack of parliamentary oversight included in the bill”.

Irrefutably, party discipline functions like a glue stick for party cohesion. It not only speeds up and legitimizes party legislation, it also makes the legislative process predictable. (Flavelle et al., 1986; Kilgour et al., 2006). In fact, it could be argued that high-discipline is a powerful strategic element that can be implemented by party leaders regardless of public disapproval, as observed in the instance of Bill C-51. This account also brings into question the integrity of Canadian politics, since it reveals that party discipline is accompanied with secrecy, enforcing a systematic-like violation of the right for freedom of speech of elected officials. It, indeed, reinforces the need of closed-door meetings as caucus members may not be otherwise able to publicly contradict their party, for it could jeopardize their political career in that affiliation (Slide 9, Lesson 15).

There have been a few examples recently documented by the media, like a veteran resigning Nova Scotia candidacy in objection to his leader’s support for Bill C-51 (Taber, 2015), or even like other candidates that had no other choice but to resign because of undeniable misconduct that made it to the news headlines. Furthermore, party discipline makes it difficult for parliamentary opposition to criticize and overlook the government’s actions (Slide 22, Lesson 15). Again, the unfolding of events in the legislation of Bill C-51 evidenced the extent pattern of loyalty ingrained in Parliament, and clearly the Senate is not exempt, considering the Prime Minister is in charge of appointing whomever he chooses to seat in Upper House. Such is the instance of Stephen Harper, who has made 59 appointments throughout his 10 year administration (Wherry, 2015), including ex-Conservative loyalist Mike Duffy who has been charged with fraud. As a result, party discipline contradicts the authority of the structures of government; in other words, it does not benefit Canadian democracy.

As already stated, party discipline increases the chances of accelerating party legislation, which makes it easier for ministers to know the fate of their bill in Parliament, increasing legitimacy to the government’s agenda. Huffington Post Canada quoted Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney during Third Reading of Bill C-51, “Members have heard me many times saying there is no liberty without security,” adding “there is no prosperity without security” before calling the New Democrats for not recognizing “a spade [from] a spade”, alluding the man who managed to infiltrate a gun on Parliament Hill about a year ago (Lum, 2015). Blaney said these words with the intention of defending the legislation, as it had been strongly opposed by New Democratic Party (NDP) MPs. Nevertheless, his confidence was not unfounded. His party, the Conservative Party, currently governs with parliamentary majority as it has 170 MPs affiliated, in addition to 39 Liberal MPs (House of Commons, 2015). He had the satisfaction of already knowing the outcome of the final voting in Lower House.

Of course, Liberals were similarly questioned by the NDP for supporting a Conservative initiative that was not in sync with the history of their party, to which Vancouver MP Joyce Murray from the Liberal Party was quoted also by Huffington Post Canada asking “the member whether he would want it on his conscience should there be an attack that leads to deaths of Canadians because of the loopholes that the bill is attempting to fix?” (Maloney, 2015). It was expected that a minister of Harper’s cabinet would fervently defend the bill, and Murray’s demonstration of loyalty to her caucus is no mystery. After all, the Liberal Party has a long history of high-discipline, a measure that allowed it to stay in power for extended parliamentary periods (Brooks, 2012), and Harper’s conservatives have been following that legacy effectively. Remarkably, party discipline serves well as a strategic weapon common among politicians regardless of their political affiliation, even if their own integrity perishes.

Senators as well fall prey of its influence. In theory, senators are not as vulnerable to party discipline compared to MPs because they get “to serve until the age of 75”, so they are not accountable to the party leader  for a nomination in further elections (Brooks, 2012). However, reality tells a totally different story. Senators are appointed by the Prime Minister. As Brooks (2012) puts it in page 258 of his book, “[m]ost are people who have served their party long and well, and it would be more than a bit unusual if they were suddenly, after appointment to the Senate, to change the patterns of loyalty that got them there in the first place”. Taking advantage of the possibilities at hand, Harper appointed as many senators as he may have thought pertinent, granting his government the advantage of having not only majority in the House of Commons, but also in the Senate by the time Bill C-51 moved forward. Of course 44 senators voted in favour of the bill and 28 against it in the end (Sean, 2015).

The danger of party discipline is that it can turn against the party itself and have the leader looking rather dictatorial. This is especially the case in a democracy that is supposed to allow the opposition in both Chambers review the bills for possible changes and so respect the legislative process. In the case of Bill C-5, thousands of people mobilized all over Canada to protest, for it was evident from the beginning that “[t]he Conservatives used their majority on the House of Commons public safety committee to vote down the first wave of opposition amendments to the federal anti-terrorism bill,” (Bronskill & The Canadian Press, 2015) as Huffington Post Canada reported on March 31 of this year. The Conservatives continued ignoring public discontent along with the criticism and suggested amendments, even once Report Stage was reached!

According to CBC News report, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May mentioned the committee members simply shut down to listening the witnesses throughout the process, unwilling to consider, nor make any changes (O’Malley, 2015). Witnesses were simply worried about the bill violating civil rights as it hands in new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to spy on people within Canada, and even proceed with prosecution if the individual is considered a threat to national security. This targets anyone against the federal government, not only ISIS supporters. Environmentalists and First Nations activists may as well face criminal charges if determined by the CSIS. What this shows is that when the political arena is overloaded with highly disciplined players, the rules giving structure to the game turn irrelevant. When parliamentary debate does not influence the fate of a bill, democracy is no longer taking place. It simply undermines the principles of social equality.

The NDP and the Green Party, as members of the opposition in the House of Commons, could only sit in frustration hoping the Senate would be more prudent and pay attention the observations made by experts about the violations to the Charter of Rights the bill allows, but this was not the case as already discussed. And how could it be if Harper’s senate and inner circle had been ridiculed by the fraud scandal of ex-senator Mike Duffy back in 2013 for getting caught spending public money for his personal expenses, an apparent common practice by members of the Upper House. The whole episode of misconduct put Harper’s team in the spotlight, especially because Nigel Wright, ex-Chief of Staff of the PM’s Office paid for Duffy’s damage “as a desire to contain a political problem” (Mansbridge, 2015). In circumstances like this one, party discipline can be counterproductive for the individuals involved, like it happened with Wright as he was blamed by fellow Tories in the PM Office, including the PM himself, for not maintaining open communication of his actions. Although evidence contradicted that version of the story during the trial (The Canadian Press, 2015), Wright had to suck it up and assume complete responsibility like a martyr. He now lives and works in London, UK (Mansbridge, 2015).  

Secrecy seems to be of importance in maintaining a disciplined party, especially when events like the Duffy spectacle are prone to happen. Elected officials, as it turns out in Canadian politics, do not have freedom of speech.  Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber, a backbencher at the time, could not contain his disappointment on the Conservative Party. He decided to speak out in his blog about how the party had “morphed” into what they had hopped to fight when they first arrived to Ottawa in 2006 (Raj, 2013). A declaration that costed Rathgeber his career as a Tory. Moreover, in an interview with the Canadian Press in summer 2013, Senator Carolyn Olsen declared not having spoken with anyone outside of the Senate who were “directly involved”, but as it came out later she had actually been exchanging emails with some people in the PM Office including Wright. In one of the emails, in fact, she is quoted telling him that she is “always ready to do exactly what is asked” (as cited by CBC News, 2015) while also discussing “how to shape the committee’s final report on Duffy to make sure the language was softened” (The Canadian Press, 2015).

Other parties have not been exempt of drama that puts in question the integrity of Canadian politicians. Back to the subject of Bill C-51, Liberal candidate Veteran David MacLeod left the party in June of this year because he could not believe Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau would support the bill (Raj, 2015). He told the Globe and Mail that “it was an integrity-based decision” as he concluded from reading the entire bill that it gives the “opportunity for abuse”, also testifying that “there was opposition to [the bill] from supporters of all the parties” (Taber, 2015). He certainly did not like the idea of the CSIS having “the power to get a warrant in secret and to break the Charter of Rights” (Taber, 2015), then, again, who blames him? So he quit.

Notwithstanding, MacLeod made that choice by himself. As punishment of their misconduct, even if it happened way before even joining the party, affiliated candidates to a party are forced to quit. This has been happening already as the elections get going, such was the case of NDP candidate Kings-Hants for having used anti-semitist language on a Facebook conversation back in 2014, all he wrote was that in the occupation war against Palestine, Israel seemed to want to “ethnically cleanse the region” (as cited by CBC News, 2015). Of course, NDP leader, not wanting to have the Zionist community on his neck commented that the NDP “position on Israel has always been that they deserve a safe and secure state” (CBC News, 2015). Another example comes from the Green Party of Canada, when one of its candidates declared his desire to not run for the Peterborough-Kawartha District in Ontario because he had decided to “endorse the NDP nominee” instead, an embarrassing declaration that had the party apologizing to supporters for the confusion as well as stating that they did not support this resolution (The Canadian Press, 2015).  

Consequently, party discipline gets on the way of Canadian democracy. It is unquestionable that affiliates develop stronger patterns of loyalty with the leader that make them a tough rival to defeat. Nevertheless, it can turn into an authoritative caucus with no free will nor freedom of opinion. Furthermore, as it seems, secrecy happens organically in that environment, which makes it hard for Canadians to trust their elected officials of being accountable to them and not to the PM Office. Even the opposition displays strong party discipline, but the party seating with the majority in Parliament is obliged to include them in the legislative process, as well as consider any criticism offered by public opinion.

There needs to be more accountability to Canadians although this may delay the approval of a law because that is how democracies remain healthy. If the government behaves like a dictatorship it should at least be honest about it and turn to cynicism more often instead of trying to maintain an appearance of rightness that only hurts the feelings of idealists who still believe in ethics. Inciting fear to pass statutes that completely disrespect the Charter of Rights as it happened with Bill C-51 are detrimental to the integrity of Canadian democracy, and that is not fair.



Bronskill, Jim; The Canadian Press. “Bill C-51 Amendments From Opposition Rejected By Conservatives”. The Huffington Post Canada. 31 Mar 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Brooks, Stephen. “Canadian Democracy: An Introduction.” Oxford University Press (2012): Chapter 8.

CBC News. “Morgan Wheeldon, Kings-Hants NDP candidate, resigns over Israel comments”. CBC News. 10 Aug 2015. Web. 28 Aug 2015.

CBC News. “Refugee crisis: Stephen Harper rejects proposed meeting with political rivals”. CBC News. 7 Sep 2015.  Web. 7 Sep 2015.

Flavelle, Lucinda, and Philip Kaye. “Party Discipline and Legislative Voting.”Canadian Parliamentary Review 9 (1986): 6-9.

Forum Research. “The support now for stiffer terrorism legislation”. The Forum Poll. 17 March 2015. Web. 28 Aug 2015.

Harris, Kathleen. “Harper add 8 new faces in major cabinet shakeup”. CBC News. 15 Jul 2015. Web. 28 Aug 2015.

House of Commons (2015). “Members of Parliament”. Parliament of Canada. http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members?view=List&page=2 (accessed August 26, 2015).

Kanji, Mebs (2015) “Introduction to Canadian Politics – Lesson 15” eConcordia  http://www.econcordia.com/courses/canadian_politics/lesson2/ (accessed August 20, 2015).

Kilgour, avid, John Kirsner, and Kenneth McConnell. “Discipline versus Democracy: Party Discipline in Canadian Politics.” Crosscurrents: contemporary political issues (2006).

Lum, Zi-Ann. “Harper’s Anti-Terror Bill C-51 One Step Closer To Becoming Law”. Huffington Post Canada. 6 May 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Maloney, Ryan. “Joyce Murray Accused Of ‘Fear-Mongering’ In Defence Of Bill C-51”. Huffington Post Canada. May 5 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Mansbridge, Peter. « Stephen Harper reached out to Nigel Wright over Mike Duffy payment ». CBC News. 7 Sep 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

O’Malley, Kady. « Bill C-51 amendments seem unconnected to committee process ». CBC News. 31 Mar 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Perkel, Colin; The Canadian Press. “CSIS To Get More Money To Beef Up Public Safety: Harper”. Huffington Post Canada. 4 June 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.  

Radwanski, Adam. “Duffy trial threatens Conservatives’ ability to mobilize their base”. The Globe and Mail. 21 Aug 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Radwanski, Adam. “Tories’ campaign strategy: Staying mym to avoid gaffes”. The Globe and Mail. 2 Sep 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Raj, Althia. “Harper’s Conservative Party Base Agitated As PM Strays Far From His Roots”. The Huffington Post Canada. 14 Jun 2013. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Raj, Althia. “Liberals Mum After Veteran David MacLeod Quits Candidacy To Protest Bill C-51”. The Huffington Post Canada. 15 Jun 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Sean, Kilpatrick. “Bill C-51 passes Senate vote, awaits royal assent ”. CTV News. 10 Jun 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

Taber, Jane. “Veteran resigns N.S. candidacy in protest against Trudeau’s support for security bill”. The Globe And Mail. Jun 15 2015. Web. 2 Sep 2015.

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The Canadian Press. “Harper Accuses Federal Leaders Of Playing ‘Partisan Games’ Over Syrian Refugee Crisis”. The Huffington Post Canada. 7 Sep 2015. Web. 7 Sep 2015.

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Wherry, Aaron. “After appointing 56 senators, Stephen Harper is done”. Maclean’s. 24 Jul 2015. Web. 7 Sep 2015.



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