CLOSE-UP

Independence and isolation on the Hill

MICHAEL ROSE March 28 1988
CLOSE-UP

Independence and isolation on the Hill

MICHAEL ROSE March 28 1988

Independence and isolation on the Hill

CLOSE-UP

They can be seen either as powerless political outcasts or as maverick champions of parliamentary democracy. Whatever the verdict, independent members of Parliament share one other characteristic: they are a rare political species. Since Confederation, the House of Commons has been home to only a few dozen of them, most of them quickly forgotten. But Tony Roman, who along with former Liberal cabinet minister Donald Johnston and former Conservative Robert Toupin make up the current crop of Independents in Parliament, claims that they play a key role. Said Roman, MP for the Toronto-area riding of York North: “There are issues where some people should be able to vote without party discipline, so there should be more Independents elected from time to time.”

Independents either run for office as nonaffiliated candidates or decide after election to leave their party. Toupin and Johnston have left their respective caucuses since the 1984 election because of disagreements. But Roman campaigned and won election as an Independent. And all of them can turn to the experience of Quebec nationalist Henri Bourassa as a source of inspiration. Founder of the newspaper Le Devoir, Bourassa resigned as a Liberal MP in 1899 and was returned in 1900 by acclamation—without Liberal party support. In 1907 he resigned and entered Quebec politics, then returned to Ottawa for three terms in the 1920s and 1930s as an Independent. But Bourassa is widely acknowledged to be an exception. For the most part, the political future is bleak for Independents. Their influence is severely limited. And with no support from a party apparatus, their chances for re-election are slight.

Indeed, Roman is the first Independent to win a seat since 1974, when Moncton, N.B.’s right-wing mayor, Leonard Jones, was elected for one fiveyear term on an antibilingualism platform. But Roman owes his success to some extent to a political vacuum in his riding during the 1984 campaign. Incumbent Tory MP John Gamble had alienated many of his constituents with his archconservatism. And early in the campaign Liberal candidate Aldo Tollis was charged with assaulting the wife of his former campaign manager—later convicted, he was given an absolute discharge. Tollis also faced accusations that he recruited more Liberal supporters from outside the riding to secure his

nomination than party rules allowed. Roman, then chairman of the regional municipality of York, north of Toronto, seized the opportunity to run without party affiliation—and beat runner-up Gamble by 4,200 votes. As an MP he has concentrated on issues that he considers to be particularly important to his constituents, among them postal service and immigration policies.

For his part, Toupin, MP for the Mon-

treal-area riding of Terrebonne, won a seat as a Tory in the 1984 election—then left the party in May, 1986, after the government failed to ensure the survival of the Gulf Canada oil refinery in the economically devastated east end of Montreal. In December of that year Toupin joined the NDP, but he became an Independent again 10 months later. “I feel very comfortable now,” Toupin told Maclean ’s. “I can attack anyone when it is in the interests of my constituents or my province.”

On the other hand,

Johnston, a former Liberal leadership candidate, appears to be uncomfortable with the Independent’s role. The

Montreal MP, known as an avid pianist, left his caucus to sit as what he calls an “independent Liberal” in January after disagreeing with his party’s positions on the Constitution and free trade. He now spends most of his time away from the House, concentrating on speeches and meetings with provincial officials, discussing what he sees as dangers in last year’s Meech Lake constitutional accord. Johnston’s plans for the next election

are unknown, but, according to one Johnston aide, he “is still a Liberal at heart and does not seem the type to sit a long time as an Independent.”

Some other prominent politicians who left their parties in the past have returned out of political necessity—or switched their allegiance. Roch LaSalle, for one, for years a key Quebec Tory MP, left his party in 1971. But he returned to the fold in February, 1974, and served as public works minister from 1984 to 1987, when he resigned during a patronage scandal. And Ross Thatcher left the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation —the NDP’s forerunner—in 1955 to

sit as an Independent because he disagreed with the party’s taxation and social security policies. Then in 1959 he took over the leadership of the Saskatchewan Liberals—and became premier in the 1964 provincial election, a position that he held for seven years.

Lacking party affiliation, most Independents have concentrated on single issues or matters of immediate concern in their ridings. Roman says that, apart from his concerns with the post office and immigration, he devotes most of his time to helping constituents deal with federal bureaucracy. To that end, he has adopted a low-key style—he has never stood in the House to question a minister or make a speech—which he says has been more effective than confrontational grandstanding would be. His practice is to quietly corner a minister or to send a carefully drafted letter to a bureaucrat asking for action on a problem. Roman has also joined two parliamentary committees—dealing with public accounts and parliamentary procedure— and says that much of his most important work is done there. He added, “When I go into a meeting, I am able to address the issues and see that the taxpayer does not get ripped off.”

Toupin prefers to use the Commons as a forum for debate. In recent months he has spoken out in the House on an environmental problem in his riding and questioned Solicitor General James Kelleher on behalf of prison guards. But Toupin and Roman acknowledge that their isolation hampers them: Independents cannot take advantage of caucus research facilities, their membership on committees is left to the discretion of party whips, and the House Speaker is under no procedural obligation to recognize them when they wish to ask a question. Still, Toupin says that Speaker John Fraser has been helpful. “He has recognized me without hesitation when I have something to say,” he said.

But the biggest challenge facing all Independents is re-election. In recent years no one who has won a seat as an Independent or left a party caucus has been returned in the next election. Roman, in fact, has made it clear that he would seriously consider an offer from the Tories to run as a Conservative in the next election, expected some time this year. “Being free of party discipline is attractive,” said Roman, who ran unsuccessfully as a Tory in two Ontario election campaigns. “But there is no point going through an exercise again if you are not going to get re-elected.” Toupin says that there is still a possibility he will retain his seat. But for an Independent, that possibility is uncomfortably slim.

—MICHAEL ROSE in Ottawa

MICHAEL ROSE