Canada

Rebels with a cause

A group of maverick Liberal MPs wants to change the way Ottawa works

JULIAN BELTRAME September 17 2001
Canada

Rebels with a cause

A group of maverick Liberal MPs wants to change the way Ottawa works

JULIAN BELTRAME September 17 2001

Rebels with a cause

A group of maverick Liberal MPs wants to change the way Ottawa works

BY JULIAN BELTRAME in Ottawa

John Bryden has a headache, the kind that comes from repeatedly banging one’s head against the immovable wall of government. His private member’s bill to loosen up the Access to Information Act, the culmination of a three-year crusade to throw some light into the dark corners of how Ottawa exercises power, was swiftly dealt a lethal blow last year by his own party. Last month, after the Hamilton-area Liberal MP had cleverly regrouped by forming an ad hoc committee of Liberal and opposition MPs to study how cabinet ministers and their top bureaucrats avoid dis-

pensing information, House Leader Don Boudria forbade public servants from testifying. Yet when the House of Commons returns this week, Bryden’s committee will be back at work, if somewhat crimped by the restrictions.

Why does he bother? “I was elected with the government, but that doesn’t mean I support it above and beyond common sense and reason,” says Bryden. That sentiment is shared by the handful of free-thinking Liberals—most notably John Godfrey, Dan McTeague and Albina Guarnieri— who continue to risk the ire of their colleagues in pursuit of private agendas. They know they’re probably dooming any chance of being plucked by Prime Minister

Jean Chrétien for a cabinet post. They may even be harming their prospects for lesser plums: chairing committees, or being picked to go on foreign junkets. But at a time when opposition parties are in disarray and most Liberal backbenchers are being labelled sheep for toeing the party line, Duff Conacher, co-ordinator of the government watchdog Democracy Watch, says the rebels are making an essential contribution. “They can be more effective than the opposition because when they go against their own government, the press pays attention,” Conacher notes.

Some have even succeeded in changing government policy. After championing children’s issues for four years as head of a

‘When you realize an issue is heating you have capture the But if

going nowhere.’

‘I’m idealistic enough to believe bills should live and die on a free vote in the House of Commons, not through obstruction and delay’

‘ I’m not here to knock the Prime Minister, I’m here to make Parliament work better and make the Liberal party stronger and more inclusive’

Liberal caucus committee, Godfrey saw his persistence pay off last September when Ottawa signed a $2.2-billion Early Childhood Development accord with the provinces. McTeague, best known for his attacks on the “monopolistic practices” behind high fuel prices, believes he deserves part of the credit for the GST rebate on home heating that Finance Minister Paul Martin announced before last fall’s election. He also notes he is the only “backbencher to have amended the Criminal Code”—when his private member’s bill stiffening penalties for motorists who engage police in high-speed chases was passed in April, 2000. The keys to success for a backbencher, says Godfrey, are having a long-term agenda and building alliances. Then you must wait for an opening. “When you realize an issue is heating up, you have to capture the moment,” he says. “But if there’s not a taste for something, you’re going nowhere.”

Guarnieri can attest to that. The Mississauga East MP thought she had a slam dunk in 1996 with her bill to allow con-

secutive, rather than concurrent, sentences for multiple murderers and rapists, with a maximum of 50 years for murderers. She argued that the Paul Bernardos of Canada should not be given “a volume discount” when they kill more than once. One poll found 90 per cent endorsing the thrust of her bill. But Allan Rock, the justice minister at the time, did not. “I saw every possible obstacle set in my way,” Guarnieri told Macleans.

The first hurdle was the three-member subcommittee that decides whether a private member’s bill is deemed “votable.” Hers was deemed not to be, meaning there would be no vote in the House of Commons. Twice more she got the bill on the order paper, only to be stymied. Then, through the help of Reform MPs, the bill was resurrected and finally made it back to the floor of the House in June, 1999, where it overwhelmingly passed third and final reading. But the celebration was shortlived. Acting on what Guarnieri believes were cabinet instructions, the Liberal majority in the Senate allowed the

bill to languish and die with the November, 2000, election.

Even so, Guarnieri’s experience with private member’s bills is positive compared with most. Although new rules have made it easier for backbenchers to get bills to the House, the chances of survival remain slim to none. Since 1993, when Chrétien came to power promising to give backbench MPs a greater role in government, 1,179 private member’s bills have been introduced; only 21 have become law. But while few of those private member’s bills could be termed substantive, the vast majority never even got to a vote in the House —and Guarnieri says it shouldn’t be that way. “I’m idealistic enough to believe bills should live and die on a free vote in the House of Commons,” she says, “not through obstruction and delay.”

Despite the frustrations, the four backbench iconoclasts insist they remain determined to make a difference. Guarnieri plans to take a different tack by reintroducing her bill in the Senate first this fall, hoping she will be fifth-time lucky. McTeague says he will continue to champion consumer causes and work to stiffen Canada’s lax Competition Act. Godfrey remains committed to expanding the government’s agenda for children, and Bryden, if nothing else, plans to produce a report that will put pressure on the government to relax the Access to Information Act. But the biggest impact they can have, they say, is if they succeed in changing the “Ottawa culture” that tries to reduce government backbenchers to mere cheerleaders for government policies instead of complementary initiators of policy. “I’m not here to knock the Prime Minister,” says McTeague, “I’m here to make Parliament work better and make the Liberal party stronger and more inclusive.”

Ultimately, argues Bryden, independendy minded backbenchers are a valuable resource, not a hindrance. They can bring to the attention of the cabinet issues that concern Canadians. Or they can alert governments to policies that alienate voters. “That’s why I prefer the word maverick to rebel,” he says. “A maverick is the buffalo that’s on the edge of the group, ranging out right and left, spotting danger that serves the group and preserves its longevity.” That outrider is also the one that’s most likely to tumble over the edge of the cliff, Bryden admits. He just hopes he can keep living on the edge without going over it. G3