Canada

Rise up, rise up

Liberal backbenchers challenge party discipline

JOHN GEDDES April 1 2002
Canada

Rise up, rise up

Liberal backbenchers challenge party discipline

JOHN GEDDES April 1 2002

Rise up, rise up

Canada

Liberal backbenchers challenge party discipline

JOHN GEDDES

Members of Parliament don’t always get much respect. Pierre Trudeau once dismissed the MPs of an earlier era as “trained donkeys.” If that description still holds, there’s some unusually loud braying on Parliament Hill these days. Whether it’s in the confidential confines of caucus meetings, or during open debate in the House, Liberal backbenchers are straining against the bonds of party discipline. The latest, and most serious, test of Jean Chretien’s ability to keep them all pulling in the same direction is resistance to Environment Minister David Anderson’s proposed endangered species law. “There’s a level of unrest,” says Liberal MP Karen Kraft Sloan, a vocal critic of the act.

“I’ve made my view clear: I will not support this bill.”

For a government MP, that simple statement cannot be made lightly. Avenues for dissent in the Canadian parliamentary tradition are severely limited. There may be unguarded argument in closed caucus sessions, a little freethinking when MPs’ committees discuss the laws sent to them for review by cabinet ministers, but in the House everybody votes along party lines. Or at least they do most times. Now, some Liberals are speculating that when Bill C-5, the Species at Risk Act, comes up for a final vote, likely in early April, enough government MPs might break ranks to defeat it. Kraft Sloan isn’t making a prediction. But, she says, “The reality is that politics is a dynamic game.”

More than usual, lately, at least in Liberal circles. Talk of backbench unrest began when Liberal MPs elected a new caucus chairman in early February. They chose Stan Keyes, the Hamilton, Ont., MP who had suggested publicly just a few months before the 2000 election that it was time for Chrétien to “pass the torch.”

A choice so clearly embarrassing to the Prime Minister was widely read as an expression of deep discontent. As well, individual Liberal MPs have been uncommonly outspoken this year—from Carolyn Bennett chiding Chrétien for failing to promote more women in his latest cabinet shuffle, to John Godfrey’s public insistence that Canada should not turn over prisoners captured in Afghanistan to the United States without guarantees that international prisoner-of-war rights would be respected.

But these examples fall short of the more dramatic possibility of Liberal MPs actually voting down government legislation. Anderson made that possible by rejecting the amendments to Bill C-5 agreed to by MPs of all parties on the House environment committee. Kraft Sloan, a key player in hammering out that I consensus, points to two I major points in dispute. The Ü committee called for mandatory habitat protection for endangered species on federal land; Anderson wants protection to be discretionary. And the committee called for a species to be listed “at risk” on the basis of what scientists say, with cabinet given the power to veto a listing within six months; Anderson proposes a political process for putting a species on the list from the outset, relegating scientists to an advisory role.

Environmental issues tend to bring out MPs’ independent streaks. But this time, the fight seems to be part of a wider urge to claim more respect. It’s not just a matter of principle. Many Liberal MPs think Chrétien has named his last cabinet, so their big motivation for staying in his good books—hope of that big promotion—is gone. Now, the Prime Minister must find other ways to coax, or coerce, them onside—or get ready to play more of the sort of “dynamic game” that MPs like Kraft Sloan are now playing. Hi]