Commentary: On the Members of Parliament as ‘trained seals’

Members of Parliament (MP) have recently released statements expressing frustration with being treated like ‘trained seals’ and having little to no power within political parties.The actions of Conservative MPs are controlled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office (PMO), thus preventing them from exercising their own interests, giving genuine responses during conferences, and representing their own constituents. The PMO’s actions are becoming less and less consistent with the ideals of democracy Canada professes to stand for.

If Canadians live in a democracy, why don’t the inner workings of our government follow suit? The PMO should not be the only voice in national affairs. While Harper may be the Prime Minister, there is still an imbalance regarding the way in which power is distributed in Parliament. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau referred to backbenchers—MPs not in Cabinet—as the “nobodies” of Canadian Parliament. In fact, this centralization of power began under Trudeau’s reign and has persisted ever since. The fact that MPs are so often left out of the making of policies does not exactly work with the notion of democracy. This lack of power and selfless submission to the PMO put MPs at the short end of the metaphorical stick.

Members of Parliament are subject to the loss of their own individuality within their position. All actions taken in the public sphere are controlled by the PMO, such as prepared speeches and answers to expected questions for public appearances and conferences. MPs are also told who they should vote for in coming elections, and how they should represent the beliefs of people in their respective ridings. Leon Benoit, Conservative MP for the Vegreville riding in Alberta, told the Commons: “I have had my rights taken away when it comes to representing my constituents on certain topics, and I just do not think that is appropriate.”

Last March, Mark Warawa, Conservative MP for Langley, BC, complained to the Speaker of the House of Commons about an apparent breach of his parliamentary rights. Two days later, Warawa was inexplicably removed from the list of MPs chosen to deliver statements. 

(Ellie Slavitch / McGill Tribune)
(Ellie Slavitch / McGill Tribune)

Former Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber resigned from his position due to the PMO’s controlling behaviours over MPs. Similar to the other MPs mentioned, Rathgeber was unable to properly represent the constituents in his riding. As told to CBC reporters: “When you have a PMO that tightly scripts its backbenches like this one attempts to do, MPs don’t represent their constituents in Ottawa, they represent the government to their constituents.”

In an excerpt from Rathgeber’s book, Irresponsible Government: The Decline of Parliamentary Democracy in Canada, the former MP reveals how our governmental system works; the MPs who are submissive to the Prime Minister’s Office are doing so because it is the only way for them to get ahead in their careers.

MPs are often left out of policy-making, and are told who to vote for and what to say in public. Benoit, Warawa, and Rathgeber have all released similar statements regarding the issue of a controlling PMO, and it is clear that they are not alone. Should their complaints fall on deaf ears it would further prove that Canada’s ‘democracy’ certainly isn’t functioning like one.

Nina Morena
Nina Morena is a first year English Literature student. She enjoys writing and drinking too much coffee.


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