Wednesday April 16, 2014




Backbenchers must better define their role

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There may be something worse than a backbencher who is not sure he or she has a role is in a government caucus.

It might be those who have become just a little too comfortable with the subordinate role that now so defines what a government backbencher does in our Parliamentary system today.

For all the grief that Melville-born-and-raised Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber took in 2013 for his less-than-glorious departure from the federal Conservative government caucus, there was something very refreshing about the move.

All too many Conservative government backbenchers — and, frankly, even a number of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet members — behave no better than trained seals barking on command. Evidently, Rathgeber concluded that there must be more to public life than that.

And maybe it’s a lesson that Premier Brad Wall’s own Saskatchewan Party backbenchers — who have also have developed the belief that they, too, are only there to serve their leader — should also learn.

Of course, like much in our system of Parliamentary democracy, it really didn’t start out this way. It sort of evolved … or perhaps in this case, devolved into the system we have today.

In fact, in the British Parliamentary system from which our Houses in Canada are modelled, the tradition was that it was the caucus who chose the leader.

Today in Canada, it’s the leader who chooses the caucus in that the leader can decided whether or not to sign an MP’s or MLA’s nomination period. And by picking his cabinet, the leader has massive control over a backbencher’s job prospects, leading to a life of political servitude.

Hopefully, Conservative MP Michael Chong’s Reform Act will be passed in some form so that the inequality between elected backbencher and leader narrows a little.

Even here in Saskatchewan, there was a time in the not-so-distance past when backbenchers had not only a greater say in political strategy and decision making but also a bigger role in serving their constituents.

Oddly enough, back in the days when being an MLA was not considered a full-time job (the pay back then reflected that reality), the leader was actually more reliant on his backbenchers for both policy and political input.

But MLAs on the ground listening to the people has been replaced by professional hired political staff, polling and focus groups.

And while rural MLAs once had more sway lobbying for schools and hospitals in their ridings or deciding where roads should be built, those decisions have been taken over by professional civil servants or professional political staff far more likely to have the leader’s ear than any single MLA.

That has made the full-time job of modern MLA as something less than a fulfilling job. Rather than being the bosses of the political staff, such MLAs find themselves carrying out the orders of the political staff … even when it’s sometimes to their own detriment.

Such was the case at a recent Saskatchewan legislative public accounts meeting when government MLAs three times rejected motions from NDP Opposition finance critic Trent Wotherspoon to have one set of budgeting books that conform with accounting principles. It was a reasonable request, given the Provincial Auditor’s condemnation that the 2012-13 books can’t be trusted because it doesn’t reflect the true $580-million deficit that we had.

But to allow even a rather even-handed, non-partisan motion to pass would have been seen — at least by Wall’s political staff — as an indictment of the Sask. Party government.

So rather than do the right thing which would have been to advocate more transparent and honest financial books, the backbenchers on the committee voted down the idea. What the Premier and his staff wanted was a far bigger priority than what the constituents that elected them might have wanted.

Sadly, all too many backbenchers know their modern-day role all too well.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.


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