No matter what you think of the ongoing saga of Sen. Mike Duffy, it’s hard not to remember his sweeping indictment of the way Ottawa operates, especially his indignation at being told what to say by officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, or, as Duffy put it, the “boys in short pants.”
Hearing that line, it’s also hard to forget the words of Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber as he quit the Conservative caucus in June.
“It’s difficult as a lawyer and as a member of Parliament to find my role to be subservient to masters half my age at the Prime Minister’s Office, who tell me how to vote on matters, who tell me what questions to ask of witnesses in committee, who vet my … one-minute member statements,” Rathgeber said.
“I think legislators like myself have to take a stand … that we’re not going to read these talking points that are written by PMO staffers, that we’re not going to vote like trained seals.”
It’s an interesting question: just how much power in democratic governments should rest with the unelected hired help?
After all, voters across the country pick the representative they elect — they don’t pick a single one of the backroom political operatives who end up calling many of the shots in federal, and to a lesser degree, in provincial politics. For years now, more and power has coalesced in the PMO, with successive prime ministers (and yes, even similarly inclined premiers) looking and acting more like presidents than anything else.
They call MPs on the carpet, pull back extra pay and stipends, and silence them by taking MPs out of the rotation allowed to make member’s statements.
And for members of Parliament, in particular the backbench of the Tory party, it’s beginning to rankle.
Now, Tory MP Michael Chong has launched a private member’s bill called the “Reform Act of 2013” which, in part, seeks to strike at the unilateral power of the presidential-like office of the prime minister, putting control in the hands of elected members of Parliament.
The act would let MPs vote to remove the head of a party, and would enable district associations to have control over who gets nominated to run for a party. (Right now, party leaders can simply refuse to sign the nomination papers of candidates they don’t want to see running under the party banner.)
It’s not the be-all and end-all, but at least it’s a start, something that would limit the absolute control the executive branches of parties exercise now.
How does the Prime Minister’s Office feel about it? Well, all you really have to do is listen to MP Paul Calandra, the current Tory MP who stands up and speaks the necessary empty words when the prime minister doesn’t feel like answering anything in question period.
“Look, if you want to be a good MP, you want to do your job, you want to have an impact in this place, it doesn’t matter what party you’re in, you can. … You want to be lazy, and you want to blame other people for your inability to get things done, you can also be that type of MP.”
Exactly. Dismiss and deny.
Sit, Paul, sit. Roll over.
And stand, Michael Chong, stand. After all, that’s what we thought we were electing MPs to do.