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Opinion

Independent MPs can use their influence in next Parliament to empower backbench MPs

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Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, the two high-profile former cabinet ministers who had a falling out with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the handling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal and were expelled from the party, announced last week they would seek re-election as Independent candidates in the Oct. 21 election. Since forming government after the 2015 election, the Trudeau Liberals have broken a number of electoral promises and have made numerous unforced mistakes, including the SNC-Lavalin affair. But if the Liberals lose the upcoming election, the SNC-Lavalin scandal would be one of the key reasons for the defeat.

Depending on one’s political beliefs, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott were either the political martyrs who were punished for taking a principled stand, or are the two who stabbed their own leader in the back. Regardless, both made headlines, have became household names, and have become the critical factor in the Liberal Party’s drop in public opinion polls.

Although it’s an uphill battle for Independent candidates to win an election, according to most pundits, Ms. Wilson-Raybould will most likely win her riding, although it’s unclear if Ms. Philpott will. These two are not your run-of-the-mill Independents. Assuming one or both win their riding, they can make an important contribution in the upcoming House, especially if it’s a mirnoity government where each vote counts.

The next election is four months away, and as they say, a week is a lifetime in politics, so anything can happen between now and Oct. 21. But, based on the most recent national public opinion polls, the next government will likely be a minority government. In that case, Independent MPs like Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott will have significant political clout on important national issues. All Independent MPs in the next Parliament can use their influence to push the governing party to do the right thing on defining issues of the day, including, climate change, the economy, and Indigenous affairs.

But one important issue that they can make a huge difference on is the empowerment of the government and opposition backbench MPs so that they could hold the government to account, and quit being trained seals, or cheerleaders asking. Most new party leaders promise to empower backbenchers in their leadership campaigns but as soon as they become party leaders, or prime ministers, they do the opposite.

In their disagreement with the prime on the SNC-Lavalin affair, both former ministers complained about the pressure they faced from unelected senior PMO and PCO officials. From this, one can imagine how much influence backroom players have on elected officials. And if these PMO officials don’t let cabinet ministers take independent decisions, one can imagine how they treat the backbench MPs.

One of the most important jobs of a backbench MP, government or opposition, is to hold the government to account. In the daily Question Period, and other forums in Parliament, these MPs are supposed to ask tough, hard-hitting questions from cabinet ministers and the prime minister, but only opposition MPs do that. Government backbenchers willingly or unwillingly ask embarrassing “planted” questions to either praise their government, or to give an opportunity to cabinet ministers to self congratulate their own government’s work. Also, they are supposed to follow the party line on all issues.

Unfortunately, no matter which party is in power, all governing parties expect this from their MPs. With some exceptions, these MPs follow their party leaderships’ directions. These MPs are always worried that if they don’t toe their party’s line, they will not be allowed to be their party’s candidate in the election.

In the next Parliament, Independent MPs can help their colleagues in different caucuses to be more independent by making their support conditional if the governing party would pass legislation to allow MPs to take positions or cast votes based on their conscience, and not blindly follow the party discipline. Maybe, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott can lead the way.

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