Backbencher Uprising Could Refresh Tory Brand

Unruly MPs could keep Tory coalition intact, says pollster
May 15, 2013 Updated: May 15, 2013

PARLIAMENT HILL—Backbench Tories are shaking off their “bobblehead“ moniker, as one columnist likes to refer to them, and asserting views and priorities beyond cabinet’s agenda.

But what has been called, perhaps overly dramatically, the Backbench Spring—a rise of once-silenced Conservatives—could be just what the Tories need to repair the party brand. 

The movement has raised suggestions Prime Minister Stephen Harper has lost his sometimes praised, sometimes maligned control over the Conservative Party.

It’s a control that some credit with securing successive Conservative wins and avoiding the kind of embarrassing gaffes that have sunk provincial conservative parties or hurt Harper’s party in the past. B.C.’s Conservative Party saw its fortunes plummet in this week’s election after several candidates had to be turfed over inappropriate remarks.

But tight reins have translated into stiff, repetitive talking points and an oddly uniform Conservative caucus. It’s a situation that has raised questions about the demise of MPs’ independence and ability to represent their constituents. 

Reversing that trend could help the Conservatives down the road, say experts.

“Allowing a broader platform for debate is a good strategy for the Conservatives, in creating a big tent so to speak,” said Nik Nanos, president and CEO of Nanos Research, best known for its public opinion polls.

“It’s important for conservatives to allow those views to be aired, because part of their winning coalition is people that practice their faith,” notes Nanos.

Suppressing Abortion Debate

That point rings true in light of reports during the annual March for Life pro-life protest that took place on Parliament Hill on May 9. Some social conservatives in attendance were disappointed with Harper’s suppression of the abortion debate. MP Mark Warawa spearheaded the backbench challenge over not being allowed to make a statement about sex selective abortion and found support from fellow Tory MPs looking for more room to express their views. 

Raising the abortion issue may open the Tories to opposition attacks alleging they are re-opening the abortion debate, but it also cements their position as the go-to party for the religious right given no other party will raise the issue in any notable way. 

The Tories claimed a majority in the last election in part by keeping the vote of social conservatives in rural ridings while expanding their share of suburban centres with growing ethnic communities which also hold social conservative values.

If stifling those views costs Harper votes, then allowing them to be aired helps as long as it doesn’t cost him votes on the other end of the spectrum. In this case, Nanos thinks that is unlikely given most voters have now had a chance to form an opinion of Harper himself. Harper’s disapproval of any attempt to raise the abortion issue is also well established.

That may explain why the 10 Tory backbenchers that supported Warawa’s challenge for greater freedom to raise issues in the House of Commons haven’t faced the kind of censure that saw the Tories toss Bill Casey out of the party in 2007 for voting against the budget during a minority parliament. 

However, a more similar case with possibly similar consequences may be that of NDP MP Bev Desjarlais who opposed same-sex marriage and lost her critic portfolio for voting that way in 2005. She wasn’t booted from caucus, but her riding association voted Niki Ashton in to replace her as the NDP candidate for the next election, making Desjarlais the rare incumbent who loses her party nomination.

Nomination Challenges?

During the March for Life rally, Tory MP Rob Anders warned his fellow Tories could see nomination challenges themselves, and called on pro-life supporters to back them at nomination votes.

Nanos thinks it highly unlikely that the party itself could reject any of the backbenchers’ nominations, something it does have the power to do.

“Usually that political hammer falls when there is something inappropriate or criminal done,” he said. 

Nanos thinks withholding a nomination over the backbenchers seeking a greater voice in the House or raising abortion-related issues could hurt Harper more than it is worth.

“To not sign someone’s nomination papers over an issue of conscience is overkill,” he said.

In winning a ruling from House of Commons Speak Andrew Scheer that any MP could rise in the House to speak to whatever issue he liked during the time for open statements, Warawa and his supporters may have helped the Conservative Party reclaim some of its credibility as a reformer for democracy and transparency in the House of Commons. 

However, the way that was done could have been handled better, notes Nanos.

“In an ideal world, [backbenchers] would not be challenging the Prime Minister, and Stephen Harper would be, I would say, a little more generous in terms of allowing backbenchers to air a diversity of views,” he said.

Constructive Criticism

For one of the most forthright among those backbenchers, speaking contrary to the party line is as much a duty to the party as it is to constituents.

“I support the government, I support the prime minister unequivocally, but support doesn’t mean that I have to stand up and cheer at everything the government does,” said Tory MP Brent Rathgeber.

“By being a constructive critic rather than a yes-man, I think I challenge [the government] to perform even better.” 

Rathgeber said the role of backbench MPs not in cabinet is to hold the government to account rather than play lapdog. It’s a tradition alive and well in the U.K. parliamentary system, which Canada’s system is based on.

In some ways, a challenge to Harper’s tight control over the party was inevitable, said Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. 

Having every MP follow marching orders, especially those contrary to their own positions, is more realistic in a minority Parliament on a constant campaign, but becomes unlikely halfway through a majority as backbenchers begin to realize they’ll never see a seat at the cabinet table. 

“It’s normal, once a party has been in power and if it is a majority position,” said Wiseman.
“It happened with [Jean} Chretien and it happened with [Pierre] Trudeau.”

In the case of those two Liberal leaders, however, MPs seemed set on undermining them in hopes of getting a new leader, particularly when the party was falling in the polls—something Harper’s Conservatives haven’t seen to nearly the same degree. For backbench Tories, it’s more likely ideological, Wiseman said.

“I think what it is is some are thinking ‘I got elected, I care about certain issues, they are not on the government agenda … so I am going to start flexing my muscles a bit.’”

Despite that flexing, Wiseman notes Harper still seems to have the support of his caucus, which echoes comments made by the backbenchers themselves. 

Several of the backbenchers that supported Warawa, including Rathgeber, have gone out of their way to voice their support for Harper, sometimes blaming Chief Government Whip Gordon O’Connor for being too restrictive.