Toeing the Line: The Dangers of Party Rebellion in Canada and France

The ‘Public Policy and Governance Review Abroad’, or PPGR Abroad, is a new initiative for 2014. Undertaken in collaborative with exchange students from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, it will featured policy insights and analyses direct from Berlin and Paris.

Sarah Wilson

On the day I moved to Paris for a four month exchange term at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, the French government dissolved. Recent wins by the radical right in the European Parliament elections and tensions over foreign policy, the stagnating economy, and the receding welfare state had led to unease over the health of the French political left. However, the reason behind the government’s dissolution was two (now former) ministers, Arnaud Montebourg and Benoit Hamon, publicly straying from party lines. The Prime Minister promptly offered up his cabinet’s resignation, then reassembled the group — minus the two errant politicians and a third who voiced her support for them via Twitter.

A brief backgrounder: the French system is semi-presidential, meaning that the President shares executive power with his or her appointed Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and the cabinet exercise legislative authority through the National Assembly (the lower house), and the President needs majority support from the National Assembly to remain in power.

Current President Francois Hollande of the Parti Socialiste (PS) is incidentally the most unpopular one in recent history; his approval rating stands at just 13 per cent. The Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a self-identified third-way leftist in the same vein as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, fares a bit better in popular opinion — but then again, he’s new.

Montebourg and Hamon, the then-finance and education ministers respectively, publicly disagreed with Hollande’s German-style austerity and pro-business approach to kick-starting the flat-lining French economy. This revealed deeper divisions within the Left, as a faction known as the “Frondeurs” increasingly voiced their dissatisfaction with the PS’s drift towards the political centre. This debate has continued into the fall. The economy has stayed relatively stagnant, and the government has introduced reforms to childcare benefits, income tax, and unemployment insurance, with broader reforms to the social assistance program in the pipeline.

In the Canadian context, Aaron Wherry of Maclean’s has dubbed comparable shows of party rebellion the “Rathgeber Experiment.” Former-Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber became an Independent MP when the Conservative caucus voted to amend his private member’s bill in 2013. Rathgeber claimed the vote was whipped, accusing the PMO of a “lack of commitment to transparency and open government.” Since becoming an independent backbencher, Rathgeber has voted out of step with the majority of the Conservative caucus 38.1 per cent of the time, with mixed support for NDP, Liberal, and Conservative bills. Wherry compares this with “next most rebellious” Michael Chong’s 1.5 per cent, and most rebellious British MP Philip Holloborne’s 19.5 per cent.

Yet contrary to popular belief, questions of how constrained MPs are (or should be) by party lines is not exclusive territory of the Conservatives. Justin Trudeau’s announcement earlier this year that all Liberal MPs would have to vote against motions limiting abortion rights prompted widespread debate and protest within members of his caucus. More recently, his stance of non-support for Canadian air strikes on ISIS targets in Iraq drew public concern from a number of high-profile former Liberal MPs.

Elizabeth May and Bruce Hyer of the Green Party voted on opposite sides of this same issue, drawing criticism from NDP MP Charlie Angus (Elizabeth May in turn denounced his stance as “mindlessly partisan” and tribal”). Bruce Hyer himself quit the NDP after being disciplined for voting against the long-gun registry in 2012.

The French and Canadian political systems are structurally and historically distinct. The French vote directly for the President, granting him or her a stronger mandate to set political direction; in Canada, Members of Parliament represent their constituency and should in theory do so freely. Yet while theoretical checks exist, both the Prime Minister of Canada and the President and Prime Minister of France command more influence by convention than is constitutionally mandated. Party unity is historically assumed. Strong, centralized leadership is indeed crucial in expediting decision-making and building coherent national positions (particularly in the federal context), but at what cost to representative democracy?

Perhaps one determining factor is the issue at hand. Is it more important for parties to be unanimous on war than on social policy? The Frondeurs openly disagree with Valls’s liberal socialism, but Montebourg was only summarily dismissed when he criticized fiscal policy. Does a similar boundary exist in Canada, where a lack of support for the budget constitutionally triggers a federal vote of no-confidence?

There might also be a difference between the types of rebellion. Canadian MP Irwin Cotler has twice abstained from key votes on foreign policy on reasons of principle. Dissenting votes and public remarks pose different threats to party power, and their respective censorship has different implications. Even in the British Parliament, where there is far less assumption of automatic party unity, it is unofficial policy for backbenchers to abstain from minor votes on which they differ from their party majority. A member who defies the party line on a crucial debate, or a “three-line whip”, is conventionally expelled from the party.

Questions of free votes and public debate are increasingly relevant as global public trust in government hits all-time lows, transparency and accountability become the new standards for private and public sector business alike, and decentralized forms of governance and entrepreneurship gather support – and evidence of success. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the most unpopular French President since World War II and a Prime Minister last elected on 39.6 per cent of the popular vote continue to set the agenda, with little and quickly sanctioned exceptions.

Sarah Wilson is in her second year at the School of Public Policy and Governance and is studying at Paris’s Sciences Po School of International Affairs for the fall semester. Sarah’s policy interests lie in social policy, affordable housing, and systems collaboration. Having just finished her summer co-op placement with the Ontario Public Service at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, she is interested in comparing how innovation in social policy and service delivery is enabled and challenged in different local and national political contexts. She is also excited about the patisseries and the long walks through Paris.

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