To counter the notion that elected officials should merely be delegates and blindly follow the party line, I think all elected representatives should subscribe to Edmund Burke’s principle of representative government.
“.. it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
During the debate and vote on Bill C-38 I became very uneasy about political parties requiring their members to vote in favour of a party policy against their conscience and writing into their party policy phrases like “introduce legislation without a free vote” and “members shall vote in favour of.” Jack Layton did not allow a free vote and punished Bev Desjarlais for voting against Bill C-38 even though her vote was clearly a matter of conscience and personal religious conviction. Voting your conscience and religious convictions are an equal right to be protected at all costs.
The parliamentary system of government as we inherited it is based on the principle of representative government. Political parties complicate the system since their members are required by the party to vote in accordance with the party line on significant legislation, on pain of censure or expulsion from the party.
We have the United States as an example of what happens when party discipline is less important and voting against one’s party is more common, resulting in a dysfunctional government. The Canadian party system, because of party discipline, does allow the party which has the confidence of Parliament to govern.
I do not, however, think that party discipline should be so strong that it stifles independent thinking. In the last federal election all the Conservative candidates toed the party (Harper) line and didn’t debate issues. This is not good for democracy. Equally, the NDP establishment requiring party members to vote against their conscience is bad for our representative system. I have always looked closely at my local candidates as to how open they are to voting their conscience.
I like Thomas Mulcair because he was not the choice of the NDP establishment. I think it would be a good thing for him to work toward changing the NDP constitution to include Edmund Burke’s principle of representative government. It would make the NDP more democratic and more attractive to people who elect their representative on the basis of more than the party line and leader.