Free our MPs to represent us
Independent Turner promises to lead the fight; voters should be cheering his effort at reform
Published November 16th 2006 in Times Colonist

We're with Garth Turner all the way. Anything that can be done to reclaim power for ordinary MPs and MLAs -- and take it away from party leaders and their staff -- deserves support.

Turner is the "maverick" MP expelled from the Conservative party, apparently for being too critical of the party on his weblog. There's room for debate about whether he went too far, although that discussion is hampered because the party won't say what comments offended.

But Turner's new campaign to break down the party stranglehold on the political process should find broad support.

Backbench MPs and MLAs are supposed to be the powerful ones in our system. In the distant past they ran for election as much on their abilities as their party affiliation. They chose the leader, and thus the prime minister. And the leader courted their favour, because they were also willing and able to dump him and select one of their own as a replacement.

MPs had to pay attention to the people in their riding to ensure their re-election. Leaders had to pay attention to MPs to survive.

Today the roles are reversed. The leader's office and the party have the power, in setting policy, strategy and even deciding who can become a candidate. (Turner can't.)

Backbenchers who want to get ahead -- even with the laudable goal of ending up in a cabinet post where they can do more for their riding -- have to win the favour of the leader to advance.

Discipline and loyalty count most. MPs' faces are turned to the prime minister; and, as an inevitable result, they turn their backs on their constituents. Voters then complain that their MP or MLA is more interested in representing the party's interests than in representing them.

Voters have the right to expect people who run under a party banner to share a set of core policies. But within that broad framework, elected representatives should be free to speak up on issues, especially ones that affect their ridings. How often have capital region voters heard a government MP or MLA speak out against a policy that hurts our community?

Turner says one solution is to elect more independents. He plans a private member's bill -- which are rarely debated and almost never pass -- to give Independent MPs a place on parliamentary committees and the right to issue tax receipts for political donations.

But voters aren't just electing an MP, they are deciding which party will form government. In a closely contested election, independent candidates will be squeezed out.

British Columbians will have their own opportunity in 2009 to consider -- again -- a profound change that might strengthen the role and accountability of MLAs. Proponents of the single-transferable-vote system of proportional representation argue that it would encourage elected representatives to put voters' interests first.

Under the system, supporters say, it isn't enough to win a nomination and then compete against candidates from other parties. Would-be MLAs would also compete with other candidates from their own party within a multi-member riding. They would have to be attentive and vocal on local concerns.

The next referendum on electoral reform will come in 2009, leaving time for a full debate on the merits of the proposed system.

Until then, Garth Turner can lead the way with his effort to champion the rights of backbenchers.