A small step towards defending the rights of elected MPs from the Government of the day

Ted Hsu
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Picture of Ted Hsu[update, March 25, 2013: I have found one other instance in which the House votes by secret ballot. When a private member’s motion is found by the Procedures and House Affairs committee to be non-votable, the Member may appeal to the entire House. The House vote on the appeal is conducted by secret ballot.]

[update: I have not tabled my motion but am continuing to work on this and hold discussions with colleagues. The main obstacle, as expected, is that some people are  uncomfortable with secret ballots]

I have been talking to a number of people about how we could make Parliament work better for Canadians. To me that means allowing elected MPs to do their job of keeping tabs on the Government of the day.

In order to do that job, an MP needs some independence from the Government, from the power that Prime Ministers and indeed all party leaders have to a greater or lesser degree. In this post I want to talk about one small step that we could take to support that goal.

In 1985, the Speaker of the House of Commons became elected by secret ballot. One of the principles behind that decision, as explained by Audrey O’Brien (Canadian Parliamentary Review 2006 v. 29 no. 3 ) who is currently the Clerk of the House of Commons, is that the Speaker is the servant of the House. The Speaker belongs to the House and to neither the Government nor the Opposition. Therefore, the Government and Opposition should not be able to exert direct influence (i.e. whip the vote) on Members as they vote for Speaker. The secret ballot achieves this because the Prime Minister or other party leaders will not be able to know if a given MP voted one way or another.

Similarly, the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, the rules under which the House regulates its own proceedings, belong to the House. And so, using the same principle, votes to amend the Standing Orders should not be whipped either. Those votes should also be taken by secret ballot.

As an illustration, imagine that a Motion proposes to change Question Period, to make it a more valuable exercise but at the expense of making it a little tougher for Ministers to endure. I believe that Canadians would welcome this, and would not want the Government of the day to force its MPs to vote against such a change to Question Period. I believe, therefore, that they might welcome a vote by secret ballot in this case. Indeed, Michael Chong proposed his Question Period reform motion, M-517, in the 40th parliament, so this is not simply a theoretical example.

Votes to change the Standing Orders do not occur often. They also are separate from votes related to policy issues of the day, and so, while Canadians might be wary of any votes by secret ballot in the House of Commons, it might be a small price to pay for the opportunity to assert the rights of elected MPs and the independence of parliament from the Government of the day.

A side effect of secret ballots is that the Government might receive less support than the total number of its caucus members voting. I think that this challenge to the power of the Prime Minister is healthy. To retain power, you often need to make people believe that you have power. A show of defiance of the Prime Minister’s power through a secret ballot could serve as a “hack” (in the curling or track and field sense) from which healthy challenges to power might be launched.

Here’s a summary of the main points: [updated, Feb. 1, 2013]

The Canadian Parliament is under tight control of political parties at the expense of individual, elected MPs.

The Standing Orders of the House are supposed to serve the House. They are said to “belong” to the House. They belong to neither the Government, nor the Opposition, nor to political parties.

Votes to amend the Standing Orders should not be subject to will of the Government, the Opposition, or political parties (i.e. a Whip).

Therefore these votes should be conducted by secret ballot.

A lot of people don’t like secret ballots, but perhaps the pendulum of power has swung so far towards political parties, that it is necessary to assert the independence of MPs and of the House of Commons through the appropriate use of secret ballots.


note: I spoke to a reporter from iPolitics.ca today about this idea. The story is here: (though it is behind a pay wall)