Why don't members of the provincial legislature vote according to what their consciences -- or constituents -- tell them, rather than what their party leaders demand of them? That's the fascinating focus of a new documentary by Sean Holman, who spent years covering B.C. politics before making Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline. (You can watch a trailer for the film at the top of this story.)
The Tyee is co-sponsoring the premiere of the just finished film this Thursday, April 25, at 7 p.m. at UBC (details further down). The event, hosted by UBC's Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, includes a panel discussion featuring former MLAs Gordon Gibson, Harold Steves and Olga Ilich, as well as the documentary's director Sean Holman. I'll be moderating.
Holman, who founded and published the Public Eye online investigative political news site in British Columbia before becoming an assistant professor of journalism in the Faculty of Communication Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says he poured more than a year of effort and about $20,000 of his own money into making Whipped because it unmasks a key issue given too little attention.
"Party discipline gives a majority government the power to do almost anything it wants in the legislature. In fact, the last time a government bill was defeated was 1953 -- the same year Soviet premier Joseph Stalin died. The story about how that discipline works is the one big story I wasn't able to tell when I was covering provincial politics. That is, until now."
Slicing through the secrecy
Holman thinks citizens sense the system is broken, but few are aware of just how constrained their elected representatives are when casting votes in the legislature.
"I think many British Columbians are frustrated by the state of democracy in this province. They feel their elected representatives don't really represent them. But I think most British Columbians don't understand why that is -- and understandably so.
"The system of party discipline which forces MLAs to vote against the wishes of their constituents and even their own conscience is extremely secretive. Indeed, that secrecy is one of the cornerstones of our system of government.
"MLAs promise not to talk about what happens in caucus and cabinet -- the only forum where they are allowed to collectively speak their minds. That's why it was so hard to make this documentary -- getting past and present MLAs to speak on the record about specific examples of party discipline in action."
Lessons for Harper?
Holman's documentary, which echoes similar criticisms made by former B.C. MLA Rafe Mair in The Tyee over the years (including here and here), comes as Conservative MPs are in growing revolt over the iron control exerted over their ability to speak, much less vote, their minds in Parliament.
Here in B.C., says Holman, "It's not for me to say what needs fixing about the province's political system. Instead, I think what the people of this province need to understand is how that system actually works -- and then ask themselves whether they are happy with it.
"Are we happy with a political system where most MLAs only have a say in secret? Are we happy with a political system where MLAs are often unable to tell voters when they disagree with their party? Are we happy with a political system where government has the power to get whatever wants in the legislature?
"Because that's the system we've got."
Holman says the documentary cost approximately $20,000 to make. But, given the difficult nature of reporting on party discipline, he wasn't able to make a public pitch for contributions until now. Those interested in helping him defray the costs can donate by clicking here.
Three screenings of Whipped this week:
Thursday, April 25 (7 p.m.), UBC
Buchanan Building (Room A103)
Friday, April 26 (7 p.m.), Victoria
The Vic Theatre,
808 Douglas Street
Sunday, April 28 (7 p.m.), Vancouver
Library Square Conference Centre (Alice MacKay Room)
350 West Georgia Street
All screenings are free to the public. Suggested donation is $5.