I haven’t responded to Ted Falk’s column in a while; the election call has led to more canned messages than ever appearing there. Even so, I went to http://www.tedfalk.ca today to see what he’s been up to, and was redirected to tedfalk.conservative.ca – his campaign page. The first thing that struck me about this page is that it is dominated by a huge picture of Stephen Harper. You have to scroll down to find a picture of Ted.
What does it say when a local candidate’s website is dominated by his party leader? It says a lot, and none of it is very good for Ted. Harper dominates Ted’s website because Harper dominates Ted. Putting Harper first, with Ted nowhere to be seen without scrolling down, says that Harper is more important (despite the fact that people in Provencher do not get to vote for him), that Ted is interchangeable with any other Conservative candidate, and that Ted is only an extension of Harper. Unfortunately, at least as far as his role as a Conservative MP goes, that last part is actually true.
Much has been said about Stephen Harper’s unprecedented control over his caucus and the government in general. Scientists, MPs, and staffers are muzzled, requiring approval for any press release or statements. Conservative candidates across the country are avoiding debates and all-candidates forums – at the direction of their party. (Note: Ted Falk has agreed to one debate, and I look forward to him honouring that.) There have been a few Conservatives outraged at this state of affairs, notably Brent Rathgeber who quit the Conservative party to sit as an Independent, but for the most part the Conservative MPs are happy to submit to this level of control. Former Conservative and now Wildrose leader Brian Jean recently responded to a question about Harper’s level of control this way:
I do not believe it is a tightly controlled caucus. I believe it is a tightly self-disciplined caucus, and I think you should quote me on that because it’s a misperception of who Stephen Harper is. He has soldiers that are disciplined and admire him greatly and will follow him into the battlefield because they believe in what he does. They are not whipped. Take my word for it.
So what’s worse: MPs whose leader tightly controls what they say and their ability to speak to and for their constituents, or MPs who see themselves as soldiers and have willingly given up their ability to do their job and represent their constituents for the sake of a leader they believe in? I can appreciate the loyalty they show, but they’re supposed to be loyal to their constituents, and they’ve abdicated that loyalty and duty in favour of their admiration for one person. Ted Falk is a nice guy, and I don’t doubt that he’s working hard, but he openly admits that he believes his role is to support Stephen Harper. He’s wrong.
The role of an MP is to advocate on behalf of their constituents to ensure that legislation and government programs meet their needs as much as possible; to communicate the concerns, ideas, and ideals of their constituents to Parliament; and to communicate to the constituents regarding the actions being taken and issues being discussed in Parliament. Conservative MPs are very good at communicating what the government is doing – they have staffers who write canned messages branded with party logos to announce every newly funded project, and they tour their ridings handing out big cheques to distribute government funding (especially in the lead-up to an election). Even their speeches are choreographed to ensure that none of them go off message when telling us about all of the great things they’ve done for us. But when it comes to speaking up for their constituents in Parliament, they are nearly silent.
Since January 2014, Ted Falk has spoken 42 times in the House of Commons. That might sound like a lot, until you consider that Elizabeth May spoke 315 times over the same period. Elizabeth May gets no special privilege for being a party leader; as far as the House is concerned, she is an independent MP because the Greens only had 2 (now 3) MPs. She speaks as often as any MP is entitled to. While not all speeches are equal, that’s still a significant difference. If Ted Falk could have spoken 315 times, or even just 115 times, on behalf of Provencher, he should have (and probably would have); raising your riding’s profile in Parliament is crucial to advocating for your constituents. But even though the Conservative party gets extra speaking opportunities because they are the governing party, they limit their MPs ability to speak on behalf of their constituents and tend to focus MP speeches toward partisan matters.
Added to this is the ridiculous truth that the large parties tell their MPs how to vote on issues. They actually give their MPs info cards with the House’s agenda for the day, with notations on how their party will vote on each item. MPs who vote against their party on important issues have been stripped of any ability to speak in the House, and usually end up going Independent so that they can continue to represent their constituencies. The Conservatives definitely do this, but they are not alone: the Liberals and NDP have even tighter party discipline, at least recently. So I’m not just picking on Ted here; Terry Hayward is also a great guy who would make a good MP, if his party would let him, but I’m not confident that they would.
This is one of the reasons I chose to run with the Green Party. I take representing my constituents very seriously, and want to spend my time as an MP in the House making sure that your interests are being served. My loyalty is to my constituents, then to Canada as a whole, and then to my party. I will certainly bring a Green perspective to my work, but Elizabeth May will not be able to overrule my constituents when it comes to how I vote (not that she would – this is a central Green value), and I will work to follow her example as someone who speaks on behalf of my constituents at every available opportunity.
Ted Falk is not the problem, but he’s also not the solution; his party prevents him from giving you his full attention. The Conservative Party of Canada is all about Stephen Harper, and individual MPs are interchangeable mouthpieces for him. The Liberals and NDP may allow their members to speak, but they still control how they vote. If you want an MP who can actually represent you in Parliament, there’s only one choice.