Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where is the Line?

Source: CBC NEWS: Alberta MLA Kicked Out of Tory Caucus Over Health Spending Spat

I know that when I started this blog, I said it would focus mostly on Federal Canadian and Saskatchewan politics, but this was an event that I figured was worthy of talking about.

Guy Boutilier, an Albertan Conservative MLA and former Cabinet Minister, was asked to leave the caucus apparently by Premier Ed Stelmach himself. So, what could this man have done that was grievous enough to make the Premier kick him out of the government caucus? Well, if you take Mr. Boutilier's word on the issue: He disagreed with the province dragging it's heels on a project to build long term care facility for the elderly in his riding and was vocal in his conversations with constituents about the issue.

As such, the ruling Conservatives decided that Mr. Boutilier could not longer be trusted to support and represent the government and promptly removed him from the Treasury Board and the caucus.

Now, for those of you who don't quite understand what it means to be removed from a caucus, let me explain. All parties in a legislative body are referred to as a caucus, which is effectively the gathered people of one party who represent their electors and the party within the legislative body.

When one is removed from caucus, they are effectively stripped of their party membership within the legislative body. So, Mr. Boutilier has gone from a Conservative MLA to an independent/undeclared MLA. I throw in the mention of undeclared, since it is possible that he may seek to join another party within the Legislative Assembly.

However, a spokesman for the Premier has essentially left the door open for Boutilier's return to the caucus, saying that any kind of reconciliation between him and the party is solely in Boutilier's hands. The spokesman then went on to continue to reinforce the government position, stating that Government MLAs need to present a united front in tough economic times by standing by government decisions.

The only crux to this argument is that the facility was approved 18 months ago, when tough economic times were already being predicted and making headlines. As such, I find it a little hard to believe that the facility was a cut back just due to this factor. Mr. Boutilier claims that the Alberta Health Minister also claimed that Boutilier's riding was 'youthful' and didn't need a long term care facility for the elderly.

So, once again, we find elected officials in a game of they said - I said. Obviously, this game has cost Mr. Boutilier a lot more than it has politicians who have recently been caught up in such games. (Brad Trost, for example.)

And now for the real reason I have brought this story up. A fine line was drawn by Mr. Boutilier's actions, a line that highlights the balance between representing your constituents and being fateful to your party.

Party politics is something that always risks taking over the way a government or opposition is run within a democratic system. You have competing forces vying for the same chance to run the country, and as such, co-operation is often limited. You have Government Bills that the party says all Government MPs or MLAs must support, or risk being removed from caucus.

You have opposition bills that have the same conditions, although they often revolve around not voting with the government.

What does this tell us about Canada's political system?

Well, if you listen to Mr. Boutilier, it tells us that constituents are fast taking a much worse back seat to the demands of the party. That our elected representatives are now too responsible to their party, so much so that they must ignore their constituents or face reprimands and consequences when they buck against the party in favour of those who elected them.

But it is important to measure a difference here. The Conservatives say Mr. Boutilier went too far in his candid conversations with his constituents, while Mr. Boutilier says he was just doing his job and being a good MLA. Right now, it's impossible to tell which one is telling the truth about the situation.

Obviously, there are times when an MP or MLA needs to represent the party over their constituents. For example, in the face of national media. We all remember Carolyn Parrish and her expressions towards American on national and international media outlets. In this case, she did not give her riding a bad name, but rather the party and government that she represented.

But where is the line when the MP or MLA is directly talking to their constituents? It is impossible to say whether or not Mr. Boutilier actually went too far with the information I have access to. It is also impossible to speculate whether or not he could have taken a different route to reach a better conclusion for himself. (Such as limited constituent interaction while privately consulting with the Premier, Health Minister, and others to push for the facility to be built, while still telling constituents that he was working on the issue.)

In closing, what we've seen here is the ultimate crime of the political landscape: The needs of the party put before the needs of the people. The Conservatives have been in power in Alberta for a long time, and perhaps that has clouded their judgment on how to interact with their constituents. After all, the odds of a Conservative getting elected in Alberta are incredibly good just because they carry the banner of being a Conservative; so, how hard do they really have to work to get re-elected?

Sadly, that last statement is true across Canada. We've seen ridings held by Federal MPs who have done nothing for the riding while continuing to get re-elected simply because they are a certain political stripe or the incumbent.

I've said it once, and I'll say it again: Until we demand better from our politicians, we'll never see any real or true progress in this country. We've grown too complacent in sticking with the familiar, and in the end, it is the familiar that will abandon the people in favour of keeping the power they've already managed to get.

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