Liberal MP Wayne Long’s high-profile vote against his own party’s wishes in the House of Commons last week was a big deal in part because it was rare.
Such rebellion is rarer still in the New Brunswick legislature, where it’s almost unheard of for Liberal or Progressive Conservative MLAs to vote against their parties when they’re in government.
Why? It’s complicated.
That’s actually the reason some Liberal and PC MLAs give for keeping their disagreements with their own parties behind closed doors.
Their debates and dissents are complicated, they say — too complicated to be on public display in the legislature.
Both parties have established a tradition when in government of bringing all legislation to their caucuses, where their MLAs ask questions and hash out disagreements.
“You’re getting down to the nitty-gritty and sometimes I think it’s best that those things remain behind closed doors,” said Victoria-la-Vallee Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson.
“Sometimes things get pretty heated and I don’t think that’s something we really want to share with the public.”
PC MLA Bruce Fitch, a former cabinet minister in the Alward government, said the public would find the caucus discussions mind-numbing.
“People don’t realize or comprehend the amount of time and effort [between] when a piece of legislation is contemplated and when it’s finished,” he said.
If people saw those internal discussions, they might “catch on one phrase or idea,” Fitch said. “It could cause a lot of unnecessary angst or fear.”
‘Checks and balances’
Cabinet has an official, legal role in developing legislation. Bringing bills to caucus for review isn’t required, but it’s been happening for years. Fitch calls it “checks and balances.”
The Gallant Liberals gave backbench MLAs even more input by adding them to cabinet committees, which examine proposals in their early stages.
By the time the final version gets to the caucus review, “it’s pretty much impossible to be upset,” said Nigadoo-Chaleur Liberal MLA Daniel Guitard, the caucus chair.
Fitch said the municipal government reforms he introduced as a minister in 2011 and 2012 were tweaked as a result of caucus input.
“That was something that was back and forth various times at many levels,” he said.
Former Liberal health minister Victor Boudreau said there were “a couple of times” when initiatives he brought to caucus went through “certain adjustments.”
Sometimes civil servants take part to explain technical details.
By the time the legislation becomes public, “we’ve ironed out pretty well everything there was to be said about that bill,” Guitard said.
Boudreau said the Liberal caucus operates by consensus when it vets legislation.
“Consensus doesn’t always mean 100 per cent of the people are comfortable with 100 per cent of the content, but that’s the system that we have and that we try to govern with.”
In the PC caucus, Fitch said a single MLA could hold up legislation if he or she felt strongly enough.
“There were times when people would say ‘No, this is not going to work this way,’ and it went back to the drawing board,” he said.
Several MLAs said it was theoretically possible that, despite this system, a backbencher might break ranks — but they couldn’t imagine what the circumstance would be.
“You always have to decide as an MLA, ‘Is this a hill I want to die on?'” said Kent North Liberal MLA Bertrand LeBlanc.”But right now I don’t see anything on the horizon.”
Chiasson had to defend the Gallant Liberals’ 2015 decision to close the courthouse in Grand Falls, part of his riding. But he never felt pressure from his constituents to vote against the Liberal budget over it.
“I would imagine there would be that point in time where something could happen that would have enough of an effect on you or your riding that you’d vote against it, but I haven’t seen it,” he said.
Long wasn’t even voting on a bill last week. He was voting for a Conservative motion to extend consultations on proposed Liberal tax changes.
But those changes had been promised explicitly in the 2015 Liberal election platform, and Long was yanked from two House of Commons committees.
Boudreau says the obligation to follow the party line is higher when it involves a campaign commitment.
“That’s the platform you use when you’re knocking on doors,” he said.
Even so, Long earned effusive praise on social media for his public dissent — and citizens got to see for themselves that the Liberals were not united on the issue.
Several provincial MLAs say they’ve succeeded in getting government measures changed during the caucus review —with no similar public exposure.
Chiasson wouldn’t say what the issues were, but said “I was able to get some resolution” on some things he was unhappy about.
For voters, it means bills are introduced, debated, and voted on in the legislature, after all the real disagreements, compromises and trade-offs were dealt with out of sight.
“A caucus is like a family,” Guitard said. “We make a family decision at home. Would I share that with the public? I know we’re talking about public information because it’s a bill. It’s a good question. I don’t have an answer.
“There’s interesting debate around the table, and I don’t think it would serve the public any good to hear what Daniel doesn’t agree with, or agrees with. I don’t think it adds anything to the process. I wonder if it would just bring more fuel to the fire sometimes.”
Besides, Guitard said, “yes, I have concerns for my own riding, but I also represent the government of New Brunswick.”
Role of the MLA?
That’s actually not an accurate description of an MLA’s role. Strictly speaking, the cabinet —the executive branch — is the government, and the legislature exists separately to vote on government measures.
“If members are unwilling to exercise their authority as given to them by their constituents on the floor of the legislative assembly, there are no checks and balances on the power of the premier and the cabinet,” Green party leader David Coon said.
“The Liberals and the Tories like it just fine the way it’s been for years and years and years, where they keep control of their members, make decisions behind closed doors, and then go out to the public and everything’s beautiful,” he said.
“That’s part of the reason we’re in so much trouble in this province.”