Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

An MP who can think for himself

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OTTAWA -- Green Party leader Elizabeth May held a quiz last week for any MPs willing to prove they'd actually read all of the 425-page omnibus budget bill in its entirety.

May was hoping to prove the trained-seal theory among the government backbenchers, many of whom she accused of voting on measures they couldn't possibly have actually read.

It is not fair to believe that just because no government MPs showed up, that it proves none of them actually read the bill. While some government backbenchers likely didn't read the bill from cover to cover, it's just as likely some MPs on the opposition side also missed a clause or two or 20.

Regardless of how well he thought they would fare, there was almost more of a chance Prime Minister Stephen Harper would compliment Pierre Trudeau that day than allow one of his MPs to take May's bait.

But that in and of itself, however, makes May's point.

The party politics in Ottawa are such that MPs have almost no independence from their party leaders. Even cabinet ministers are on such short leashes that many appear authorized to do nothing but deliver talking points prepared by the PMO. Backbenchers vote how and when told, and don't speak out against party policy at almost any time.

It is particularly telling that there was one MP who showed up for the quiz. Bruce Hyer, a Thunder Bay-area MP formerly of the NDP caucus, took and aced the 15-minute test.

He is also one of the few Independents in the House of Commons, able to think, act and vote without fear or favour from a party apparatus.

Hyer left the NDP earlier this year after he was punished for voting in favour of the government's legislation to eliminate the long-gun registry.

Now he's on a mission to bring some independence back to his fellow MPs.

Since becoming an Independent, Hyer has increased his national profile significantly. He can ask his own questions in question period, participate in news conferences on any topic and weigh in on matters that previously would have been reserved for the party critics. Although he doesn't get to sit on any committees, Hyer can still introduce amendments to bills at third reading.

All in all, he said, the last few months as an Independent have been the best of his nearly four years on the Hill so far.

"I feel far more effective as an Independent MP," Hyer said.

Hyer says at least half a dozen MPs from all other parties have bought him "a beer or a coffee" in order to pick his brain about the benefits of being an Independent.

Hyer is making freedom for backbench MPs a calling card of his time as an MP. He has introduced several motions and bills thus far on the subject, including one to allow MPs from different parties to co-sponsor private member's bills. That way, he said, private member's bills would be less likely to be seen as partisan business and could be debated openly.

He has another motion asking to randomly assign seats in the House of Commons rather than having all MPs from the same party sit together "like hockey teams." Hyer's thought is that MPs who get to know each other better are less likely to hurl insults across the floor and more likely to maybe consider motions and bills and ideas from their opponents.

He also has a motion to change the requirement for party leaders to sign the nomination papers of all candidates running for their party. Hyer said party leaders use those nomination signatures as leverage to get MPs to toe the party line at all times.

A threat that if he didn't vote with the NDP on the gun registry would risk his future nomination was the last straw for Hyer before he quit the NDP in protest.

Hyer said one of the downsides of not being in a party is not having access to the party research bureau or getting cheat sheets reminding what way to vote on certain complicated clauses in bills. But that often means MPs don't actually have to read all of the legislation they are voting on.

"It really shouldn't be that way," he said.

One can only wonder what kind of stimulating debate and interesting ideas Parliament might come up with if more MPs were able to think and vote for their constituents, and if more than just the PMO and the official opposition leader were calling the shots.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2012 A6

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