Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MPs choosing between constituents and party

B.C. Tory a prime example

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OTTAWA -- Canadians got a rare glimpse last week into just how much influence their MP actually has on the way government operates.

Conservative MP David Wilks, a rookie from the B.C. riding of Kootenay-Columbia, met with some constituents in Revelstoke, B.C., on May 22. The meeting was captured on video and posted online. This was done with Wilks' full knowledge.

Wilks was refreshingly candid with group members at the table, who were not Conservative supporters. They were upset the budget implementation bill contains elements that have little to do with the budget -- things such as cross-border policing powers, environmental regulations and immigration rules.

Wilks' constituents wanted him to admit the government had crammed too many issues into one bill, and that it should be split into parts -- with each part debated on its own merits. In a surprising move, Wilks agreed with them.

"I think you will find a barrage of Conservatives that do hold your concerns," he says on the video. "I am one of them."

While there are elements of the bill he likes, he has concerns about others. But he can't do anything about it. "Certainly it concerns some of us backbenchers that the decisions are made predominantly by cabinet and then they come back to us informing us how this is going to move forward," he says.

If he votes against the budget, he will be forced to leave the caucus and become an Independent MP.

That's what happened in 2007 to Nova Scotia MP Bill Casey when he voted against the budget, and to Liberal MP John Nunziata in 1996.

Shortly after the video was posted and made the rounds on social media, Wilks released a statement saying he did, in fact, support Bill C-38 and would vote for it.

Was Wilks trying to appease constituents at a meeting by agreeing with them, all the while thinking they were wrong? Or did the long arm of the Prime Minister's Office reach out to re-educate him? More importantly, who is Wilks there to represent? His constituents or his party?

It's not to say the dozen or so people at that meeting represent the views of everyone in Kootenay-Columbia. But Wilks' comments are proof if you aren't in cabinet, your purpose in Parliament is insignificant.

He noted he doesn't get to see the budget until the public does. The prime minister and cabinet go into a room and make all the decisions, and the rest of the caucus gets told how to vote.

Wilks was frank about the fact there are three kinds of votes: votes when caucus members are required to vote the way the party leader dictates; votes when caucus members are strongly urged to vote the way the party leader dictates; and votes when caucus members can vote however they want. But that third kind of vote is a mystery to him.

"I haven't seen one in a year, yet," he said.

Since being sworn in as an MP in May 2011, Wilks has never been told by his party whip he can vote on his own.

Lest one get the impression this is only a Conservative problem: Remember NDP MPs Bruce Hyer and John Rafferty, who were punished by interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel for breaking party ranks and voting to eliminate the gun registry? Hyer has since left the caucus to sit as an Independent.

The gun registry likely would have been eliminated in 2010 if then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had not cracked the whip on his caucus to save it.

Wilks told his constituents at the meeting the only way to stop it is to rise up in large numbers and convince their MPs to stand up to the government.

"If Canadians want a change, then enough Canadians have to stand to their MPs and say no," he said.

His constituents told Wilks that if all MPs say they can't do anything on their own and keep voting however their leaders tell them to, nothing will change.

"If you don't stand up and say no, it passes and if you do stand up and say no, it passes," one woman said. "But isn't it better to stand up and say no so you're representing your constituents and actually making a point?"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2012 A6

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