Skip to main content

Jeffrey Simpson: What to do with all those Liberal backbenchers?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet ministers now know what they must do. They have their portfolios, their deputy ministers and their mandate letters from Mr. Trudeau outlining what he expects of them.

Now, for the other 150 or so Liberal MPs: What do they do for the next four years? Keeping them occupied, happy and fulfilled won't necessarily be easy.

A big caucus looks great on paper. Early on, Liberal MPs will be pinching themselves that they made it to the House of Commons. They'll be eager beavers.

Story continues below advertisement

To their great credit, Liberal campaign organizers started recruiting candidates long before the election. Although the party hierarchy said nominating conventions were open, and many indeed were, nonetheless the party beat the bushes to find very good people. And they succeeded.

Studying the backgrounds of Liberal backbenchers reveals that many of them are people of considerable accomplishment. It will sound partisan, but it conforms to reality to observe that this collection of Liberal MPs, from an intellectual point of view, is streets ahead of the collection they are replacing on the government side of the house. These Liberals are not the kind of folks who will be happy saluting and cheering, and otherwise be told to keep their peace.

Let's be clear. Liberal MPs aren't going to be fomenting rebellions. They got elected on the coattails of their leader and their party. But they will want to do something in Ottawa beyond constituency work.

Keeping them occupied will be an important task for the people around the Prime Minister. If the Trudeau government tries to muzzle its backbenchers the way the Harper Party did to its MPs, trouble will inevitably break out.

Some Liberal MPs will be made parliamentary secretaries, which will give them more money than an ordinary member, and a little more responsibility. Others will be made committee chairs. One of them will be chosen Speaker of the Commons. A few will become chairs of interparliamentary associations. But even these jobs are not sufficient in number for all the Liberal MPs.

Some creative thinking might be necessary to put these people to work. Other governments have established caucus committees for particular policy areas. Maybe the Trudeau Liberals will try a variation on that idea.

For example, give the members from Atlantic Canada, all of whom are Liberals, six months to work up a plan for their region with the Atlantic premiers. With one proviso: If the plan looks or smells like warmed-over Liberal policies of the past half-century, their plan will hit the shredder before the Prime Minister is even briefed on its contents.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Trudeau promised a 32-part democratic-reform package, some of which involved giving greater freedom to MPs to speak and vote their minds outside the constraints of party discipline. This looser framework is supposed to apply in the Commons and in its committees.

It will be instructive to see whether the Liberals carry through with this promise, and, if they do, whether the news media will accept dissenting views within a political party as a sign of trouble or strength.

Parliament has been structured for so long to be almost completely adversarial, with parties imposing the tightest control on members, that the news media feasts on the smallest sign of dissent because dissent is "news." If, however, a degree of dissent is allowed within a party, and therefore becomes the norm rather than "news," will the media adjust the coverage?

If the news media do not – if they turn each dissenting voice into a harbinger of internal party turmoil and threats to the leader – then the experiment will quickly end. And if one party – in the first instance the governing Liberals – allows relaxed discipline in speaking and voting, will the other parties follow suit? If they do not, the Liberals might conclude their experiment to be like unilateral disarmament – great in theory, not so terrific in practice against a menacing foe.

Stephen Harper always worried in his early years as prime minister that some Conservative MP would shoot off his or her mouth and land the party in trouble. He therefore imposed an iron discipline on members and ministers that lasted until the end of his time in power.

If the Liberals do things differently, it will take some getting used to – for MPs, the news media, the civil service, the Prime Minister and the country.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter