Shortly before the 2009 election, the then–NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kensington stood up in the legislature and delivered a remarkable speech. David Chudnovsky announced that if British Columbians watched the legislature in action, they would be “appalled”.
“They sent us here to govern, and we don’t,” the MLA said. “Everybody who works here knows that the real governing takes place in the premier’s office with a few handpicked friends and advisers.”
He characterized debates in the legislature as a “sideshow”.
“The people sent us here to listen to one another, but we don’t,” Chudnovsky added. “They sent us here to negotiate with one another, but we don’t. They sent us here, every one of us, to advise the government, to take the debate seriously and to be taken seriously, but we don’t. That’s mostly because the debate hardly matters.”
Veteran muckraking journalist Sean Holman decided to include clips from Chudnovsky’s speech in the trailer for his new documentary, called Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline. Holman, who covered the B.C. legislature from 2003 to 2012, has managed to persuade former MLAs to go on camera and speak frankly about why legislators rarely vote against the wishes of their party.
“Because of the inherent secrecy of party discipline, we’ve never really, until this point, been able to know exactly why that is—exactly the dynamics that take place, and exactly the factors that keep everyone in that building from stepping out of line,” Holman told the Georgia Straight over the phone from Calgary, where he’s an assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal College.
He said that Chudnovsky’s 2009 speech “essentially summarized” a basic problem with the B.C. legislature: what’s said in the chamber doesn’t matter.
“You go down there and you hear countless hours of the debate,” Holman said. “And the fact of the matter is that none of that debate usually makes a difference. The last time a piece of government legislation was defeated in the house was 1953. To put that in perspective, that’s the same year that Joseph Stalin died and the same year that Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in as America’s president. That just boggles the mind.”
Holman mentioned several reasons why MLAs are so willing to succumb to the wishes of the party whip. A key factor, he suggested, is the “team-oriented aspect of provincial politics”.
“If you break ranks from that team, you’re essentially helping the other side,” he said. “So you better not step out of line or suddenly you become the enemy.”
Holman claimed that this keeps people out of politics who might be more likely to represent the interests of their constituents over the interests of the party. He added that many MLAs don’t have much influence at all on the government, which he called a “sad thing”.
“I think the biggest shock is the system works exactly the way we suspect it does,” he maintained.
Another of his concerns is the way that media outlets respond to MLAs who challenge the party establishment. They are often described as “mavericks” or in other unflattering terms.
“How we characterize the difference has the effect of preventing people from breaking ranks,” he stated.
Holman suggested there are different dynamics at play within the B.C. Liberal and B.C. NDP caucuses. He pointed out that New Democrats often recruit candidates for their idealism. But because the party is influenced by the labour movement, notions such as “solidarity forever” also hold sway.
“I think that creates a natural tension within the NDP that, to a certain extent, doesn’t exist in the Liberal party,” he stated.
He pointed out that if a government commands a majority in the legislature and it has party discipline, it can do anything it likes. And that disturbs Holman, who described himself as a “passionate believer in democracy and the role the media plays”.
“I really honestly think this documentary should be mandatory viewing for anyone who is heading into the legislature or thinking about heading into the legislature,” Holman concluded.