Some caucus ejections are different from others

From Thursday’s Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010 5:00AM EST
Last updated Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010 4:16PM EST

Gary Mason

Poor Raj Sherman. If only he’d been a member of the British Conservative Party instead of the Alberta Tories, he’d likely still be in caucus today.

Dr. Sherman is the latest politician to be banished from his party’s ranks for remarks deemed to have reflected poorly on his leader. The MLA from Edmonton refused to drink the health policy Kool-Aid his party was serving and instead joined his fellow doctors in declaring a crisis in Alberta’s emergency rooms.

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For that, Premier Ed Stelmach told him to get lost.

The previous week it was B.C. MLA Bill Bennett, who was tossed overboard by fellow Liberals over comments critical of Premier Gordon Campbell. A month before him, it was NDP MLA Bob Simpson who was told by his leader, Carole James, he wouldn’t be welcome again in caucus until he apologized for public remarks that were uncomplimentary of a speech she had given.

Political parties in Canada are much more uptight when it comes to abiding public displays of dissent. If politicians have differences with their leader or their party’s policies, they’re supposed to air them around the caucus table, not in the newspaper.

In Britain, backbench revolts are more common, and often don’t lead to expulsions. Part of it is that the British Parliament is so large – there are 650 MPs. The Conservatives alone have 306. Many arrive in London with little hope of being appointed to cabinet or shadow cabinet. Some are quite content to sit on the back benches and take pot shots at whomever they like.

“Their lack of ambition or lack of opportunity means they are much freer to speak their minds on issues and even vote against their leaders,” explains Kennedy Stewart, an associate professor at the Simon Fraser University School of Public Policy.

Rebel Labourites such as Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone are often held up as heroes by their colleagues and the public for their outspoken criticisms of their own party. In Canada, they’d be slapped down and sent to the political penalty box.

In our smaller legislatures, dissident voices stand out more. Anything a maverick says gets disproportionate attention from the media. But no two cases are ever quite the same.

As a physician who works weekend shifts in emergency, Dr. Sherman felt he needed to publicly voice his concerns over the alarming state of ERs throughout Alberta. Making his worries known inside caucus was getting him nowhere.

This wasn’t a politician who felt jilted because he didn’t get a spot in cabinet. This was someone who felt he had a duty and responsibility as a physician that trumped the imaginary oath of allegiance he swore to the Alberta Conservative Party. His ejection seems like a gross overreaction by a vulnerable-looking Premier who can’t seem to take a little honest criticism.

The dismissals of Bill Bennett and Bob Simpson are much different.

Mr. Bennett wanted Gordon Campbell gone as leader and effectively said so publicly. He followed it up with perhaps the most withering critique of a B.C. party leader ever witnessed in the province’s political history. Even Bill Bennett would have ejected Bill Bennett from caucus.

Bob Simpson was turfed after offering some fairly mild criticisms of a major speech Ms. James had given a few days earlier at a convention of municipal politicians. But he wasn’t really ejected for that; it was the last straw. According to Ms. James’s office, there was compelling evidence Mr. Simpson had been working surreptitiously for some time to undermine the leader’s authority within the caucus. Her decision was an easy one.

Of course it would be lovely if all politicians could speak their minds. But we all know why that isn’t possible most of the time. The media pounce on dissension and outspokenness like a cat on a mouse. We’re told it portends troubles for a leader when it happens. If a leader doesn’t do anything about it, we’re told it betrays weakness.

Most often, it’s those who are ejected who end up paying the greatest price. Occasionally, however, the outcasts become something else entirely.