Political sociologists and social movement scholars have often commented on the overly broad definition of “political opportunities.” Many have called for specifying the nature of political opportunities especially so as to better operationalize and link political opportunities to policy outcomes and social movement mobilization. Indeed, political opportunity structure has referred to the more static nature of a country’s institutional arrangements (for instance, type of political system, electoral representation, etc.), to the more dynamic kind focusing on the presence of sympathetic party elites, party control of government and agenda setting.
There is a growing movement within the Canadian House of Commons to increase backbenchers’ voice which threatens existing parliamentary procedure. This change is a good example of how a specific aspect of the political opportunity structure (e.g., the influence of ordinary Members of Parliament) can, in my opinion, have long-lasting effects on agenda setting, issue attention, and outsider group access to government. It’s a change that might mean new opportunities for both insider and outsider activists.
As the Globe and Mail reports, a ruling last month by House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer essentially left open the possibility of Members of Parliament (MPs), namely backbenchers (i.e., ordinary MPs with no government office who are generally less influential in policy-making), to speak. Typically, in parliamentary systems, the party whip prepares a list of speakers with foreknowledge of the issue on which they will speak. Those not on the list cannot speak and this procedural rule has a growing number of MPs from all parties becoming increasingly vocal about allowing backbenchers the chance to be heard. As Mas of the CBC reports, Conservative MP Leon Benoit believes that Scheer’s ruling “reaffirmed that Members of Parliament should be allowed to speak on every issue if they want to as long as they can be recognized by the Speaker.” According to Conservative MP John Williamson, the ruling “affirms the Speaker’s authority over the whips, which was paramount, while putting the onus on MPs to stand and be recognized for a scheduled statement or indeed whenever they wish, including Question Period. I like that opening.” Despite the role of Conservative Party backbenchers in this movement, it does not appear to be a “conservative issue.” An earlier motion introduced by now Liberal leader Justin Trudeau would have stripped party whips of their power.
This change in parliamentary procedure represents an opening in the political opportunity structure especially because it creates a more favorable environment for backbenchers to act entrepreneurially on issues; not just any issue, but issues that the party may not prioritize or would prefer to avoid. Some MPs, like Conservative Brent Rathgerber, framed this procedural change as a transparency and accountability issue, suggesting that it would allow him to “ask a minister of the Crown to justify or to defend some expenditure, within his or her department, that falls in line with my motivation to ensure that taxpayers get value for money and that we move towards balanced budgets and paying down our debt.” But this kind of opening may also encourage entrepreneurial behavior by backbenchers on more controversial issues.
Back in December 2011, I wrote about the reopening of abortion in Canadian parliament despite the fact that the issue had garnered little political interest for more than a decade. The issue was first reopened in 2010 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper voted against a private-member’s bill introduced by Conservative backbencher, Rod Bruinooge; a bill that would have added new Criminal Code penalties for those who coerce women into having an abortion. In December 2011, abortion surfaced again when backbencher MP Stephen Woodworth raised his concerns over the existing definition of a human being as someone totally separate from the woman’s body. This put backbenchers at odds with Harper and the party leadership especially given that Harper had promised Canadians that the abortion issue would not be reopened. According to Galloway of the Globe and Mail, “reports that trickled out of the federal Conservative caucus after the party won a majority government last spring suggested that Mr. Harper had warned his MPs he did not want backbench moves to reopen the abortion issue.” Again, earlier this year, Harper faced a “mini-revolt” led by Benoit and Conservative backbencher Mark Warawa, who wanted to raise the issue of sex-selective abortion but the Harper government continues to be uninterested in pursuing these issues. Not surprisingly, backbenchers have found Harper to be “too controlling.”
Increasing backbenchers’ voice is not a partisan or ideological issue and it does not necessarily favor one party over another. Not unlike what Republicans faced with the rise of the Tea Party movement, this backbencher issue is more about party elites versus ordinary less-influential politicians than it is about conservative versus liberal. As I noted, it can be a problem for the government if backbenchers raise issues that are generally unpopular (outside their constituencies) or tangential to the government’s legislative agenda, regardless of the party. Backbencher entrepreneurship, for the lack of a better term, is a tool. It can either be used in an advantageous manner by the party establishment, for instance, to get around the slated agenda or campaign promises, or it can cause conflict within the party and within the government. These procedural changes can also have an impact on “outsiders” seeking access to the policy-making process. In a sense, increasing the voice of backbenchers helps to “parochialize” Canadian parliamentary politics so as to look more like the U.S. Congress. In so doing, it can open the door for movement and interest groups since backbenchers can act as new gateways or veto points in the political process.
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After writing this post, a variety of media coverage – from the Guardian to the BBC – has covered the rocky relationship between the Conservative party, particularly backbenchers, and PM David Cameron. I am referring of course to the gay marriage debate. Interestingly, it appears that whereas in Canada, the activism among backbenchers has led to a rethinking of Parliamentary procedure, in the UK, it has led to harsh words and animosity.