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The dangers of discipline

After nine years of covering politics in British Columbia, journalism professor Sean Holman knows a thing or two about how government works. But even after covering the policy beat for almost a decade, with more than 6000 stories and founding a long-running website, he was shocked by the absence of debate and the preeminence of party discipline inside the legislature.

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Whipped creator and professor Sean Holman.
Taking the seed of an idea that began in BC with him to his new position at Mount Royal in 2012, Holman produced, directed, wrote and edited a documentary entitled Whipped, an investigation into the secret world of party discipline.

Debate denied

Screened in Victoria, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo and Thunder Bay as well as airing on the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC), Whipped has touched a nerve in the academic and political community for its articulation of the impact of party discipline on democracy and governance in Canada.

“When I started covering the legislature, I realized quickly that the debates on the floor didn’t matter,” says Holman. “If your party has the majority of the seats, they can essentially do whatever they want.

“What I discovered was that the real debate was happening behind closed doors, before the legislation even reached the floor. Caucus and cabinet confidentiality is so powerful that our system of government ultimately rests upon decision-making that happens in private and as a consequence our elected representatives often don’t have a chance to represent their constituents.”

Disagreement deferred

Using real-world examples from his time at the BC Legislature, Holman uses footage of debates and interviews with current and former members of government to shine a light on an all-too common occurrence in politics – when an MLA or MP disagrees with the government and they swallow their concerns because of enforcement within the ranks.

Holman notes that these stories are rarely highlighted, and being able to show the public the impact of party discipline is what makes Whipped so special.

“Under the BC Liberals, then-Attorney General Geoff Plant introduced the Safe Streets Act, a piece of legislation that was supposed to crack down on panhandling . Plant was the minister responsible for introducing and tabling the legislation, but what the public didn’t know was that Plant was personally opposed to the act. Speaking to him about why he had to support a piece of legislation an how that played out was impactful.”

Democracy derailed

Audience reaction to Whipped has ranged from outright shock to resigned acceptance; Holman credits the diversity of reactions as a sign of the relative immaturity of Canadian political culture. While many citizens have an understanding that party discipline has an impact on how government operates, the impact on freedom and democracy is not as widely known.

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Whipped uses real-life examples to illustrate the impact of party discipline on the democratic process.

“I suppose that it is easy after watching the film to see party discipline as a negative force, but party discipline exists because it is a reflection of our culture,” says Holman. “What would happen if your MLA or MP broke ranks to vote against balancing the budget, same sex marriage, addressing climate change or capital punishment?

It’s easy when Canadians have a choice between freedom and another democratic value, they would pick the latter. When I took a look at all of the votes at the BC Legislature between 2001 and 2012, just 0.25% of all votes broke ranks with their party. The effect of party discipline has become so normalized that Canadians don’t question it.”

A documentary that delivers

And Whipped is hardly done, with Holman attending a screening in Cranbrook on Sept. 26 and with more screenings both in Journalism classes at Mount Royal and elsewhere planned. Holman hopes to continue to screen the film and continue the conversation while teaching at Mount Royal.

“I've been very lucky to have a good impact with the work I've done as a journalist; I’ve got policies and laws changed and make a difference in the world,” says Holman. “I love teaching this stuff to the next generation of students.”

Colin Brandt — Sept. 19, 2013