Loose fish

While some people who run as independent candidates do so to raise awareness about a particular issue or to thumb their nose at a party that did not want them, most put themselves forward as serious candidates. Either way, success is a long shot: only a handful of independent candidates has been elected to the House of Commons since 1974.

However, with the simultaneous announcements early this month by Jody Wilson Raybould and Jane Philpott that they will run as independents in the upcoming federal election, perhaps a sea-change is upon us.

James Di Diori writes:

“The very concept of public service becomes swallowed inside a mentality that only serves the internal interests of the Liberals, or the Conservatives, or the NDP. It doesn’t have to be this way. The time may be upon us for an insurgence of independent candidates to stake their claim inside the political arena.”

A little history

Prior to Confederation, independent politicians in government were known as “loose fish.” They operated outside the existing political structures and, when the party system came into favour, their numbers decreased.

Since then, most often independent candidates are former members of political parties who – like JWR and JP – were kicked out for one reason or another, although there have been occasional independents who have never been affiliated with an official political party. Perhaps the most notable of these was Arthur Andre, a radio host turned politician, who was a Quebec MP from 2006 to 2011. He ran as an independent, espousing a mix of federalist and libertarian principles.

The most recent independent MP was Nova Scotian Bill Casey. Originally a member of the Conservative caucus, he was expelled by PM Stephen Harper in 2007 when he voted against the budget. He was re-elected as an independent in 2008, but resigned a year later to take on other work and was later elected again, this time as a Liberal.

While he was successful when he ran as an independent, Casey notes that he faced a number of hurdles, starting with financing for his campaign:

“The system is unfair. It is stacked against independents.”

Speaking their truth to power

JWR and JP became household names over the winter, thanks to the PM’s mishandling of the SNC-Lavalin matter. Eventually booted from the Liberal caucus, they both currently sit as independents in the House of Commons. After being wooed by Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, who offered to step aside as leader to make room for them, the two announced their intentions to each run as independent candidates in the ridings they now serve.

Most of JP’s Liberal riding association executive had abandoned the party soon after she was kicked out of the caucus.  JWR’s executive followed suit once she announced her candidacy. Both the current and former chairs have left the riding association and joined her campaign.

While it is much too early to predict how they will each do in the election, polls conducted by Mainstreet Research in the days following their announcements show JWR holding a narrow lead in the Vancouver-Granville riding, while JP trails both the Liberals and Conservatives in her Markham-Stouffville riding.

Doing politics differently

In making their announcements, both JWR and JP got down to brass tacks quickly:

JP commented:

“But I also saw dysfunction in Ottawa. I saw how time, money and energy are wasted with political games and partisan efforts to gain or retain power rather than focusing limited resources on building a better country. I was dismayed at how little cross-party collaboration takes place. I saw the disconnect between citizens and those who govern them. . . . Decisions about how MPs vote and what they say in public are directed in large measure by un-elected political staff.”

JWR had this to say:

“[I]t has also become very apparent to me and to many other Canadians that there can be, and must be, a different way of doing politics that reflects where our country needs to go. . . And there is still work to be done to ensure our democracy evolves and continues to advance and respect the rule of law.”

They both identify climate change and purposeful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples as top election platform issues. They are committed to working for change to the electoral process. They talk about working across party lines as independent politicians who answer to their constituents.

As JWR put it:

“And when I say ‘independent,’ I mean it in the true meanings of the word – ‘free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority’ and ‘not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence.’ ”

Power to the women

There are challenges for independents, both in getting elected and then in playing a meaningful role if they make it to the House of Commons. Independent MPs don’t get to sit on committees, have no caucus to meet with to hash out ideas and have few opportunities to speak in the House. They don’t have access to the staff that MPs who sit as part of a caucus do.

However, in a minority government situation, which seems to be a real possibility for Canada after this election, JWR and JP, if elected, could hold considerable power, especially if their friendly relationship with the Green Party continues. They may not just be two lone voices but rather the voices that bring the government together across party lines in a way that has not been possible before.

It’s a big gamble, but the system as it is now set up is not working to address the critical issues the country is facing, so perhaps it is time to take that gamble. As Di Diori concludes his HuffPost article:

“If we can begin a transformational process of placing candidate before party, progress before status quo, then perhaps the quality of our representation will follow.”

If you want to support this brave new venture, consider making a donation to the campaigns of both JWR and JP. It’s a risk, but so is playing the game the same old way one more time.

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