Like all MPs, Conservative David Wilks is back in his riding this week, attending to constituency work and meeting with voters.
On Tuesday morning, in a coffee shop in Revelstoke, B.C., in his riding of Kootenay-Columbia in the province’s southeast corner he met some constituents who told him they didn’t much like Bill C-38, the government’s controversial 425-page omnibus budget bill. The budget bill, you’ll recall, introduces changes to everything from the age at which Canadians will qualify for old age security payments to the process for environmental assessments of resource projects.
One constituents filmed a 12-minute exchange between Wilks and these voters and put it on YouTube. It’s remarkable viewing.
Wilks is polite and patient but seems to be frustrated to be defending a government bill he has “concerns” with and doesn’t sound too pleased with the way party politics works in Ottawa.
About the bill, one voter asks: “How can you pass something like that all in one fell swoop?
Wilks says, “I think you’ll find a [group] of Conservatives that do hold your concerns. And I am one of them.”
He goes on. “I do believe that [some provisions of the bill] could be separated out. However, having said that, as most of you are probably familiar with how Ottawa works, if cabinet and the prime minister [say so], then this is how you will vote on the budget. There is no argument. It doesn’t make it right. [but] this is what happens in Ottawa. It doesn’t matter what party you’re with.”
Wilks is asked if he and other Conservative backbenchers had any input to the budget bill. “With regards to the 425-page document, you saw it the same time the backbenchers saw it. We are not privy to it.”
Wilks explains that he and other Conservative MPs meet once a week on Wednesday mornings when Parliament is in session.
“We have about a 10-minute period in which we can speak to the prime minister. That is utilized every Wednesday,” Wilks says.
A voter asks Wilks, “Surely you have some conversations within your party and some kind of debate behind the scenes?”
“No,” Wilks says bluntly. “Certainly it concerned some of us backbenchers. The decisions are made predominantly by cabinet and then they come back to us informing us how this is going to move forward. At the end of the day, in my opinion, they’ve made up their mind and this is how it’s going to move forward. One person – one MP – is not going to make a difference.”
That, in itself is sad indictment for our system.
Before going into politics, Wilks spent 20 years as an RCMP officer in British Columbia towns and was good enough at his job that he was selected to be among the Mounties who served at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.
In 2000, Wilks retired from the force and he and his wife Cindy set up as small business owners in Sparwood, B.C. taking over the Sparwood Bowl and Billiards. By 2005, Wilks had impressed the 3,667 residents of Sparwood enough that they elected him mayor. He held that post until last spring when he took the Conservative nomination for the 2011 general election and won the seat that had been held by Jim Abbott since Abbot was elected as Reform MP back in 1993.
Those early Reformers, of course, were all about the grassroots, giving everyday Canadians more control over policy development and more control over their elected representatives.
It’s clear in those videos that Wilks is struggling to balance the belief that he ought to represent the wishes of his constituents with the pressures of party politics back in Ottawa. Indeed, he spends a considerable amount of time explaining “how Ottawa works.”
He explains, for instance, how votes work in Parliament, how each party has different kinds of whipped votes. A budget bill is, has been, and always will be a “three-line” whipped vote, meaning that every MP must vote along party lines with no exception. This is important because if a budget fails to pass in the House of Commons, governments fall and a general election is called. The budget is the foundation upon which all other government policy rests.
But there are kinds of whipped votes, including a “one-line whip” in which MPs are free to vote however they please.
“A level one [whip] is a free vote. I haven’t seen one in a year yet,” Wilks says. A whole year in Parliament and Wilks has never had the freedom to vote other than the way his party bosses want him to vote.
The video then wraps up with Wilks encouraging those who oppose C-38, the budget bill, to mobilize enough Canadians to put pressure on at least 13 government MPs to vote against the bill. This is a remarkable thing for a government MP to say because he must surely know that if that many Conservatives deserted their government, the government would fall and we would be into a general election.
Within hours of the video’s release, Wilks issued a terse statement that certainly read as if it had been written by his political bosses back in Ottawa: “I support [the budget bill], and the jobs and growth measures that it will bring for Canadians in Kootenay-Columbia and right across the country. I look forward to supporting the bill and seeing it passed.”
Here’s the two videos:
Shortly after these videos surfaced, Wilks issued this statement.