Any MP is automatically informally known as a “backbencher” if he or she is not on the frontbench as a Cabinet Minister or a Parliamentary Secretary or on the frontbench of the Official Opposition as an official. In other words, this term effectively describes most MPs of all parties.
Over the last several decades, the term has unfairly morphed into a quasi-brand of political failure – a sign that an MP has not made it to the front tier of elected officials, as if being elected to the national Parliament by the people of Canada were not in itself a high office and a high achievement. That’s what backbench MPs may tell themselves and anyone who will listen.
Of course, this is largely related to the ongoing consolidation of power over the last half century in the Prime Minister’s Office and among ministers, and to the sometimes heavy weight of party discipline. Pierre Trudeau, in moment of anger while prime minister, said of MPs: “When they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, they are no longer honourable members, they are just nobodies.”
Trudeau’s putdown (which he quickly regretted) actually fairly represents media attitudes toward MPs, playing down or ignoring the valuable constituency and committee work they perform. It represents a simplistic and largely incorrect understanding of the true power of a “backbench” MP – missing out on the complexity of the role, and the careful cooperation that must exist ultimately between any party leader and his or her caucus.
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