Any MP is automatically (and informally) known as a “backbencher” if he or she is not on the front bench as a Cabinet Minister or a Parliamentary Secretary,  or on the front bench of the Official Opposition. 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 Parliament by the people of Canada was not in itself a high office and a high achievement. At least, that’s what backbench MPs may tell themselves and anyone who will listen.

This underwhelming sentiment reflects, in large part, the ongoing consolidation of power over the last half century in the Prime Minister’s Office and among ministers. The weight (and threats) of party discipline also factor here. In other words, what influence – if any – do MPs not in Cabinet actually have? Just ask Pierre Trudeau. In moment of anger while prime minister, he said of MPs: “When they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, they are no longer honourable members, they are just nobodies.”

By playing down or ignoring the valuable constituency and committee work MPs perform, Trudeau’s putdown (which he quickly regretted) fairly represented predominant media attitudes toward MPs. This view 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.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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