OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper is facing a mini-revolt among Conservative backbenchers who claim their own party is muzzling their ability to speak out in Parliament.
Mark Warawa complained Tuesday that stifling party discipline is preventing him from representing his Langley, B.C., constituents in the House of Commons.
He asked Speaker Andrew Scheer to intervene in what he called a breach of his privileges as an MP.
Warawa’s complaint was echoed by another Conservative backbencher, Alberta MP Leon Benoit, and backed by a third, Winnipeg’s Rod Bruinooge.
Their concerns revolve around their ability to take part in the 15-minute period each day set aside for members’ statements, known as S.O. 31s.
Warawa said he was on the Tory roster to make a statement last Thursday but was informed moments before that he’d been struck from the list.
“The reason I was given was that the topic was not approved of,” he told the Commons.
Benoit said the same thing has happened to him, more than once.
“I want to say that I too feel that my rights have been infringed on by members of the party because I am not allowed to speak on certain topics in S.O. 31s,” he said.
“I have had S.O. 31s removed and I have been told that if I have one on a certain topic I simply will not be given S.O. 31s.”
Neither Warawa nor Benoit specified what topics they’ve been prohibited from speaking about. Neither could be reached immediately for clarification.
But it’s likely Warawa’s banned statement involved his motion calling on the Commons to condemn the practice of sex-selective abortion, which earlier the same day had been deemed non-voteable by the sub-committee that oversees private member’s business.
The decision spared Harper, who has vowed not to re-open the abortion issue, the spectacle of another embarrassing split in Conservative ranks over the explosive issue.
Warawa is appealing the decision to the Commons procedure and House affairs committee, which is to hear his arguments on Wednesday. He has vowed to appeal, if necessary, to the Speaker, who could order a rare secret ballot vote by all MPs to determine if the motion should be debated.
Members’ statements are supposed to give MPs a chance to speak about issues or events of importance to their ridings. Over the last few years, they’ve evolved into vehicles for scripted partisan attacks, particularly by the Tories.
Bruinooge sympathized with Warawa’s complaint, although he didn’t claim to have been muzzled himself. He noted that MPs in the United Kingdom, the mother of all parliamentary democracies, are allowed more freedom to speak their minds.
However, Government whip Gordon O’Connor urged the Speaker to reject Warawa’s complaint, arguing that it’s up to each party to determine which of their MPs will be given a chance to speak.
“Put simply, this is a team activity and your role is referee,” he told Scheer.
“It is not your job as referee to tell the coach or manager which player to play at any given time. That is a question for each team to decide.”
But Green party Leader Elizabeth May said that analogy “cuts to the core of what is wrong with parliamentary democracy,” suggesting MPs “are here as teams, as brands or colours and we are all to take instructions from our team boss.”
“We are not here as teams,” May said. “The principle of Westminster parliamentary democracy is that we are here as representatives of our constituencies and our constituents.”
Noting that political parties are not even mentioned in the Constitution, May added: “They are not an essential part of our democracy. They have grown to be seen as the most interesting thing going on and we have grown to see politics as some sort of sport.
“However, democracy is not a sport.”
NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen reserved comment on the matter.
Scheer said he’ll wait to hear other arguments before ruling on Warawa’s complaint.