A few more thoughts on Trudeau, abortion and the party whip

Why should any vote be free? Why shouldn’t they all?

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was asked again this weekend to defend his stance that Liberal MPs will be expected to vote in the House according to a strident pro-choice stance. In that interview with CTV’s QP, he was asked whether he might’ve decided to allow anti-abortion MPs to abstain from votes in the House—a possibility he dismissed, saying he preferred the clarity of his current position.

It’s at least an interesting hypothetical, but I’m not sure it would have saved him much grief. A demand that MPs who couldn’t tolerate the whip recuse themselves from relevant votes in the House might have still been subject to complaints that he was over-exerting his power. And a more pronounced split in the Liberal caucus would give the NDP more room to accuse the Liberals of insufficiently supporting a woman’s right to choose. Furthermore, if we’re dealing in hypotheticals, consider the spot Trudeau would be in if those abstaining Liberal votes were ever to be the difference between upholding the status quo and legislating some new restriction on abortion.

When I was writing this piece about Trudeau, abortion and the idea that some votes should be considered matters of conscience, I chatted a bit with Lauren Dobson-Hughes, who has worked on Parliament Hill and at Westminster in London, for the NDP and Labour, respectively (she’s also a pregnancy options counsellor and president of the board of Planned Parenthood Ottawa). Here are some extended thoughts from her.

Justin Trudeau’s intent to whip any vote on abortion (excepting current anti-choice MPs) has led to concern about a leader overriding an MP’s autonomy on a conscience issue . . . Actually, we’d be much better talking about the larger problem: whether the Westminster convention of conscience votes is itself outdated.

The labelling of certain topics as conscience issues, where free votes are allowed, stemmed in part from a narrow interpretation of morals—religious, cultural or societal. Party discipline was not appropriate because the values underlying one’s feelings were sacrosanct . . .

So is the concept of conscience votes at all relevant now? With a much broader understanding of values and morals, and in a multi- and, indeed, non-faith environment, is it appropriate to consider an MP’s feelings on these issues inviolable? Is it appropriate to allow politicians to duck responsibility for their positions by labelling them conscience issues? Is it appropriate for MPs, elected to represent many more people than simply themselves to make their personal feelings the primary consideration in a vote that affects us all?

Practically, in a modern Parliament, determining which issues merit this special but undefined status is fraught with subjectivity. Conscience issues are personal to each MP. There is no neutral referee. One MP’s personal values are no more valid, no more strongly held and no more sacrosanct than another’s. Beyond quoting various opinion polls at each other in an attempt to prove an issue “unsettled,” there seems no logical way to decide which votes get special status.

We’d likely consider topics such as abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia classic conscience issues. But in the past, divorce, shops opening on Sundays and animal testing have been conscience issues.

During the fraught debate on banning fox hunting in the U.K., many MPs considered it a conscience issue. In Canada, could a fiercely divisive topic, such as the long-gun registry, be a conscience matter? How about cutting funding for health care—potentially a life and death issue? Or climate change, or housing, or support for the disabled, or torture, or declaring war, or human rights? Surely, an MP’s moral position on torture is no less strongly held than another’s on euthanasia.

There’s always been a (generally healthy) tension between an MP’s personal views, those of his constituents, his party’s platform and his leader’s instructions. If we no longer consider conscience issues sacrosanct, it is hardly outrageous to expect a prospective MP to support the platform of the party under whose banner he runs. After all, MPs know what they’re signing up to. They have fair warning of the positions they’re expected to espouse. No, no MP agrees with every decision his leader makes. And yes, we can and should have a conversation about the rigidity of caucus discipline in Canada, the sometimes iron rule of the party and leader over our elected officials, and the fact that MPs often feel they can’t make a difference in our partisan system.

But broad support for the platform seems a given. If you don’t support a key plank of the party’s platform, don’t run for it. You don’t have a constitutional right to run for, or belong to, a particular party.

And it is hardly unheard of to find an MP who disagrees with a new party policy, or is elected under one policy that changes over her time in office.

Parties have measures to deal with MPs who can’t vote with their caucus. Yes, some of these measures are heavy-handed, over-applied and don’t allow for sufficient backbencher independent thought. Or they hamper an MP’s ability to scrutinize government and its spending. You’ll get no argument from me there. Most internal caucus division is just that: internal. Differences are resolved, overwhelmingly amicably. A consensus is found that allows the MP to balance her own views or her constituents’ needs, with the party’s position. And if a consensus isn’t found, then perhaps the MP doesn’t belong in the party anymore. This is politics 101, and MPs have agreed and disagreed with their parties since forever. They’ve crossed floors, gone independent, or been kicked out over all manner of issues.

But if a candidate runs for a party, in whose platform or at one’s convention, it is stated that she, for example, support a carbon tax, oppose deployment of troops to Iraq, or support equal marriage, is it really draconian and dictator-esque to insist she demonstrate this with her vote?

This consternation over whether a leader can impose the whip on abortion really should cause us to question the entire concept of conscience votes.

If an MP is elected under a party banner, to represent constituents and hold government to account, how does it help our cause to give her a get-out-of-jail-free card to sidestep accountability for her vote?

I think I see the wisdom of giving up on this idea of “conscience votes,” or at least I see a lot of reasons to quibble with it—at least if a political party has staked out a position and believes it to be a serious matter.

On the other hand, Andrew Coyne smartly flips this around and asks a useful counter-question: Why should any vote be whipped?

Even if you believe we could stand to loosen things up a bit, the difficult questions here are: How should we go about doing that and how far should we go? Here is a 17-year-old essay from Ned Franks that raises all sorts of questions about the general notion of free votes. We have to think not only about the ideal of freedom, but how specifically the system would function if party whips were mostly put away: How would MPs organize themselves? How would decisions be made? What influences would replace the influence of the party? Would we end up with a better discussion or better policies or just a more unruly debate?

Trudea’s policy on free votes is an interesting case, not only because he would whip votes on abortion, but also because he would whip votes related to the Liberal platform. Depending on how broad and detailed that platform is, how closely a Liberal government would hew to it and how broadly those commitments would be interpreted, it seems to me that could conceivably account for all the measures put before the House, save for private members’ business. Could backbench MPs—let’s assume that the cabinet must stick together—be given the freedom to disagree with at least some of the official policies of their party? That seems reasonable to me. I’ll repeat myself and point to someone like Brent Rathgeber and the example of British MPs. (Seriously, look at these rates of rebellion.)

But, generally speaking, I also suppose, a party leader who entirely ignores the views of his or her caucus or party members is not likely to last long.

Or perhaps we could worry less about the votes in the House and focus first on whether MPs have the freedom in House committees to think and act for themselves and amend legislation at that stage.

If there’s a single question here somewhere about Trudeau and his stance on whipping a vote on abortion, I suppose it is this: On what grounds should party affiliation bind MPs to particular positions?




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A few more thoughts on Trudeau, abortion and the party whip

  1. It initially seemed to me that JT had committed a rather stupid move by singling out abortion as a specific area where (initially) he would not allow dissenters to run as candidates and (now) will require anyone with differing personal views to toe the party line when voting. When it seems unlikely, with our current crop of leaders, that any bill on abortion will ever make it to the HoC to begin with, why would he make such a point of raising it?

    Apparently, it wasn’t as stupid a move as it first appeared – it’s pretty clear that JT knows how to play the media and grab headlines.

    Setting aside the abortion issue and looking at the larger discussion over whether, generally, to whip or not whip – my vote is with “not.”

  2. Mr Trudeau should take care not to trivialize the importance of conscience.

    No politician should ever vote against the certain judgment of his conscience or demand others should do so..

    However, there is urgent need for public education in the right formation of conscience. The longstanding philosophical concept of conscience is that it is a judgment of reason by which a person recognizes the moral quality of an act. Faced with a moral choice, a well-formed, truthful conscience can formulate a right judgment according to reason and in conformity with what is truly good. On the other hand, an ill-formed conscience can deliver erroneous judgments—particularly where issues are not explored honestly or where they are influenced by self-interest, financial gain, ambition, intellectual arrogance, or even an idealistic or emotional attachment to a particular course.

    Right formation of a conscience is critical to right judgment.

    In general, a true conscience is formed over a long period of seeking what is right and good. It involves inquiring,listening, learning, reasoning as objectively as possible according to principles rather than feelings, putting aside personal advantage, and giving the matter serious and prudential consideration.

    And when a truthful conscience is formed, it is the nature of that conscience that it is not easily bribed or intimidated or corrupted or changed. It is not susceptible to social conditioning and psychological manipulation by the dominant ideology of the day.

    It was an older infamous ideology that also made policy based on dehumanizing selected human beings in order to rationalize their termination. “We have a good conscience before the world when we eliminate life that is unworthy of life…”. (Dr Gerhard Wagner, Munich, September 14, 1936)

    A subjective conscience can deceive people even in high places. They can be deceived into contravening the most basic human rights—such as the right of each human being, irrespective of age or stage of development, to be protected by law from arbitrary deprivation of life.

    Every human being at risk of elective abortion is already in existence, belonging to the human family, and so entitled to the same human rights as all other members of the human family. Equality and non-discrimination are basic incontrovertible tenets of modern international human rights law.

    • My body, my choice. Not yours.

      • The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Article 7) declares: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

        Fundamental justice requires that elective abortions be recognized and treated not as idiosyncratic, personal ‘choices’ but as abusive practices, as human rights violations perpetrated by abortion ‘providers’ and involving the complicity of politicians, judges and others.

        Biology, embryology, fetal surgery, ultrasound technology, and examination of the human remains of an aborted child all tell us that this child, selected to be aborted, is a human being, belonging to the human family.

        Human rights are neither predicated on nor scaled according to size, age, stage of development or dependency, or degree of ‘wantedness’

        Under modern international human rights law, to be eligible for human rights membership, one has only to be a human being.

        This is the irrevocable legal basis of all human rights.

        • Equality is what it says. Women and men are equal.

          The fetus is not a person.

          • Equality is what it says: men women and children,” before as well as after birth”, have equal and inalienable human rights.
            The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has “recognized” that every child is entitled to “legal protection before as well as after birth”. (See UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child and UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)
            In the international human rights instruments, there are no such terms as ‘fetus rights’ or ‘person rights’. There are only human rights.

          • Emily; are there any limitations on abortion that you would support?

            For example; if a Woman had a one night stand, and then had ample opportunity to abort when she first became pregnant, but waited until late the third trimester; do you think that one should let her abort?

        • The UN declaration btw says no such thing.

    • You can repeat it all you want, but the charter guarantees the equality of men and women. Women are in fact 52% of the population.

      The state cannot medically interfere with men….or therefore women.

      I don’t know why you’d even want the state to HAVE that power. If they could force you to have a baby you don’t want…..they could force you to abort babies you DO want. China does that.

      The UN human rights bill is a man-made document….we aren’t required to follow it. But we do.

      If you’re so all-fired keen to save kids….18,000 of them die of starvation every day. Go help THEM.

      Or do they have to be white?

      • Emily, on Africa

        I think you are trivializing a very complex issue. Its privy to point out, that the most economically free countries in Africa, are doing the best, and have the least amount of foreign aid. These are the countries which have learned what a successful formula entails. Other countries which rely on Aid, are arguably worse off today than they were under colonialism.

        • Did they think it would be a rose garden? No.

          Everybody has trouble working their way up the ladder.

      • For Akiva Avraham

        People never seem to understand why a woman has an abortion.

        Women don’t go out partying, get pregnant, and then 8 months down the road change their minds. I realize there are idiots in the world …..but no, that doesn’t happen.

        If a pregnancy is possible and accidental….and many are…then there is the morning-after pill.

        If it’s in the first few months of a pregnancy…then there is RU 486 which aborts it. You can get it from a pharmacy, the web….or on the nearest street corner if you need to.

        Other abortions are usually because of a deformity …brain outside the skull or no brain, conjoined twins, missing organs we can’t replace, genetic problems we don’t know how to overcome, dying in the uterus…things like that.

        They are usually discovered early on and the fetus is aborted because it’s not viable. Late-term abortions are usually ones where a deformity wasn’t spotted in time. Such patients, and they are few, are sent to the US for treatment.

        A fetus isn’t viable until at least 21 weeks, and even then it’s dicey. Doctors don’t try to save such early preemies. The regular ones are hard enough, and often have life-long medical problems.

        The thing is….we can’t stop any woman aborting. No matter what laws we pass. We never have.

        Nor should we want to….it’s dangerous to let the state own your body.

        It’s amazing to me how worked up people get over something this big >> . << and yet infanticide [after the baby is born] is quite legal.

  3. Andrew Wherry: “If there’s a single question here somewhere about Trudeau and his stance on whipping a vote on abortion, I suppose it is this: On what grounds should party affiliation bind MPs to particular positions?”

    This is so simple. Don’t drink the kool-aid of confusion originated in religious circles.

    Western countries have been changing their criminal code(s) for decades from enforcing religious moral edicts to allowing the individual to make moral conscience decisions. Rather than the state. The issues which have moved criminal law have proven that criminalizing certain activities does more real harm in society than good. So in 1969 abortion was made legal in Canada for therapeutic purposes. When Morgentaler brought forth evidence that these abortion panels were arbitrary, too slow for pregnant women in distress, etc. things changed. When Bedford vs. Canada showed that prostitution itself is not so inherently dangerous as to warrant the state harm of criminalization, the courts agreed. Some people get wrongfully convicted for murder and they can’t be brought back. Justin Trudeau said, let’s see what the issues are in the future.

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