Geoff Norquay provides “some much-needed context to the prime minister’s sensitivities on MPs making comments that question party principles, stray from clearly-stated policy directions or wander off with outlandish commentary.”
From the early days of the Reform Party in the 1990s, through the subsequent Reform-Alliance period and even after the formation of the new Conservative Party in December, 2003, a combination of unrestrained populism and ill-advised public comments by MPs on a variety of issues made Canada’s centre-right party the object of ridicule. These comments ultimately coalesced to become a huge barrier to Reform, then the Alliance and finally the Conservatives, ever being elected as a national government.
For the sake of those too young to remember, it is useful to dust off just some of those nuggets:
- Store owners should be free to ask gays and ethnics to move “to the back of the shop” or even fire them if their presence offended another customer;
- It would be acceptable for homosexuals to be denied the right to teach;
- Official bilingualism should be abolished, or at the very least, reduced in scope;
- Aboriginal self-government would lead to communism; and
- Nelson Mandela is “a communist and a terrorist … the politically correct Left-lib poster boy of today.”
Each time one of these gaffes emerged, the media rejoiced at their great good luck for having been given another object of derision, and the editorials repeatedly called on the party leadership to get control of the backbench, stop what the media came to call “bimbo eruptions” and stop scaring the voters. Otherwise, the party would never see government. While Preston Manning and Stockwell Day both worked to tone down the offside rhetoric, it fell to Stephen Harper to complete the job of instilling discipline in the ranks.
Geoff’s piece is an important reminder of the history and political calculus in play here. But I’m not sure any of it quite explains why Mark Warawa’s motion should be prevented from reaching the floor of the House for a vote or why Mr. Warawa should be prevented from delivering a statement in the House about his motion.
First, consider those cited examples. Discriminating against “gays and ethnics” is offensive and bigoted. Suggesting that aboriginal self-government will lead to communism is ridiculous and offensive. Suggesting Nelson Mandela was a terrorist is ridiculous. Does condemning sex-selective abortion rise (or fall) to a similar level? I’m not sure it does. And if it does, it is at least a sentiment shared across party lines.
Geoff notes the Prime Minister’s commitment to not reopening the abortion debate. As I wrote last week, there are some holes in the logic that that commitment should prevent backbenchers from bringing forward motions and bills related to abortion: at the very least, Mr. Harper is moving rather belatedly to impose a total ban, having previously allowed Stephen Woodworth’s motion to go forward. If the Prime Minister now wishes to shut down all such moves, he will probably have to threaten to refuse to sign the nomination papers of any MP who attempts to do as Mr. Warawa has done with Motion 408.
That there are anti-abortion MPs in the Conservative caucus (and, presumably, Conservative voters who hope to see restrictions on abortion in this country) is one reality Mr. Harper must deal with. The other, as Geoff notes, is that the opposition will attack him and his party for what those anti-abortion MPs say and do.
Since the Harper government took office, each time the proponents of limits on abortion have brought forward another motion or initiative, the response from the other side has been predictable: the Harper-haters tune up the fear machine and raise the spectre of women being denied the right to choose. And to Harper’s critics, the very fact of a Conservative MP raising the abortion issue is proof of the prime minister’s connivance. As the NDP’s Niki Ashton put it in the House last spring: “If the prime minister didn’t want a woman’s right to choose to be debated, we wouldn’t be here tonight.”
So the prime minister is caught. If he “allows” even the discussion of abortion, he has a “Trojan horse agenda,” as Ashton so objectively describes it. If he shuts it all down, he is a tyrant, preventing the expression of constituents’ views by their MPs.
This is, one imagines, the choice the Prime Minister sees. And it’s a fair reading of the possibilities. But then it’s probably worth those of us who generally champion the independence of MPs pushing back against the opposition’s framing of the situation. As I wrote last week, the opposition likes to have their mockery of the Prime Minister’s control and eat it too. They should be made to explain how they would have him handle private members’ business and how they would square that with the independence of individual MPs. Justin Trudeau, for instance, seems to draw the line at “fundamental rights,” which, in his mind, includes access to abortion. Does that mean he would whip the vote on something like Motion 408? How would those Liberal MPs who oppose abortion feel about that? How does the NDP square their opposition to Mr. Warawa’s motion with their stated belief that sex-selective abortion has “no place in our society”? Can anyone mount a persuasive argument as to why Mr. Warawa’s motion should be deemed non-voteable?
There is no doubt that greater independence for individual MPs and greater freedom for MPs to speak freely would require—perhaps necessitate?—a change in the culture of Parliament Hill. And that would include the press gallery. All-consuming control would no longer have to revered or admired or at least required a prerequisite for effective leadership. We would all have to get used to a slightly more mature understanding of representative politics.
But that includes appreciating the between what Mr. Warawa is doing now and what some MPs have been criticized for saying in the past. Greater independence for MPs doesn’t mean that there will have to be acceptance of comments such as those Geoff has cited as bimbo eruptions—accepting greater independence for MPs does not mean that offensive and prejudicial comments must be free from scorn and mockery.