Is Mark Warawa another "bimbo eruption?" -

Is Mark Warawa another “bimbo eruption?”

Greater independence for MPs doesn’t mean accepting terrible sentiments


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.


Is Mark Warawa another “bimbo eruption?”

  1. Bimbo eruption? Shouldn’t it be “bozo eruption”? How is Warara a bimbo?

  2. Norquay’s piece comes down to two rationalizations, both of which are pretty insulting to the CPC. 1) Conservative MP’s are, for the most part, too stupid to be allowed to speak. 2) Harper is afraid of Niki Ashton.

    One other thing, it’s a measure of how poor is the quality of our political debate when a pundit can write seriously about “Harper-haters” and not be laughed off the stage. People who are critical of Harper are not “Haters” we are Canadian patriots who are horrified at the trashing of our democratic traditions. We’re not Harper Haters, we are Canada Lovers. Canada as it was, and Canada is it will be again if we can keep it out of the hands of petty tyrants, political frat boys and reactionary bigots.

    • “petty tyrants, political frat boys and reactionary bigots”, no no, you don’t have Harper Derangement Syndrome at all!

      • I can explain and support my opinions. You can’t even support your own name. I think I’ll trust in the judgment of the people I trust. Thanks anyway for your interest.

    • Exactly. Hard to believe that phrases like “the Harper-haters tune up the fear machine…” or ” the media rejoiced at their great good luck for having been given another object of derision…” have a place in a supposedly serious political commentary.

  3. Conservative Party, Conservative Party über alles,
    Über alles in der Welt,
    Wenn es stets zu Schutz und Trutze
    Brüderlich zusammenhält.

    • Yeah sure Tony, but much like the original Reform Party manifesto or the Common Sense Revolution, it’s better in the original Ger…..


      Um, nevermind.

  4. I’m constantly amused by Wherry’s constructions and thumb sucking of how opposition members maybe should answer questions about what they’d do instead, without actually doing the asking. Aaron just pick up a phone and ask them, and report back to us what they say; you know…journalism.

    • Perhaps you should have read his entire post, I know it seems a little long but; you know… reading.

  5. “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.”

    I’ve heard this argument here a few times. Frankly, it’s ridiculous to portray Harper as victim of a Catch-22. Harper put himself in this position by:

    1) Making a promise he couldn’t necessarily keep, assuming he could maintain a hammer lock on his backbenchers. He’s like Homer Simpson: “I made a promise, and that man broke my promise!”

    2) His erratic handling of backbench abortion motions. If he had tried to block all such motions, he could at least claim consistency, But by allowing one or two, then blocking this one, he opens himself up to speculation about his actions.

    And of course, Norquay accuses people of “raising the spectre of women being denied access to abortion” as though that were some crazy, paranoid suspicion. But we’ve had almost 40 years of the American right wing chipping away at abortion rights. It’s perfectly reasonable for Canadians to be vigilant now that we have the Canadian Republican Party with a majority government.

    • Harper made as promise that he had EVERY INTENTION of keeping. Those MPs that didn’t like the promise should NEVER have ran as conservatives if they didn’t like the promise. They brought forward their motions as private member bills, they were defeated. Enough is enough. Harper has always said he would let his party members vote their consciences on matters of ethics…it has happened. People voted their conscience on abortion. Despite what you people want to believe, the majority of Canadians are social liberals…including those who vote conservative and even the conservative MPs. Therefore, the motions were defeated. Now sex-selection abortion is a WHOLE different issue….the majority of Canadians oppose it. However, it is not a culturally accepted practice here and it isn’t even likely occurring here. Of course he is squashing this debate. What MP wants to be seen as supporting sex-selection abortion? No MP, whether they are conservative, liberal or NDP does. That is why your #2 point is moot.

      • You mean as opposed to the promises about not negotiating with the US for softwood lumber, not taxing income trusts, getting guaranteed wait times for health care deal with the provinces, not appointing unelected senators, and icebreakers in the arctic, for some reason this particular promise he had every intention of keeping while all those other promises were.. what, exactly?

        Again, what you say runs face first into the fact that he let the Woodworth motion go through but now won’t even let an MP *talk* about sex-selection. So what we actually see is that he really *didn’t* have any intention of keeping the promise, just now, for some reason, he doesn’t want his MP’s talking about it.

        • Again what I say is that sex-selection abortion is a political bombshell because unlike abortion where the gender of the fetus never comes into it, the vast majority of Canadians are appalled that the healthcare system in this country will be paying for a cultural practice that Canadians find disgusting. I maintain that no MP except the pro-lifers want this matter debated in the house because NO MP wants to be seen as supporting sex-selection abortion when the people that voted them in find it to be a practice they cannot support. Woodworth’s motion was about not about sex-selection, it was about legislating the point in pregnancy when a fetus becomes a human being. Two very different things. It was defeated because Canadians understand that physicians are making good decisions about the necessity for late-term abortions which makes this legislation unnecessary.

          • As for your other issues, Thwim…obviously Warawa and Woodworth never spoke out when Harper broke any of those promises. They really only have one agenda. They could always cross the floor and join the Liberals or the NDP who apparently let their MPs speak out in favor of pro-life. Do you suppose their have been offers from Justin or Mr. Mulclair?

      • In other words, those backbenchers broke Harper’s promise.

        Sex-selective abortion is a WHOLE different issue, except that it’s part of the abortion debate. In particular, the motion calls on Parliament to condemn abortion under certain circumstances.

        Those who watch the American abortion debate know the thin edge of the wedge when they see one. Nobody supports sex-selective abortion (and, like you say, it’s probably incredibly rare in Canada). This motion is about convincing Parliament to start judging the private decisions of women.

        • Harper’s promise was not to change Canada’s abortion laws. Canada’s abortion laws have not been changed DESPITE the best efforts of those particular backbenchers. Why? Because the House understands that Canadians are in favor the abortion laws as they stand. These backbenchers wanted to legislate when a fetus becomes a human…that motion was defeated. If anything, their attempts have strengthened Canada’s stand on maintaining our current abortion laws. We have shown we still have a strong mandate to keep our abortion laws in place despite having a conservative majority government. Given that sex-selection was mentioned by Woodworth in his last motion and the motion was still defeated, then this effort by Warawa to single out sex-selection abortion and raise it as an issue, can only be seen as a way to further an agenda on motions that have already been debated and defeated. If this men do not like the party they are in, then abandon it and form one of their own.

          • Harper’s promise was not to “re-open the abortion debate.” You’re moving the goalposts.

            But I do agree that if these pro-life backbenchers are uncomfortable under Harper’s message control, they should revolt.

  6. A few points.

    I think it’s fair to say the media has a role in all of this. When a caucus member breaks rank with party policy, on anything, let alone abortion, there are cries of party dis-unity, and criticism usually falls at the feet of the leader. In that respect, I can understand why a muzzled caucus is the devil you know for a party leader.

    However, I do take issue with a couple points. First, I don’t think Mr. Norquay can say Prime Minister Harper is simply standing by his word. PMSH said that he wouldn’t legislate on abortion. He hasn’t, and even Mr. Warawa’s motion isn’t that. Mr. Warawa isn’t part of the government. This isn’t “keeping a promise”, this is an ad-hoc crackdown.

    Second, and perhaps I’m misremebering like poor Andy Petitte (Happy Opening Day!), but the NDP did not get blanket positive coverage for standing up for a women’s right to choose. Many people in the media thought their rhetoric (including the mentioned Niki Ashton) was over the top for the very reasons we’re discussing now (the right to talk about an issue, regardless of whether it makes some uncomfortable). So I don’t think “the NDP will gain politically from it” is an accurate argument either.

    • The media has a role to play but it is not an actual player in the politics of the country. The media is an observer, not a participant. The CPC has cast the media as the enemy ever since it managed to claw, cheat and scrape it’s way into a majority. They can’t credibly blame the opposition parties for their failings (although they still try) so they have to offer some other scapegoat to their own supporters.

      So they whine, endlessly, about how the media is out to get them. Hell, some folks who post here rarely say anything that deviates from that one refrain.

      • The media are absolutely a player in the politics of the country, and people can decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but politics is driven by many things, including media coverage. Canadians get informed by the media, so if they’re told Leader X get their house in order when there’s a caucus division on a particular piece of legislation, it’s going to impact how said leader deals with caucus discipline.

        • Yes, I know, but the media can not – and should not try to – anticipate what kind of response their reporting is going to inspire in the political world. The media needs to concentrate on accuracy and let the balance take care of itself. Because, if they are being accurate and thorough, then the balance will take care of itself.

          My argument is not that the media plays no role, but that the media needs to reject the role that the CPC is trying to foist on them. Trying to appease the government or curry favour is a complete mug’s game. You can’t win and you can’t break even so just don’t play.

          • Fair points. i would only add that when issues like this pop up, it’s not just a Conservative issue. If the NDP or LIberals can’t get their ducks in a row on a vote, the same type of reporting happens (ie is a party divided/is it a question of leadership etc).

          • Agreed. We all know that the media is full of fluff and we ignore most of it without comment. I just think it’s quite absurd that Mr. Norquay blames that same media fluff for making poor Mr. Harper abandon his beloved principles. You can just about imagine the poor fellow stroking a kitty and shredding a quiet tear.

          • “Trying to appease the government or curry favour is a complete mug’s game. You can’t win and you can’t break even so just don’t play.”

            Oh, I dunno’. Mike Duffy leveraged a$$-kissing reportage into a pretty cushy sinecure ;)

  7. ‘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.’

    Well, it was the party Harper built. Harper counts on the support of MPs who are going to give him bad press. He can either a) keep them quiet as best he can, and hope they don’t revolt, or b) start doing things that will make those MPs happy, and jeopardize (or more likely destroy) the Conservatives’ political hopes. Sorry, but if he’s in a Catch-22 situation, it’s a situation of his own making.

    And how is this different than when Mulroney played footsies with Quebec nationalists in the 80s? And, conceivably, couldn’t the same trouble could come to plague the NDP if their Quebec caucus are as nationalist as some suggest? Are we to feel sympathy for the NDP if things go off the rails?

  8. Perhaps if Harper hadn’t insisted on micromanaging virtually everything this government does out of his bloated PMO, some frustrated members of his caucus wouldn’t feel compelled to pick up this particular torch and run with it. I can’t help thinking this is, to some extent, a predictable by-product of Harper’s repressive regime, which typically permits very little beyond inanely scripted talking points to cross his backbenchers’ lips, at least in the House.

    • Maybe these frustrated members could cross the floor. Do you think the Liberals or NDP have approached them?

      • Wow…wouldn’t that be an interesting development!

        However, I’d be surprised if either opposition party has courted them because most, if not all, the Con dissenters harbour socially conservative values that could prove troublesome inside their own caucuses. Also, although there are several so-con members in the Lib caucus, I suspect the CPC “rogues” will stay where they feel more comfort philosophically. In addition, several of them come from prairie ridings and they know that joining the opposition (especially the hated Libs) would mean, for them, the fulfillment of a political death wish.

  9. Aaron…what I don’t understand is why people can’t seem to grasp the obvious. It is pretty clear that the majority of the members of parliament are pro-choice so there was never a risk in letting the backbenchers bring forth a motion on abortion. The laws would not be challenged just like Harper stated. However, the majority of Canadians are strongly opposed to sex-selection abortion. Therefore, it is a political quagmire for ALL MPs. Who would want to be seen to be supporting it? Never mind that it is likely not even occurring in Canada and therefore requires no debate in our House of Commons. It isn’t just the Conservatives that don’t want this issue raised. It is every party. Of course Harper was alright with letting Conservative MPs vote their consciences on abortion law because he knew that even among Conservative MPs he had enough pro-choice MPs to defeat the motions. Once you make it only about sex-selection abortion, everything changes. Why aren’t the people who are so concerned for these repressed backbenchers suggesting they cross the floor and join the Liberals or NDP who would supposedly let them bring forth their motion and speak out on their issue of sex-selection abortion? Surely, those parties would never stiffle an MP.