Mark Warawa and the Conservative backbenchers won -

Mark Warawa and the Conservative backbenchers won

Thoughts on a small, but potentially useful, victory


Peter Loewen questions the significance of the Speaker’s ruling on the right of MPs to stand and be recognized.

There was some anger, to be sure, but there was just as much guffawing and as many furrowed brows over the wish of these MPs to discuss abortion … These MPs wished to discuss an issue that their party leadership and the media have deemed out of bounds. Rather than defend the rights of MPs to bring their views into debate and to eventually have them put to a vote, we are subjected to commentary that the prime minister needs to exercise more control over his caucus. We are told that MPs should be allowed to speak, but perhaps not on this issue. What other issues are off limits remains to be seen.

MPs come to Ottawa understanding that they serve at the pleasure of their leader. Those same leaders act virtually free of constraints. When MPs assert their rights, it is portrayed as a party in disarray and as leaders losing control when in fact it is actually parliamentary democracy in action. Acknowledging that MPs can rise to their feet and be recognized to speak without their party’s approval is surely a gain for our Parliament. But it will move our democracy only an inch rather than a mile if we do not equally free MPs from the things that keep them off their feet.

Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber says he intends to stand.

I have been asked by several media outlets whether I intend to avail myself to this reestablished opportunity. The answer is “yes,” though I have not yet done so. The reason (and I believe the reason is important to an understanding as to why we have noticed only incremental change in the operation of the House) for this is that a rediscovered right or opportunity should not be deployed capriciously or in a cavalier manner. I did not advocate for a Member’s ability to speak freely just so that Members could speak merely to hear the sound of their own voices. They should reserve the opportunity and indeed the privilege to speak in the House to occasions when they have something substantial to say.

But Members must avail themselves of that ability to attempt to be recognized on occasions when that Member has something important to say, because the right to speak freely in this House was not so much taken away by the leadership as it was voluntarily ceded. So it is up to us now…

Peter calls the Speaker’s ruling a “hollow” victory. I think it’s probably more accurately described as a small victory—one that could take on more significance if MPs are willing to make use of it.

The basic problem is an imbalance of power. At present, it is the party leader who possess an overwhelming amount of it. When Mark Warawa stood on a question of privilege, he was openly questioning this dynamic. Nine other government backbenchers followed suit and did likewise. Those acts alone were significant in that they demonstrated a degree of independence and empowerment.

It is possible, I suppose, that someone on the government side had some inkling that simply standing up during the time reserved for statement by members would have allowed MPs to subvert the list prepared by their party whip. Mr. Warawa says he had no idea. Regardless, when the Speaker stood and ruled as he did, it was an official and public acknowledgement and invitation: an important statement from the authority of the Speaker’s throne that the whip and his list do not prevent MPs from performing the physical act of standing. If, as it seemed, Mark Warawa’s subsequent threat to stand without official approval resulted in him being put on the whip’s list, that was a specific victory for Mr. Warawa: a concession from his party’s leaders that they did not wish to be publicly subverted. Going forward, any backbencher who is told he cannot stand and speak, as Mr. Warawa was, can plausibly threaten to stand of his or her own volition.

Of course, the system of incentives—the political and media pressures—that existed before the Speaker’s ruling still exists now. And there is much more that might be done to achieve a more healthy balance between the party leader and the MP, the executive and the legislature. But over the last few weeks, ten government backbenchers stood and asked the Speaker to confirm their rights as individual members of the legislature and the Speaker responded with a public assurance that they could stand at their own discretion. That is a small, but potentially useful, victory.


Mark Warawa and the Conservative backbenchers won

  1. Peter Loewen says: “These MPs wished to discuss an issue that their party leadership and the media have deemed out of bounds.”

    And Rathgeber says: “that a rediscovered right or opportunity should not be deployed capriciously or in a cavalier manner.”

    I agree with both. The media has a role to play in this too, in that some issues are sensitive issues and the media should try and keep a civil tone when those sensitive issues come to the fore to be debated (the abortion issue in particular).

    And the tension between party leaders and independence for MP’s is a complex tension to understand. Parties are there for a reason (to form government with one particular outlook in mind) and the independence of an MP must be seen in such light. There are other venues besides speaking out in Parliament, in which the voice of an MP can be heard effectively.

  2. Thank you Wherry for this article.

    The article is fair without any sense that partisan politics is being played here! I appreciate that and the fact that discussing these issues in the open, as done within your article, is a good step in the right direction. No, changes will not happen overnight, but perhaps a new sort of opening to make changes happen, has been introduced.

    Time will tell if this will lead to an improvement overall.

  3. “These MPs wished to discuss an issue that their party leadership and the media have deemed out of bounds. “

    This is gratuitous.

    “These MPs wished to discuss an issue that their party leadership have deemed out of bounds. “

    I fixed it.

    • Correction of “correction: “These MPs wished to discuss an issue that their party leadership and the more powerful Media Party have deemed out of bounds.”

      • No, the original sentence was correct. The Media plays a huge role in shaping public opinion, sometimes even more so than government. The potential for the Media to whip up public frenzy (whether support or fury) is incalculable… and has already happened on more than one ocassion. At least this author acknowledges it. (And the grammar in the following “corrections” was incorrect…)

        • Yes, the media can shape public opinion. But, I suspect, you are an intelligent and a free willed individual and can think for yourself rather than spout paranoid conspiracies.

        • “The Party Leadership” can be a collective noun phrase. “Have” is not incorrect. If the phrase “The Party Leader” was used, you would be correct.

      • ‘The Media’ prints what can sell. In short, it sells what people want to buy. There is no conspiracy to suppress the idea or discussion. If ‘The Media’ thought that people wanted to hear about this, they would print it in order to sell more advertising, make a living, and even make a profit.

        In fact, you have the powerful and subversive media under your fingertips right now… that is if [you] use your hands to type with. Go on, take the risk.

        Your fear and paranoia is showing.

        • “The Media prints what can sell”.

          Let me get this straight. The media doesn’t run the sensational, horrific story of Kermit Gosnell, because a story about 100+ babies being murdered by having their spines snipped post-live-birth, and then being flushed down the toilet wouldn’t sell? Nobody would read that?

          Dream on buddy.

          • You heard it about somewhere.. Unless you were actually there, then I would suggest you heard about if from “The Media”.

  4. Let the backbenchers have their 15 minutes of fame.
    They are hardworking, loyal folks.

  5. The true test comes when a backbencher stands to deliver an SO31 and actually says something counter to the PMO’s talking points. That has not happened as of today.

  6. When the “conservative” leadership is intent on never interfering with the slaughter of babies, these dissident MPs are pissing in the wind.

  7. In essence, the Speaker has allowed the potential for the governing Party to show itself fractious and incoherent, thus providing ammunition to the Opposition and others to bring about the governing Party’s downfall. Would the Liberals and NDP allow this “freedom” to THEIR backbenchers, I wonder….? Time for Party MPs to “suck it up” and show some Party unity! We are taught (and it’s proven true) that “… a house divided cannot stand…” So get your acts together (and I mean politicians of ALL stripes), and STAND!

    • MPs are supposed to represent their constituencies, not some party.

  8. If Warawa had any decency or balls he’d make his point by quitting his dictatorial party. He has a choice. All the babies murdered every day don’t.

  9. Good for MP Mark Warawa.