OTTAWA – A two-week parliamentary break seems to have done nothing to quell a rebellion by Conservative backbenchers against what they describe as stifling party discipline imposed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Two more Tories — Ontario MPs Michael Chong and Pierre Lemieux — joined the chorus of complaints Monday as Parliament resumed business after the Easter break.
They threw their support behind Conservative colleague Mark Warawa, whose attempts to raise the issue of sex-selective abortion have been stymied by Harper’s determination to honour his promise not to revisit the issue.
Warawa triggered the backbench revolt last month over a private member’s motion asking Parliament to condemn the practice of sex-selective abortion.
An all-party committee that oversees private members’ business ruled his motion to be non-votable, thereby killing it before it could be debated.
When Warawa tried to make a statement complaining about that in the Commons, he was struck from the roster of Tory MPs lined up to make members’ statements.
Warawa has asked Speaker Andrew Scheer to rule that his privileges as an MP to speak freely have been breached.
He is also considering whether to appeal the committee’s decision to kill his motion, which would require Scheer to order a rare secret ballot vote by all MPs.
Warawa’s battle has been joined not just by fellow anti-abortion MPs in the Tory caucus but by others who’ve publicly complained that party discipline has gone too far when a backbencher isn’t allowed to speak during the 15 minutes allotted daily to members’ statements.
“Speaking is what we do here,” Chong told the Commons on Monday.
“In a democracy, we do not solve our debates or disagreements through the tip of a sword or through violence … We settle debates in a democracy through words and the ability of members to express those words on this floor is the heart of the matter.”
Under Commons rules, Chong argued it’s the Speaker’s job to determine which MPs get to make statements and which are allowed to pose queries during the daily question period. That role was shifted back in the 1980s to party House leaders and whips, in the interests of helping the Speaker co-ordinate and schedule business in the chamber, but Chong said they’ve now gone well beyond that.
“This shift from scheduling and co-ordinating to command and control has stripped members of the right to ask questions during question period and is now threatening to do the same during members’ statements.”
Lemieux said he’s heard from constituents demanding to know whether he agrees with the decision to kill Warawa’s motion and asking if he’s spoken publicly on it.
If not for the debate triggered by Warawa’s point of privilege, Lemieux said his only opportunity to weigh in on the matter would have been through members’ statements — and he’d presumably have been struck from the roster by the party whip, just like Warawa.
“It would indeed be an infringement on the rights and privileges of a member of Parliament if members were not able to rise to clarify their positions on such important matters or to give voice to the concerns of their constituents,” Lemieux told the Commons.