OTTAWA – There are few quiet moments in a House of Commons committee, but one pregnant pause spoke volumes about the tensions and discomfort on Parliament Hill.
It came on a day when Conservative MPs were grappling with intersecting and weighty issues of freedom of speech in Parliament and the limits of party control.
Maverick MP Mark Warawa appealed to his colleagues Wednesday to allow his motion condemning sex-selective abortions. They had rejected the motion as unvotable last week, arguing it was too similar to another motion from 2012 that also touched on abortion.
Warawa went through the reasons his private-members’ bid was in order: it did not contravene the Constitution; it was within the jurisdiction of the House; and no other motion like it had come before them.
“(The motion) clearly meets the criteria and should be votable,” Warawa told the procedure and House affairs committee.
“The question before each member today is What kind of Parliament do we want? Canadians want a Parliament that follows the rules. … The future of Parliament and the future of (the motion) is in your hands.”
When it came time for MPs to question Warawa, there was silence in a room packed with reporters and political staffers. Not even Conservative colleagues sought more clarity on his appeal.
Warawa’s motion is unpopular with the Liberals, the NDP and Conservatives who agree with Prime Minister Stephen Harper that abortion is an issue that should not be reopened.
In the same stuffy committee room in the bowels of Parliament’s Centre Block, a number of Warawa’s supporters in caucus showed up, including Rob Anders of Alberta and Harold Albrecht of Ontario.
The committee promptly went in camera after Warawa’s statement. Whether the committee will allow Warawa’s motion to proceed will be known publicly on Thursday. MPs on the committee left the room after about 15 minutes of deliberations.
“It’s concerning, what’s happened,” Warawa said of the process.
Warawa’s battle to keep his motion alive comes at the same time as he argues before the Speaker of the House of Commons over his right to talk about what he wants before Parliament.
Just before question period, MPs are able to deliver short statements on subjects of national, international, provincial and local interest.
In recent years, that 15-minute juncture has devolved into a series of partisan snipes — on Wednesday, seven of nine Conservative members’ statements either hailed the federal budget or slammed the opposition.
Warawa says he was recently barred by the Conservative whip from delivering a statement, presumably on the subject of his abortion motion. He call it a breach of his parliamentary privilege.
On this separate but related issue, Warawa also has allies.
“A member should be able to make a statement on any issue they think is important to themselves or their constituencies,” said Tory MP Kyle Seeback.
“Mr. Warawa’s (member’s statement) should not have been taken away. That’s my personal view.”‘
The issue was hashed out during the weekly Conservative caucus meeting, where MPs were allowed to vent their views on the principle of a member’s freedom to speak his or her mind in the Commons.
They were reminded by others of Harper’s commitment to voters not to reopen the abortion debate, and that he had made other commitments to Canadian families.
But at the end of the day, the debate had not left the floor of the Commons.
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber rose in the Commons to also support the idea of an unbridled right to speak about any subject without having it first vetted by a party whip.
“In a Parliament where the government and the opposition control such a large portion of the parliamentary calendar and agenda, private members’ bills, motions, are the very few mechanisms that members have to bring matters of importance from their constituents forward,” said Rathgeber.
“I would submit that if the House does not jealously protect the rights of the members to bring forward matters of concern to their constituents … the role of the private member, and Parliament and ultimately democracy have all equally been compromised.”