OTTAWA – A growing contingent of Conservative MPs lashed out at their own government Tuesday in a rare show of rebellion against the party discipline that has been the hallmark of Prime Minister Stephen Harper since he became party leader.
Two backbench MPs complained of being muzzled in the House of Commons, winning support from other Conservatives in an extraordinary challenge to Harper heading into what promises to be a dramatic caucus meeting Wednesday.
Mark Warawa complained that stifling party discipline is preventing him from representing his Langley, B.C., constituents, and asked Speaker Andrew Scheer to intervene in what he called a breach of his privileges as an MP.
Warawa’s complaint was echoed by another Conservative backbencher, Alberta MP Leon Benoit, and backed by others.
Their concerns revolve around their ability to take part in the 15-minute period each day set aside for members’ statements, known as S.O. 31s.
Warawa said he was on the Conservative roster to make a statement last Thursday but was informed moments before that he’d been struck from the list.
“The reason I was given was that the topic was not approved,” he told the Commons.
Benoit said the same thing has happened to him more than once.
“I want to say that I too feel that my rights have been infringed on by members of the party because I am not allowed to speak on certain topics in S.O. 31s,” he said.
“I have had S.O. 31s removed and I have been told that if I have one on a certain topic I simply will not be given S.O. 31s.”
Neither Warawa nor Benoit specified what topics they’ve been prohibited from speaking about. Neither could be reached for clarification.
But it’s likely Warawa’s banned statement involved his motion calling on the Commons to condemn the practice of sex-selective abortion, which earlier the same day had been deemed non-votable by the sub-committee that oversees private member’s business.
The unanimous decision by the sub-committee spared Harper — who has vowed not to re-open the abortion debate — the spectacle of another embarrassing split in Conservative ranks over the explosive issue.
It also infuriated social conservatives in the prime minister’s caucus who believe democratic and free speech rights were sacrificed in a bid to keep a lid on the issue.
“It may be that’s what’s at play here, that this abortionism philosophy has led the sub-committee members to put abortion above the independence of private members, above the right of Parliament to comment on an important issue, above the right of members to be able to vote on such an issue,” Kitchener MP Stephen Woodworth said Tuesday.
Woodworth himself was the architect of an unsuccessful motion last year which called for a committee to explore the question of when life begins in the context of its definition within the Criminal Code.
Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber said concern over the muzzling of MPs goes beyond social conservatives in the caucus.
“I don’t think it’s exclusive to social conservatives. I don’t consider myself to be part of that,” he told CBC.
“This is an issue of democracy. This is an issue of Parliament.”
Warawa is appealing the sub-committee’s decision to the Commons procedure and House affairs committee, which is to hear his arguments on Wednesday. He has vowed to appeal, if necessary, to the Speaker, who could order a rare secret ballot vote by all MPs to determine if the motion should be debated.
Members’ statements are supposed to give MPs a chance to speak about issues or events of importance to their ridings. Over the last few years, they’ve evolved into vehicles for scripted partisan attacks, particularly by the Conservatives.
Other Tory backbenchers sympathized with Warawa, although they said they have never personally been muzzled.
Winnipeg MP Rod Bruinooge and Edmonton MP James Rajotte noted that MPs in the United Kingdom, the mother of all parliamentary democracies, are allowed more freedom to speak their minds.
“I think members should be able to give the statements they want to give in the House,” Rajotte said outside the Commons.
However, government whip Gordon O’Connor urged the Speaker to reject Warawa’s complaint, arguing that it’s up to each party to determine which of their MPs will be given a chance to speak.
“Put simply, this is a team activity and your role is referee,” he told Scheer. “It is not your job as referee to tell the coach or manager which player to play at any given time. That is a question for each team to decide.”
Green party Leader Elizabeth May said that analogy “cuts to the core of what is wrong with parliamentary democracy,” suggesting MPs “are here as teams, as brands or colours and we are all to take instructions from our team boss.”
“We are not here as teams,” May said. “The principle of Westminster parliamentary democracy is that we are here as representatives of our constituencies and our constituents.”
Noting that political parties are not even mentioned in the Constitution, May added: “They are not an essential part of our democracy. They have grown to be seen as the most interesting thing going on and we have grown to see politics as some sort of sport.
“However, democracy is not a sport.”
Scheer said he’ll wait to hear other arguments before ruling on Warawa’s complaint.
The NDP declined to take an immediate position on the issue. NDP House leader Nathan Cullen later said the issue is whether the Speaker should stick to House rules and exercise sole control over which MPs get to make statements or whether he should allow parties to continue, by convention, to make that determination.
In the NDP’s case, Cullen said all MPs are given an equal chance to make statements, on a rotational basis. No one vets the statements in advance or bans certain topics from being mentioned.
“We don’t have that conversation,” Cullen said.
“Obviously, in the Conservative caucus they have that conversation quite a bit, and they are having a hard time controlling that conversation right now and there’s obvious frustration building within certainly the backbench.”
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said there is no censorship of Liberal MPs’ statements.
He agreed with Conservative backbenchers that there should be more freedom for MPs to speak their minds and to vote free of party discipline. It’s no surprise they’re finally rebelling against Harper’s iron control, Rae said.
“I think they’re annoyed and tired of the harness. I think they’re tired of having to respond to everything by acting like the Blue Army Chorus and I think they want to be able to speak their minds,” he said.
“And I think it’s quite understandable. You can only put the cork in the kettle for so long and eventually people have to blow off steam.”