A few more thoughts on Trudeau, abortion and the party whip

Why should any vote be free? Why shouldn't they all?

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau was asked again this weekend to defend his stance that Liberal MPs will be expected to vote in the House according to a strident pro-choice stance. In that interview with CTV’s QP, he was asked whether he might’ve decided to allow anti-abortion MPs to abstain from votes in the House—a possibility he dismissed, saying he preferred the clarity of his current position.

It’s at least an interesting hypothetical, but I’m not sure it would have saved him much grief. A demand that MPs who couldn’t tolerate the whip recuse themselves from relevant votes in the House might have still been subject to complaints that he was over-exerting his power. And a more pronounced split in the Liberal caucus would give the NDP more room to accuse the Liberals of insufficiently supporting a woman’s right to choose. Furthermore, if we’re dealing in hypotheticals, consider the spot Trudeau would be in if those abstaining Liberal votes were ever to be the difference between upholding the status quo and legislating some new restriction on abortion.

When I was writing this piece about Trudeau, abortion and the idea that some votes should be considered matters of conscience, I chatted a bit with Lauren Dobson-Hughes, who has worked on Parliament Hill and at Westminster in London, for the NDP and Labour, respectively (she’s also a pregnancy options counsellor and president of the board of Planned Parenthood Ottawa). Here are some extended thoughts from her.

Justin Trudeau’s intent to whip any vote on abortion (excepting current anti-choice MPs) has led to concern about a leader overriding an MP’s autonomy on a conscience issue . . . Actually, we’d be much better talking about the larger problem: whether the Westminster convention of conscience votes is itself outdated.

The labelling of certain topics as conscience issues, where free votes are allowed, stemmed in part from a narrow interpretation of morals—religious, cultural or societal. Party discipline was not appropriate because the values underlying one’s feelings were sacrosanct . . .

So is the concept of conscience votes at all relevant now? With a much broader understanding of values and morals, and in a multi- and, indeed, non-faith environment, is it appropriate to consider an MP’s feelings on these issues inviolable? Is it appropriate to allow politicians to duck responsibility for their positions by labelling them conscience issues? Is it appropriate for MPs, elected to represent many more people than simply themselves to make their personal feelings the primary consideration in a vote that affects us all?

Practically, in a modern Parliament, determining which issues merit this special but undefined status is fraught with subjectivity. Conscience issues are personal to each MP. There is no neutral referee. One MP’s personal values are no more valid, no more strongly held and no more sacrosanct than another’s. Beyond quoting various opinion polls at each other in an attempt to prove an issue “unsettled,” there seems no logical way to decide which votes get special status.

We’d likely consider topics such as abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia classic conscience issues. But in the past, divorce, shops opening on Sundays and animal testing have been conscience issues.

During the fraught debate on banning fox hunting in the U.K., many MPs considered it a conscience issue. In Canada, could a fiercely divisive topic, such as the long-gun registry, be a conscience matter? How about cutting funding for health care—potentially a life and death issue? Or climate change, or housing, or support for the disabled, or torture, or declaring war, or human rights? Surely, an MP’s moral position on torture is no less strongly held than another’s on euthanasia.

There’s always been a (generally healthy) tension between an MP’s personal views, those of his constituents, his party’s platform and his leader’s instructions. If we no longer consider conscience issues sacrosanct, it is hardly outrageous to expect a prospective MP to support the platform of the party under whose banner he runs. After all, MPs know what they’re signing up to. They have fair warning of the positions they’re expected to espouse. No, no MP agrees with every decision his leader makes. And yes, we can and should have a conversation about the rigidity of caucus discipline in Canada, the sometimes iron rule of the party and leader over our elected officials, and the fact that MPs often feel they can’t make a difference in our partisan system.

But broad support for the platform seems a given. If you don’t support a key plank of the party’s platform, don’t run for it. You don’t have a constitutional right to run for, or belong to, a particular party.

And it is hardly unheard of to find an MP who disagrees with a new party policy, or is elected under one policy that changes over her time in office.

Parties have measures to deal with MPs who can’t vote with their caucus. Yes, some of these measures are heavy-handed, over-applied and don’t allow for sufficient backbencher independent thought. Or they hamper an MP’s ability to scrutinize government and its spending. You’ll get no argument from me there. Most internal caucus division is just that: internal. Differences are resolved, overwhelmingly amicably. A consensus is found that allows the MP to balance her own views or her constituents’ needs, with the party’s position. And if a consensus isn’t found, then perhaps the MP doesn’t belong in the party anymore. This is politics 101, and MPs have agreed and disagreed with their parties since forever. They’ve crossed floors, gone independent, or been kicked out over all manner of issues.

But if a candidate runs for a party, in whose platform or at one’s convention, it is stated that she, for example, support a carbon tax, oppose deployment of troops to Iraq, or support equal marriage, is it really draconian and dictator-esque to insist she demonstrate this with her vote?

This consternation over whether a leader can impose the whip on abortion really should cause us to question the entire concept of conscience votes.

If an MP is elected under a party banner, to represent constituents and hold government to account, how does it help our cause to give her a get-out-of-jail-free card to sidestep accountability for her vote?

I think I see the wisdom of giving up on this idea of “conscience votes,” or at least I see a lot of reasons to quibble with it—at least if a political party has staked out a position and believes it to be a serious matter.

On the other hand, Andrew Coyne smartly flips this around and asks a useful counter-question: Why should any vote be whipped?

Even if you believe we could stand to loosen things up a bit, the difficult questions here are: How should we go about doing that and how far should we go? Here is a 17-year-old essay from Ned Franks that raises all sorts of questions about the general notion of free votes. We have to think not only about the ideal of freedom, but how specifically the system would function if party whips were mostly put away: How would MPs organize themselves? How would decisions be made? What influences would replace the influence of the party? Would we end up with a better discussion or better policies or just a more unruly debate?

Trudea’s policy on free votes is an interesting case, not only because he would whip votes on abortion, but also because he would whip votes related to the Liberal platform. Depending on how broad and detailed that platform is, how closely a Liberal government would hew to it and how broadly those commitments would be interpreted, it seems to me that could conceivably account for all the measures put before the House, save for private members’ business. Could backbench MPs—let’s assume that the cabinet must stick together—be given the freedom to disagree with at least some of the official policies of their party? That seems reasonable to me. I’ll repeat myself and point to someone like Brent Rathgeber and the example of British MPs. (Seriously, look at these rates of rebellion.)

But, generally speaking, I also suppose, a party leader who entirely ignores the views of his or her caucus or party members is not likely to last long.

Or perhaps we could worry less about the votes in the House and focus first on whether MPs have the freedom in House committees to think and act for themselves and amend legislation at that stage.

If there’s a single question here somewhere about Trudeau and his stance on whipping a vote on abortion, I suppose it is this: On what grounds should party affiliation bind MPs to particular positions?

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