Warawa vs. Harper: A rough guide to this moment of democratic crisis

What to make of what's going on in the House? Read this

For those just joining us, those struggling keep up and those struggling to make sense of it all, here is a rough guide to the current situation of Mark Warawa and what it all might mean for the state of our democracy.

So what the heck is going on up there?

Everything is happening.

Could you be more specific?

Basically, two things are happening.

Firstly, Conservative MP Mark Warawa is attempting to bring a motion on sex-selective abortion to the floor of the House of Commons for a vote. All private members’ business must be ruled in order by a subcommittee of Parliament that includes one Conservative MP, one New Democrat and one Liberal and that committee decided that Mr. Warawa’s motion was not in order. An analyst from the Library of Parliament said he saw nothing that would make the motion “non-voteable,” but the Conservative and Liberal members of the committee raised objections (and it has been suggested that the Prime Minister’s Office would like to see the motion buried). Mr. Warawa appealed the subcommittee’s decision to the committee on Procedure and House Affairs, but the committee denied his appeal. Mr. Warawa could now appeal to the House of Commons, where a secret ballot vote of all members of the House would determine whether his motion can be put to a vote. He will apparently be taking some time to decide whether he wishes to try that.

Second, Mr. Warawa has gone to the Speaker to report that last week he was kept from delivering a statement in the House about his motion. Fifteen minutes each day, occurring immediately before Question Period, are set aside so that MPs can stand and deliver one-minute statements about matters of international, national or local concern. Conceivably, any MP can be recognized to speak during this time, but, in practice, the Speaker has come to be guided by lists provided by the respective party whips. Mr. Warawa claims that, in being removed from his side’s list last Thursday, his privileges as an MP were breached. In response, Government whip Gordon O’Connor has argued that this is an internal party matter that the Speaker should not be involving himself with, but Mr. Warawa has received the support of several fellow Conservative MPs, Green MP Elizabeth May and NDP House leader Nathan Cullen—see here, here, here and here.

How worried should I be about all of this?

Well, that depends. How do you feel about democracy? How much do you value the independence of your elected representatives? Generally speaking, would you rather MPs not be entirely beholden to the desires of their respective party leaders? There are lot of things that can be said to be unsatisfactory about the current state of our parliamentary democracy. But the common denominator is the amount of power that we—both voters and MPs—have allowed party leaders to accumulate. Everything that currently afflicts our system can be traced back to that. There will always be, no matter how we structure our parliamentary system, a certain tension between the party an MP represents and the individual Member of Parliament he or she is. But if the goal is to find a balance between party and person—representing a political party and acting as a representative of the public—it must be said that we are currently in a state of imbalance. We should not strive for a House of 308 independents, but we should not settle for a House of 308 disciples. We should hope to have a party system that allows for a relatively generous amount of independent thought and action.

Hold on. I don’t really understand anything unless it’s explained to me as if we were talking about hockey. Could you use a hockey analogy to explain your views on this?

I can try. How about this? We should aim for a world in which the name on the back of the jersey is at least as interesting as the logo on the front of jersey. MPs are not merely pieces to be directed and assigned for the purposes of helping their “team.” They should be important players in their own right.

And you think Mark Warawa brings all of this to the fore?

I do. Regardless of the specific issue he is advocating for or the larger issue his motion might raise—abortion—his inability to freely and easily pursue this motion and the apparent limitation on his ability to speak to it during a time specifically reserved for MPs to speak to things, his situation should raise real concerns about what kind of House of Commons we have and what kind of House of Commons we want to have.

Be that as it may, I’d like a second opinion.

Fair enough. Here is what Andrew Coyne thinks about the meaning of Mr. Warawa.

What does the Prime Minister think about all of this?

He would apparently rather Mr. Warawa’s motion go away. I think there are some holes in Mr. Harper’s logic.

That time reserved for statements by members has been a bit of concern in recent years, hasn’t it?

Indeed. See here and here for some of the gory details. I think there might be a relatively easy fix that would satisfy Mr. Warawa’s concerns.

As always, you have given me a lot to think about. Is there anything else I should endeavour to read over the weekend as I try to decide how I feel about all of this?

Here is the piece I wrote two years ago about the state of the House of Commons. Here is the series of posts, by myself and others, that followed up on that piece. Here is a collection of proposals for improving things. And here is something I wrote just today.

The good people at Samara have done valuable work in this area, including exit interviews with MPs and a recent look at redesigning Parliament.

So what do you think is going to happen?

I’ve no idea. But I hope we’ve come to a point where something might be made to happen to make things somehow better. Regardless, the fight goes on.


Previous rough guides
A rough guide to Bill C-38
A rough guide to Bill C-45
A rough guide to the fall sitting
A rough guide to #IdleNoMore
A rough guide to the Conservatives’ carbon tax farce