Mark Warawa and the Conservative backbenchers won

Thoughts on a small, but potentially useful, victory

Peter Loewen questions the significance of the Speaker’s ruling on the right of MPs to stand and be recognized.

There was some anger, to be sure, but there was just as much guffawing and as many furrowed brows over the wish of these MPs to discuss abortion … These MPs wished to discuss an issue that their party leadership and the media have deemed out of bounds. Rather than defend the rights of MPs to bring their views into debate and to eventually have them put to a vote, we are subjected to commentary that the prime minister needs to exercise more control over his caucus. We are told that MPs should be allowed to speak, but perhaps not on this issue. What other issues are off limits remains to be seen.

MPs come to Ottawa understanding that they serve at the pleasure of their leader. Those same leaders act virtually free of constraints. When MPs assert their rights, it is portrayed as a party in disarray and as leaders losing control when in fact it is actually parliamentary democracy in action. Acknowledging that MPs can rise to their feet and be recognized to speak without their party’s approval is surely a gain for our Parliament. But it will move our democracy only an inch rather than a mile if we do not equally free MPs from the things that keep them off their feet.

Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber says he intends to stand.

I have been asked by several media outlets whether I intend to avail myself to this reestablished opportunity. The answer is “yes,” though I have not yet done so. The reason (and I believe the reason is important to an understanding as to why we have noticed only incremental change in the operation of the House) for this is that a rediscovered right or opportunity should not be deployed capriciously or in a cavalier manner. I did not advocate for a Member’s ability to speak freely just so that Members could speak merely to hear the sound of their own voices. They should reserve the opportunity and indeed the privilege to speak in the House to occasions when they have something substantial to say.

But Members must avail themselves of that ability to attempt to be recognized on occasions when that Member has something important to say, because the right to speak freely in this House was not so much taken away by the leadership as it was voluntarily ceded. So it is up to us now…

Peter calls the Speaker’s ruling a “hollow” victory. I think it’s probably more accurately described as a small victory—one that could take on more significance if MPs are willing to make use of it.

The basic problem is an imbalance of power. At present, it is the party leader who possess an overwhelming amount of it. When Mark Warawa stood on a question of privilege, he was openly questioning this dynamic. Nine other government backbenchers followed suit and did likewise. Those acts alone were significant in that they demonstrated a degree of independence and empowerment.

It is possible, I suppose, that someone on the government side had some inkling that simply standing up during the time reserved for statement by members would have allowed MPs to subvert the list prepared by their party whip. Mr. Warawa says he had no idea. Regardless, when the Speaker stood and ruled as he did, it was an official and public acknowledgement and invitation: an important statement from the authority of the Speaker’s throne that the whip and his list do not prevent MPs from performing the physical act of standing. If, as it seemed, Mark Warawa’s subsequent threat to stand without official approval resulted in him being put on the whip’s list, that was a specific victory for Mr. Warawa: a concession from his party’s leaders that they did not wish to be publicly subverted. Going forward, any backbencher who is told he cannot stand and speak, as Mr. Warawa was, can plausibly threaten to stand of his or her own volition.

Of course, the system of incentives—the political and media pressures—that existed before the Speaker’s ruling still exists now. And there is much more that might be done to achieve a more healthy balance between the party leader and the MP, the executive and the legislature. But over the last few weeks, ten government backbenchers stood and asked the Speaker to confirm their rights as individual members of the legislature and the Speaker responded with a public assurance that they could stand at their own discretion. That is a small, but potentially useful, victory.

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