The Backbench Spring: John Weston makes 10

Another Conservative speaks in support of Mark Warawa

Missed this at the time: before Megan Leslie spoke this afternoon, John Weston became the tenth Conservative MP to stand in the House and express his support for Mr. Warawa’s question of privilege.

Mr. Speaker, thank you for allowing me to address one question of privilege this morning. Doing so on this day of April 19 allows me to allude to a second related privilege, that of marking the anniversary of the shot heard around the world, the day in which the American Revolution began on April 19, 1775 near Boston. Especially momentous is Bostonians are in lockdown as we speak, confronted by an assault on freedom and democracy. Let me first reflect briefly on the relevance of the shot heard around the world and what is happening today in Boston.

The phrase was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his poem The Concord Hymn which commemorates the shots in Lexington and Concord near Boston, shots which set into the play that led, among other things, to the signing of the American Declaration of Independence.

As Bostonians stand once again today at the centre of a battle for freedom and democracy, we recognize it is not for the first time in their history. Only last Monday, terrorists attacked innocent people in Boston who had at the Boston Marathon gathered to enjoy the fruits of peace and democracy. They rightly expected to revel in one another’s company, secure and unthreatened by tyranny or violence. Bostonians stand against those who menace them.

We offer the people of Boston our prayers and goodwill. I invite members to join with the U.S. Ambassador, Running Room Manager Phil Marsh and me on Monday at 1 p.m. to march together to the U.S. Embassy to show that we stand with Bostonians and Americans at this difficult time. I invite you, Mr. Speaker, and all members of the House to join us.

The formal question of privilege to which I speak today relates to the right of a member of the House to speak freely on whatever topic he or she believes merits the attention of our democratically elected House in the execution of our parliamentary duties. Specifically, I understand the question put to you by the member for Langley is his question of privilege of which institution has the right to administer rotating members’ statements in the House; you, as the Speaker, or the party whips, independent of your authority. I am not referring to the specific motion originally brought by the member for Langley, but to the critical nature of preserving a legislator’s free voice in this institution.

My reference to the U.S. experience in freedom and democracy relates to the matter at hand because our American neighbours put the separation of powers at the foundation of their democratic system, right alongside a sister concept, the use of checks and balances to curb powers that tempt one or another institution to overreach.

The writings of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in The Federalist Papers laid the groundwork for the American Constitution. In the first of their 88 treatises they posed the question whether men and women are really capable of establishing good government. The corralling of normal human deficiencies within institutional checks and balances is at the very heart of the question of privilege raised by my colleague, the MP for Langley.

In the words of Hamilton and company: It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

In Federalist 51, the authors argued strongly for the independence of the separate arms of government to resist “usurpations” of power and prerogatives of one by the other. Otherwise, each institution stands to suffer encroachment by the others.

To secure these ends, Madison and his partners suggest that “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department” is to enable each separate institution, be it the executive or the legislature, to fend off attempts to encroach upon one another’s domains.

I couch my argument today in institutional language intentionally to remove the debate from the personalities involved. I do not seek to pitch the discussion in terms of a battle for power between individuals, between whatever person happens to preside as a cabinet figure, and whatever legislators are advocating for preservation or expansion of their legislative capacity. Our media are then tempted to build on the personal nature of such a narrative, in turn, attributing personal motives and ascribing malevolent or ambitious motives to the people involved.

It would in fact be easier to make the argument I make today if we had a Prime Minister who fostered ill will toward the legislature or who was guilty of corruption. Instead, we have a Prime Minister who rose from a world of grassroots democracy and who has fostered unprecedented mechanisms for caucus participation in the formulation of government policy. He has consistently demonstrated a standard of integrity and honest government epitomized in the first bill he passed as Prime Minister: the Accountability Act. Our front bench, whether Prime Minister, Minister of Finance, or others, are consistently toasted as international paragons of good government and sound economic management.

However, does this mean that, because the people in executive or cabinet positions of our government are model democratic leaders, we should allow our institutions to be stretched to accommodate a swelling of power of the executive at the expense of the legislature? I would argue that the doors opened by a good and benevolent Prime Minister and whip will still be open for access by a much less praiseworthy, less accountable executive who may someday follow.

So, on a day when the world is focused on the birthplace of American democracy, I have indulged this House to hear my views which, I believe, reflect the views of my constituents concerning the point of privilege raised by the MP for Langley. Its importance stretches back to the birthplace of western democracy, back through the precedents in this House cited by able members of Parliament who have spoken before me on this same point, back through the thinking of Hamilton, Madison and Jay, and back even further to the Isle of Runnymede in 1215, when King John, an executive with far less devotion and accountability than our current executive, was confronted with the need for the separation of powers. In short, the principles we discuss today have received attention in other western democracies to which we sometimes look for inspiration: those of Great Britain and the United States.

Mr. Speaker, you have an important and sombre duty to execute in ruling on this point of privilege raised by the member for Langley. That is, who has the authority to administer members’ statements, the Speaker or the party leaders?

In executing your duty, Mr. Speaker, I draw your attention to the famous incident which occurred in 1642 when King Charles I entered Parliament, searing for parliamentarians who had refused to heed his will. Charles I was anti-democratic and sought not to be accountable to his people, the exact opposite of the Prime Minister and cabinet who serve Canadians today with long-standing, devoted and proven commitment to freedom and democracy. In response to King Charles I, William Lenthall, the speaker at the time, responded with the following words. He said:

May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here.

I reiterate, the problem relates not to people and power today, but in the potential impact on the democratic capacity of legislators in the future to perform our roles. I believe it is the Speaker, and I mean the institution of Speaker not the person, who should administer rotating members’ statements in this House, not a party leader nor his or her representatives. Speaker Lenthall, long ago, observed the importance of the separation of powers.

Mr. Speaker, I urge you to act with the same courage and dignity, as you ponder the important point of privilege raised by the member for Langley.