Conservative MP wants free votes on 'matters of conscience'

In the waning days of the fractious and factionalized 41st Parliament, a Conservative backbencher is preparing to put a fundamentally philosophical question to the House: Should MPs have the right to vote freely on "all matters of conscience?"

Saskatchewan's Ed Komarnicki calls it a 'pretty straight-forward' motion. Is it?

Conservative MP Ed Komarnicki, pictured here at a 2009 affordable housing announcement, is asking the House to back a motion calling for free votes for all "matters of conscience." (Canadian Press)

In the waning days of the fractious and factionalized 41st Parliament, a Conservative backbencher is preparing to put a fundamentally philosophical question to the House: Should MPs have the right to vote freely on "all matters of conscience?"

Such is the substance of the private members' motion that will be put before the Commons Thursday evening, courtesy of Ed Komarnicki.

Speaking with reporters outside the Conservative caucus room Wednesday, the four-term MP from rural Saskatchewan — who has already announced he won't be running for re-election — said his was a "pretty straight forward" motion.

"As you know, there are issues of conscience, Supreme Court of Canada decisions that deal with matters that are difficult and people have differences of views and differences of opinions on that," he noted.

"I think it's important to have the members have that ability and right on whatever issue relates to conscience matters — whether it be a government bill, a private member's bill, a motion or anything like that."

Supported bid to examine definition of 'human being'

In 2012, Komarnicki, who regularly attends the annual March for Life rally against abortion on Parliament Hill, voted in favour of Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth's proposal to ask a special committee to review the Criminal Code definition of when life begins. A majority of the Conservative caucus members who were in the House that night supported the motion, as well as several Liberal MPs, although not in sufficient numbers to prevent its defeat.

Komarnicki also backed a similarly doomed pitch from fellow Conservative backbencher Maurice Vellacott to revamp Canada's divorce laws to focus on "equal parenting."

Under the current system, all votes on private members' business are considered free votes unless explicitly designated otherwise.

One question Komarnicki will likely have to address is how, exactly, "matters of conscience" would be defined.

The term has traditionally been applied to life-and-death issues such as abortion, capital punishment and assisted suicide — the latter issue almost certainly being one of the motivating factors behind Komarnicki's motion, given his reference to the Supreme Court.

But if interpreted more broadly, it could theoretically cover a wide array of other topics.

For an avowed pacifist, a motion in support of military action would doubtless qualify as a matter of conscience.

It's also unclear how broadly the scope would be drawn if, for instance, an ethically sensitive provision was included as part of an omnibus bill.

Tories, Liberals won't tip vote

In any case, while Komarnicki told reporters he expects support for the motion from "all members," a spokeswoman for Conservative Whip John Duncan declined to inform CBC News of how Tory MPs will be advised — although not instructed — to vote.

The New Democrats are promising that for their MPs, it will be a free vote on free votes, while the Liberals did not respond to a request for comment.

That may well be due to internal uncertainty over whether such a policy would conflict with leader Justin Trudeau's position that all Liberal MPs will be expected to vote against any attempt to restrict abortion rights.

It also may turn out to be moot. With just three weeks left until the Commons shuts down for the summer — actually longer, given the fall's fixed election date — it likely won't make it to a second round of debate unless a sympathetic colleague were to swap him a spot near the top of the private members' priority list.

It's also worth noting that, as is the case with virtually all private members' motions, Komarnicki's proposal is entirely non-binding, but would simply represent this particular House expressing its collective view on the issue.

Still, at the very least, Komarnicki will be able to leave the Hill secure in the knowledge he started the conversation, even if it is ultimately left to the next set of MPs to decide whether to keep it going.


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