Tory backbenchers to test ministers after Speaker's ruling
All eyes this week will be on at least two Conservative backbench MPs who say they are prepared to challenge their own ministers in the Commons, following a ruling last week by Speaker Andrew Scheer that left the door open for MPs to speak their minds regardless of their party's wishes.
Conservative MPs from Alberta Leon Benoit and Brent Rathgeber welcomed the Speaker's ruling and in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House, told host Evan Solomon they will seek to catch Scheer's attention to challenge one of their own ministers on a matter important to them and the constituents they represent.
"The Speaker's ruling makes it clear that I don't have to have the approval of the party leadership in order to stand up and attempt to do so," Rathgeber said.
Benoit, who had once before complained that his rights as an MP had been taken away due to tight party control, said he thought the ruling "reaffirmed that members of Parliament should be allowed to speak on every issue if they want to as long as they can be recognized by the Speaker."
Scheer's ruling Tuesday was in response to a complaint by B.C. Conservative Mark Warawa that party whips are muzzling MPs by dictating who gets to speak during the 15-minute members' statements before question period each day.
The Speaker found that Warawa's parliamentary privilege had not been not violated when he was prevented from reading a statement in support of his motion condemning sex-selective abortion because he had other opportunities to do so in the past.
However, Scheer also noted that Warawa had a point as statistics suggest some MPs do not get the same opportunity to speak as others.
According to Benoit, speaking lists which are prepared by the party whip do have "an important role to play, but that shouldn't exclude those who aren't on the list."
"I present pro-life petitions as often as I get a chance.… I think it really is important to have the Speaker recognizing MPs on that issue as well as any other issue," said the member for Vegreville-Wainwright.
For Rathgeber, who recently mused on his blog "Are members of Parliament mere mouthpieces for their respective parties" or are they "sent to Ottawa to represent their constituents in a chamber where free speech and fulsome debate are essential?" the ruling reaffirms rights that have always existed.
"Parliament exists to hold government to account," he said.
"I believe that some ministers, from time to time, have been disrespectful with respect to their expense accounts and I believe that some departments have budgets that are not justified in times of economic uncertainty where scarce resources are becoming scarcer," Rathgeber said.
"So yes, it is my hope that I will be able to stand and ask a fair but challenging question on how the government spends taxpayer dollars," the member from Edmonton-St. Albert said.
Benoit, who tried to catch the Speaker's attention in the days immediately following Tuesday's ruling but was unsuccessful, said "what's wrong with MPs asking some really tough questions of their ministers?"
Independent MP Bruce Hyer and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May also rose in the Commons hoping to catch the Speaker's eye, to no avail.
While neither MP would say what minister they would challenge, Rathgeber said "at the appropriate time I hope to stand to ask a minister of the Crown to justify or to defend some expenditure, within his or her department, that falls in line with my motivation to ensure that taxpayers get value for money and that we move towards balanced budgets and paying down our debt."
"If you want to participate, you must stand and attempt to do so," Rathgeber said.
A Liberal motion intended to give backbenchers greater freedom to speak first appeared to have the backing of nearly a dozen Conservative backbenchers, but in the end lost steam in the wake of the Speaker's ruling.
The motion, introduced by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, would have seen party whips stripped of their power to decide which MPs are allowed to make members' statements and which are not.