Backbench MPs are turning up the pressure in frustration over the Prime Minister's Office stifling debate in the House of Commons.

MPs who oppose abortion and want to see legislated limits for it are pushing back against caucus discipline, particularly in light of an all-party committee shutting down debate last week on a non-binding motion to condemn sex-selective abortion.

But they aren't the only ones upset with heavy-handed tactics on the part of the Conservative leadership. That frustration boiled over Tuesday in the House of Commons, leading several MPs to raise public complaints about a party that has so far maintained strict control over what its members can say.

"There has been predominantly informal discussion about what is, or what is not, our rights, and MPs have to decide what's wrong and what's right, and what our rights are," said one Conservative MP, who requested anonymity.

A series of tactics seem to have led to the rebellion, including PMO staff denying MPs the right to make statements in the House of Commons, and a move by a three-member subcommittee to deny a Conservative MP the right to bring a non-binding motion on sex-selective abortion to the floor of the House for debate.

Last week, the subcommittee of the procedure and House affairs committee voted that Mark Warawa's motion — "That the House condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination" — was non-voteable, or ineligible to go before the House for debate and a vote. The MPs, including a Conservative MP, made the decision against the advice of a non-partisan Library of Parliament analyst.

Warawa tabled M-408 last September and was expecting to be able to debate it this spring. Motions aren't binding on the House of Commons even if they pass, unless they cover matters falling under House authority.

There are only a handful of reasons why a bill or motion can be disqualified before it hits the floor of the House, including:

  • Falling outside federal jurisdiction.
  • Clearly violating the Constitution, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
  • Doubling up on business already voted on by the House of Commons in the current session of Parliament.
  • Doubling up on business already put forward by the government.

On Tuesday, Warawa raised a question of privilege in the House of Commons, asking the Speaker to clarify whether members have the right to make statements on issues of their choice. House rules, or standing orders, provide for 15 members every day to make one-minute statements before question period, known as SO-31s.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said he won't reopen the abortion debate

'Dozens' share concern

Warawa said in the House Tuesday that he was removed from the list of SO-31s 15 minutes before the time for members' statements was due to start.

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Backbench Conservative MPs such as Mark Warawa are turning up the pressure in frustration over the Prime Minister's Office stifling debate in the House of Commons. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"The reason I was given was they didn't approve of the topic," he said. 

"So I believe, Mr. Speaker, that my privilege as a member to present an SO-31 was infringed... I believe it's not an issue specifically for me. I've experienced a removal of my right and my privilege, but it's a question for how this house operates."

Alberta Conservative MP Leon Benoit seconded Warawa's concern, telling the House that the same thing has happened to him.

"I have had my rights taken away when it comes to representing my constituents on certain topics and I just don't think that's appropriate," he said.

 "I'm not allowed to speak on certain topics on SO-31s. I've had SO-31s removed. And I've been told that if I have it on certain topics, I simply won't be given SO-31s."

"Dozens" of MPs see this as a problem, Benoit told reporters before question period.

'Should be concern' to opposition too

It's important for MPs from all parties to support Warawa's bid for member control over their statements, Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber says.

"It doesn't really matter what your perspective is on [Motion-]408. The issue is whether or not a member of Parliament has a right to bring forward a motion that is deemed voteable by the independent expert that assessed it. And if that right is taken away, that should be a concern to parliamentarians on all sides of the House."

"I believe if there is going to be any concrete change to the way this works... it's going to require support from more than just the Conservative caucus. I think it's going to require support from backbenchers from all sides of the house."

Some Conservative MPs said they are free to express their opinions. Michelle Rempel says the Conservative caucus respects MPs' ability to speak freely on behalf of their constituents. Ryan Leef said he writes his own speeches.

The MPs haven't gone as far as to set out other specific actions in protest, but "there has been discussion among members of Parliament about how it's important to maintain the right of MPs to vote freely and stand up," the unnamed Conservative MP said.

"And that includes not just social conservative MPs, but a wide range of people on the Conservative backbench."

"If our rights continue to be trampled upon, as appears to possibly be happening [with the Warawa motion], at that point MPs are going to have to sit down and decide where their line in the sand is and what to do."

Part of the problem, MPs say, is that young staffers have more control over the government's agenda than they do.

Rathgeber pointed to the career histories of his colleagues — ranging from corporate jobs to medicine to farming to law. Yet the opinions of caucus, he says, are "of less significance and some might say of zero significance within PMO and ministers' offices."

Asked about the stereotypical 25-year-old staffer in the PMO, Rathgeber said it was a source of frustration for him as a former trial lawyer.

"Well, quite frankly, I like to write my own questions. And to have questions prepared by the type of, the age and experience of the individual that you described, it's frustrating at best and a little demeaning at its worst."

Even members' statements vetted

There are few ways for MPs outside of cabinet to raise issues on Parliament Hill. The party whip assigns them to committees and they have to vote with their party on government bills and motions. Private members bills and motions are some of the only means MPs have to tackle problems in which they're interested.

But even the SO-31s are vetted by Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan's office, Rathgeber said.

"They will either tell us that they're okay or suggest improvements or modifications," he said.

'We have a great responsibility in coming to Ottawa. We're sent here from our communities. That's who our boss is, that's who we report to, is our community'—B.C. Conservative MP Mark Warawa

"They also vet them for timeliness. I think that's reasonable. With respect to content, I've always been uncomfortable having to submit my SO-31s to the House Leader's office in advance."

The Liberals and NDP both say they don't vet SO-31s. A Liberal spokeswoman says the party occasionally prioritizes one statement over another because they only get two per day, but they don't censor content or subject matter.

NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen says the party's leadership works with whichever MP has the last statement before question period begins, but that he doesn't hear the other statements until the MPs read them in the House.

Cullen says he wants to take a closer look at the rules of the House and will probably have a response ready for Wednesday.

"Obviously, in the Conservative caucus ... they are having a hard time controlling that conversation right now and there’s obvious frustration building within certainly the backbench of the Conservatives. They’re talking about punishment and being taken away from certain committees or chairmanships or chairpersonships," he said.

As for whether Warawa's motion should go to the House for debate, Cullen said the NDP member on the subcommittee agreed with the argument that the motion infringes on provincial jurisdiction because it deals with health care.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae says the issue has already been dealt with.  

"That's a matter for the committee," he told reporters after question period. "For me the point has to be made that, we think that, in principle, members should be allowed to speak their mind but at the same time there are rules with respect to motions that are before the House. You don't want the same motion or the same subject matter to be brought back week after week after week, and I think that's the concern that's being expressed."

Rae says parties shouldn't be able to control members' statements.

'Violation' of MPs' ability to represent voters

Warawa tabled his motion on Sept. 26, the day MPs voted down a motion by Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth to strike a committee to examine when human life begins, which was widely seen as a way to reopen the debate over setting limits on abortion.

Just over half of Conservative MPs voted in favour of Woodworth's motion — 86 of 163 (since then, byelections and one resignation have brought their total seats in the House to 164). Another 74 Conservative MPs voted against the motion, including most of cabinet. The motion was defeated, 203 to 91.

According to one MP, the Prime Minister's Office told Conservative MPs that there were to be no more motions or private member's bills on abortion. But for those who believe in limits on abortion, or whose constituents believe in limits on abortion, that direction is hard to take.

Rathgeber says it's fair for the party leaderships to oppose motions and bills and vote against them, or even whip the caucus to vote against them.

"But to censor it right out of the gate by determining it to be non-voteable in the face of evidence — uncontradicted evidence — that it is voteable, I mean, I really am concerned that this is a violation of [a] member of Parliament's ability to represent his or her constituents and to speak on issues of importance to him or her," Rathgeber says.

Warawa agrees.

"We have a great responsibility in coming to Ottawa. We're sent here from our communities. That's who our boss is, that's who we report to, is our community. So to lose some of those privileges, I think, is serious and to have then in committee, like subcommittee at [procedure and House affairs committee], if they're not going to obey the rules then we have some serious questions to ask," he told CBC News in an interview.