Inside Politics

UPDATED - All 6 Liberal leadership candidates weigh in on abortion motion

Earlier today, New Democrat MP Nathan Cullen rose in the House to share his thoughts on Conservative MP Mark Warawa's contention that his privileges were breached when the government yanked his name from last Thursday's members' statement speaking list.

Although Cullen did not explicitly endorse his Commons colleague's complaint, his speech -- which you can read here -- at least made it clear that he shared the view that it is a crucial question, and one with deep significance for both Parliament and Canadians, and eventually seemed to come down, albeit indirectly, on the side of freedom of speech for backbenchers.

Conspicuously absent thus far, however, has been the Liberal caucus, collectively and as individuals. 

As yet, the party has not put up a single speaker on Warawa's point of privilege -- and, according to a spokesperson for the now vacant office of the leader, currently has no plans to do so.

But what about the six Liberals hoping to move into that office?

Yesterday afternoon, I sent the following query to the six Liberals currently competing for the right to move into that office:

Does [candidate] think the procedure committee should reverse the decision to deem Mark Warawa's motion on sex-selective abortion non-votable?

What about the privilege complaint re: party control of speaking slots for members' statements, and complaints from the Conservative backbench about being denied spots on topical grounds?

Finally, if [candidate] is elected leader, how much freedom would MPs have to put forward private members business and give statements?

As yet, I haven't heard back from Martin Cauchon, Martha Hall Findlay or Justin Trudeau, but Joyce Murray, Deborah Coyne and Karen McCrimmon were only too happy to reply. 

Those responses, in the order in which they were received:

Joyce Murray:

1. The advice of the Clerk should be the guiding force on whether a motion is votable. If such a motion came to a vote I would certainly have voted against it.

2. The intention of Parliament is for MP's to represent their constituents in advancing the public interest. That said there will be times Leadership should ensure topics are consistent with Party principles and positions, and in my view this issue (opening the abortion debate) qualifies, so party control is justified. I do want to congratulate Mark though, for rebelling against the consistent over-control of SO31s by the PMO. The endless Conservative SO31s parroting PMO messages, like "carbon tax" attacks, must be frustrating for MPs and certainly undermines public respect for Parliament. Controlling SO 31's should rare, as it is one of the few areas where M.P.'s get to speak on a topic of their choosing

3. All MP's would have freedom to put forth PMB's and give SO 31's as they see fit. However there will be the rare occasions that a PMB or SO31 will not be permitted if the individual benefit of this action could result in substantial harm to the interests of the Liberal party.

Deborah Coyne:

I have not been following the procedural debate surrounding Mr. Warawa's private member's resolution too closely, due to the campaign. But generally speaking, I believe too much power has been centralized in the prime minister's office at the expense of Parliament, and I have proposed several measures to return more power to Parliament and to MPs. For more, see my essay "Restoring power to Parliament." (

I would not support Mr. Warawa's private member resolution. Among other things it is unclear to what legal and ethical measures the resolution might lead. But I would be prepared to make the following arguments in a Parliamentary debate on the subject and would defend the member's right to take an opposing view.

I certainly condemn sex-selection abortions. The issue is whether the government has a role to play in prohibiting them. I am coming from a strong, unambiguous pro-choice stance. But saying that I am pro-choice does not mean no ethical duties on doctors. Indeed, pro-choice supporters have never suggested that abortion should be completely unregulated by medical ethics. A doctor need not and must not perform a procedure that is not in the best interests of the patient or where the patient's choice is evidently determined by extreme outside pressure or duress.

Doctors should be aware of the outside pressure behind the patient's choice for a sex-selection abortion and must comply with the letter and spirit of recently amended codes of ethics issued by provincial councils of physicians and surgeons regarding such procedures. However, a real world solution to ending sex-selection abortions should preserve or enhance the real capacity of women to choose, and it should not be subject to misuse by those who would like to bring the state back into the relationship between the woman and her doctor.

Karen McCrimmon:

1. I won't second-guess the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs who denied Mr Warawa's appeal of the Subcommittee on Private Members' Business decision, as long as the decision is based on the criteria for non-votability pursuant to Standing Order 91.1.

2. I can't speak to any internal Conservative Party policy or practice concerning Private Members' business. The Speaker will rule on matters of privilege.

3. While we might not always like or agree with what MPs present in Private Members' Bills or Motions, I believe they need the freedom to do so.

So, there you have it.  I'll update this post with responses from the other three candidates just as soon as any such responses turn up in my inbox.

UPDATE: As promised, the first of what I hope is a series of late but still very much welcome submissions, this one courtesy of Martha Hall Findlay: 

1. As long as the procedure committee has followed all relevant committee rules, it is not for me or anyone to overrule. If it has not, it should go back and do so.

2. I may not support Mark Warawa's motion, but I support, 100%, his right to raise the issue in a member's statement (SO31). There are HoC guidelines on the use of SO31s that I would ask all members, of ALL parties, to comply with. I do not condone the use of SO31s for partisan attacks, which is inconsistent with those guidelines, as has been done constantly and shamelessly by the Harper government. Mark Warawa speaking to this issue is far more within those guidelines than any of the partisan attacks found in most other Conservative SO31s.  The hypocrisy of the Harper government on this issue is extraordinary.

3. Full freedom. Freedom to speak in the House of Commons is fundamental to what an MP is elected for. If an MP speaks to something that is contrary to fundamental Party policy, the Party can clarify to the public in any number of ways that the MP in question is speaking for her or himself and not on behalf of the Party. But muzzling individual MPs in the House is not appropriate.

Via twitter, Justin Trudeau offers this reply:

FINAL UPDATE: Better (nearly a week) late than never, Martin Cauchon has sent in this response, in which he vows that, if elected leader, Liberal MPs  would be free to "introduce private members' bills, read statements in the House of Commons and introduce motions without executive interference":  

Recent revelations that Prime Minister Harper is muzzling his own MPs should not come as a surprise. After all, his penchant for controlling every other aspect of government activity has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past six years. As someone who promised a more open and accountable government during the 2006 election, he promptly followed through on this commitment by introducing the Federal Accountability Act which contained major changes to the public service, the Elections Act and the Access to Information Act, as well as creating an Ethics Commissioner and a Parliamentary Budget Officer. Then he promptly proceeded to diminish, ignore or destroy every one of these measures in his efforts to muzzle bureaucrats and prevent media or public access to information. 

Similarly, in the 2004 election Mr. Harper's campaign slogan was Demand Better, and he spent much of that election criticizing then-prime minister Paul Martin for forcing his Liberal MPs to "toe the party line." At that time Mr. Harper told Canadians he believed "individual members of parliament have the right to raise issues through private members' bills, and to express their personal views or those of their constitutents." Evidently that was window-dressing as well. Instead of offering greater independence, Mr. Harper has gone to unprecedented lengths to force his own backbenchers to toe the party line, ignoring parliamentary traditions and expert opinion. 

While I recognize the importance of party discipline in a Westminster-model parliamentary system such as ours, I also know that both the United Kingdom and Australia offer more independence to their backbench MPs than we have done. Toeing the line in voting on important government legislation is one thing, but as Liberal leader I would support more free votes on other legislation, just as I would restore the rights of government MPs to introduce private members' bills, read statements in the House of Commons and introduce motions without executive interference. I would also introduce measures to provide parliamentary committees with more resources to perform their duties, including dedicated research staffs as is the practice in the United States. In short, if Canadians are to believe parliament matters, we must give MPs the tools to do their jobs.

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