Inside Politics

For the Record: NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen on Warawa privilege debate

Courtesy of NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen, the speaking notes for his musings on Conservative MP Mark Warawa's question of privilege on freedom of speech for backbench MPs, which were delivered in the House of Commons earlier today: 

Thank you Mr. Speaker, for allowing me today to offer a few additional comments on what I believe is a particularly relevant matter.

On March 26, the Member for Langley rose to say that his rights as a Member of Parliament had been infringed upon when he was prevented by the Whip of his own party to deliver a statement in this House, a statement that, in parliamentary terms, we call an "S.O. 31". Much like the terms 'omnibus', 'prorogation', and 'closure' the Conservative Party continues to offer Cdns an unintentional lesson in how are parliamentary system works and how it is being abused.

House of Commons' Standing Order 31, says "a Member may be recognized [...] to make a statement for not more than one minute" every day before Question Period. More commonly we refer to these as Member Statements. 

Dans sa réponse au député de Langley, le Whip en chef du gouvernement a dit que le Président de la Chambre n'avait pas à se prononcer sur cette question, parce qu'il s'agit d'une situation qui doit être gérée uniquement par le Whip du party.

There are two central questions here: 

One concerns the difference between the Standing Orders (rules), and the conventions (practices) that have evolved over time in this place.

The second is your role as Speaker in easing the natural tension that can exist between members and their political parties and the MPs right to speak in parliament.

According to O'Brien and Bosc, p. 254, the Standing Orders are "the permanent written rules under which the House regulates its proceedings". They are the rules we are bound by and they are there to protect parliament and MPs. 

However, O'Brien and Bosc also tell us, on the very next page, that "interpretations given to the older rules have been adapted over time to fit the modern context." This is what we call convention: the practice of the House, which has always and must always continue to evolve and adapt to changing times and circumstances.  The growing number of MPs in the House of Commons, the fact that our proceedings are now televised and streamed online and the increasing use and importance of social media are just some of the realities that parliament attempts to adapt to.  The associated expectations of citizens and the media that follow is something that we are all aware of.

Mr. Speaker, because the Standing Orders are actually silent on the manner in which statements should be attributed to Members, this House has had to interpret S.O. 31, and convention has evolved so that it is now the Whips of each party who are responsible for providing the Chair with a list of Members who will make statements before Question Period. 

This practice is explained in O'Brien and Bosc, on page 423: "In according Members the opportunity to participate in this period, the Chair is guided by lists provided by the Whips of the various parties."

Monsieur le Président, chaque jour notre Whip procède à cet exercice qui consiste à informer le Président de la liste de députés du NPD qui feront une déclaration.

Il va sans dire que les déclarations allouées au NPD sont réservées aux députés du NPD. Et le Nouveau parti démocratique a choisi d'attribuer la grande majorité de ses déclarations selon un principe de rotation, donnant ainsi l'opportunité à tous les députés néo-démocrates de discuter en cette Chambre d'enjeux locaux et de différentes questions qui préoccupent leurs citoyens.

Here we must emphasize the original intent of Members Statements. They are a key tool that Members of Parliament have to bring forward the matters of their constituents. They are often used to bring awareness to the efforts of local leaders in improving the lives of their communities. They are used to celebrate the achievements of their constituents and the work that they do.  They are used to honour significant milestones and highlight important events going on in our ridings.  They are also used to bring to the attention of the House serious local, national or international questions that require the attention of all Canadians.   

Disturbingly, that original intent has been almost entirely lost on the Conservative side of this House. The Conservatives have turned their statements by Members into partisan attack ads, using their allotted statements before question period primarily to attack New Democrats and our leader. They use S.O. 31s as a way to launch a coordinated, concentrated attack against the Official Opposition, instead of talking about issues which really matter to the citizens who elected them. 

Mr. Speaker, I would like to refer to a very good analysis done by Glen McGregor which appeared on March 26th in the Ottawa Citizen. This analysis of statements made by gov't MPs in the House since the last election shows that the NDP and our leader are overwhelmingly the most popular topics for Conservatives. While we are certainly flattered by all of the attention this practice has obviously created some serious conflicts within the government caucus and brought further harm to the reputation of Parliament. 

Monsieur le Président, cela démontre que les conservateurs abusent complètement de ce privilège devant permettre aux députés de s'exprimer, préférant s'en servir pour s'adonner à des attaques mesquines contre l'opposition plutôt que de discuter des enjeux importants pour les citoyens qui les ont élu. 

I am sure Mr. Speaker that you, like me, will not fail to see the irony in comparing the current situation with some of the principles of the (1989) Reform Party manifesto.  In that document the party stated: "We believe in accountability of elected representatives, to the people who elect them, and that the duty of elected members to their constituents should supersede their obligations to their political parties."

Mr. Speaker, not only is this an abuse of the statements by Members, but it creates a serious and growing tension on the one hand between a Members of Parliament need to represent their constituents and to express themselves freely, and on the other hand with their responsibilities to their political party.  That is, of course, intensified if the party does not respect their member's rights. 

Standing Order 31 tells us that "The Speaker may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order."  I know that in the past, Mr. Speaker, that you and your predecessors have been hesitant to impose too heavily when it comes to the proper and improper use of this Standing Order, but I think that the situation we are faced with here brings new light to the tensions that I just described.

Recently, the Chief Government Whip used a hockey analogy, however poorly applied in this case, and equated his role as Whip of the Conservative Party to that of a hockey coach deciding which player goes on the ice.  He suggested that the Speaker was basically the referee and that it is not your place, Mr. Speaker, to interfere with his choices.  I would simply offer this, Mr. Speaker, that if a coach insists on only sending so-called goons onto the ice simply to pick fights, there is no question that the referee will intervene to give some hope that an actual game might be played. 

I think the analogy should stop here Mr. Speaker, because what is happening in this House is not a game. This is the House of Commons, where we, as parliamentarians, must deal every day with complex matters which have a direct impact on the lives of the Canadians who have elected us, who trust us to manage the affairs of this country.

And, Mr. Speaker, I believe that by changing the nature of statements and using them to mindlessly attack the Official Opposition instead of using that time to raise the issues that matter to the people who have elected them, the Conservatives are clearly abusing the Standing Orders.

Allow me to return to the Member for Langley's assertion that his rights and privileges as a Member have been breached.

It bears repeating that I do not agree with the Member for Langley's attempt to reopen the debate on abortion. The NDP will always promote and protect a woman's right to choose. Period.  We are clear in our convictions and present ourselves unapologetically and unambiguously to Canadians in that way each and every election.

But whether one agrees or disagrees with the Member for Langley is not at issue here. The issue is the need for Members of Parliament to speak freely on behalf of those we seek to represent.  We have two essential duties; holding the government to account and speaking four those who elected us to this place.

O'Brien and Bosc, on page 89, explain that "By far, the most important right accorded to Members of the House is the exercise of freedom of speech in parliamentary proceedings." 

Le premier rapport du Comité special sur les droits et immunités des députés de la trentième législature a étudié de près la question de la liberté d'expression. Dans son rapport de 1977, le comité défini le droit à la liberté d'expression des députés comme suit: "un droit fondamental, sans lequel ils [les députés] ne pourraient remplir convenablement leurs fonctions. Cette liberté leur permet d'intervenir sans crainte dans les débats de la Chambre, de traiter des sujets qu'ils jugent pertinents et de dire tout ce qui, à leur avis, doit être dit pour sauvegarder l'intérêt du pays et combler les aspirations de leurs électeurs. »

Mr. Speaker, in conclusion, without the right for Members of Parliament to express themselves freely, our democratic institutions simply cannot function properly. The NDP recognizes this and has always allowed its members the opportunity to express themselves, arriving at consensus through discussion instead of imposing one single, unilateral vision. There is always to be a natural tension in being part of any team: the benefits of being in a party are weighed against the responsibilities to that same party. That is our system. 

You have a difficult task in judging this fine line and believe that you will need the support and confidence of all parties in this place whatever you decide. This is why I find this matter so important, and I am looking forward to your ruling on this matter and on the matter of the protection of Member of Parliament's freedom of speech.

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