Inside Politics

Tory MPs implore speaker to lift gag on government backbench

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Conservative MP Mark Warawa's one-man campaign to put his motion on sex-selective abortion back on the House agenda is now threatening to pit the powers that be at PMO against the party's own backbench.

Earlier today, Warawa became the first Conservative MP in more than a decade to raise a point of privilege against his own government for allegedly scotching a previously scheduled pre-QP speaking slot due to his insistence on using the 60 second slot to share the support that his efforts to condemn the practice have elicited from across the country.

It was a move that, though unprecedented, was not, in fact, wholly surprising, given the events of recent days. 

What was unexpected, however, was what happened next. 

Rising to respond to Warawa's impassioned plea for equal rights, Government Whip Gordon O'Connor made no attempt to deny the charge, or pass it off as an unfortunate administrative error. Instead, he coolly reminded House Speaker Andrew Scheer that such matters are the exclusive purview of the parties, and, as such, firmly outside his jurisdiction as guardian of the House.

"Put simply," O'Connor informed him, "this is a team activity and your role is referee ... It is not your job as referee to tell the coach or manager which player to play at any given time."

That, he concluded, "is a question for each team to decide."

As it turned out, though, Warawa wasn't the only player on the Conservative team with complaints about the coaching style.

Shortly after O'Connor wrapped up his remarks, longtime backbencher Leon Benoit backed up Warawa's claim, noting that he, too, had been prevented from delivering statements on certain topics.

"I have had SO 31s removed and I have been told that if I have one on a certain topic, I simply will not be given SO 31s," he told the House.

"I believe this is infringing on my right as an MP to freedom of speech and to represent my constituents freely."

A third Conservative stalwart -- affable Winnipeg MP Rod Bruinooge, a former parliamentary secretary who previously chaired the all-party pro-life caucus -- rose to gently challenge O'Connor's assertion that the current system, in which the whips control the speaking lists, is the only option available to the Commons.

Although he didn't explicitly side with Warawa, he observed that there are, in fact, Westminster-style parliamentary democracies -- including Westminster itself -- that have adopted conventions that permit "members of all parties" to speak out on "matters like this" in an "organized fashion through the speaker."

Speaking from the other side of the House, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May suggested that O'Connor's sports metaphor "cut to the core of what is wrong with parliamentary democracy" by characterizing MPs as "teams" simply there to "take instructions from our team boss."

Calling it "one of the most important points of privilege" that she has yet heard during her two-tenure in the House, she served notice on the government whip that, contrary to his earlier contention, "we are not here as teams," but as representatives of their respective constituents, and mused that, as far as the constitution goes, political parties do not, in fact, exist.

"They are not an essential part of our democracy," she went on, but have nonetheless become "the most interesting thing going" for some observers, which has in turn led to the view of politics "as some sort of sport," despite the fact that democracy, as she reminded her colleagues, is not a sport.

Elsewhere on the opposition benches, New Democrat House Leader Nathan Cullen reserved the right to return to the question at a later time, but seemed to concur with O'Connor that this was, as he put it, "an internal Conservative caucus conversation," although he noted that MPs unhappy with the status quo could propose amendments to the Standing Orders to ensure that all members would have the right to speak.

In fact, the lone voice of unqualified support for the government position came from Lethbridge Conservative MP Jim Hillyer, who mused that "some people" seemed to want to "have their cake and eat it too" by enjoying a freedom of conscience that, in his view, seemed to extend only to independent members while still sitting in caucus.

"We do have the right of association," he pointed out -- as well as the right to disassociate from a party if unable to heed the rules.

"There has been no privilege taken away," Hillyer insisted. "Any member can give his SO 31 if he wants to but if he wants to be part of the so-called team he has to be willing to submit to the rules and the agreements of that so-called team."

At that point, the speaker suspended the debate -- not forever, but just long enough to allow other members and parties to review the matter, and, if so moved, add their thoughts to the debate.

As yet, the Liberals haven't put forward a position, and according to a spokesperson for interim party leader Bob Rae, they have no plans to do so, but other MPs may want to wade into the issue, and Cullen did state more than once in his initial intervention that he might have further points to make.

Although Scheer is unlikely to hand down a decision before the House shuts down for the two-week Easter break, he can't put off this issue forever, no matter how much he might want to do so.

After all, now that the question has been asked, an answer must be given. 

Ultimately, it falls to speaker to protect the rights of MPs, and not the power of the parties -- even if it means going against decades of quietly mutually agreed parliamentary convention, not to mention the position of the party that brought him to Ottawa. 

Heavy is the head that wears the tri-corner hat, as former Liberal speaker Peter Milliken would doubtless agree.  

For the government, meanwhile, what may have started as a quiet attempt to avoid another divisive vote and public caucus split has been bungled so badly that, at this point, it's hard to see why some Conservative strategists aren't secretly rooting for Warawa to win his appeal. 

That, it seems, may be the only outcome that will cause the motion to drop out of the headlines after an initial flurry of coverage, and quell what could become an outright caucus revolt. 

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