Chris Hall: Abortion politics masquerading as free speech

A handful of Conservative backbenchers are waging open rebellion against the PM over who gets to say what in Parliament. But as Chris Hall reports, this is less about the rights of MPs than it is about the politics of abortion, which Stephen Harper has no time for.

Harper's 'rogue' MPs show caucus rift

One of the issues here: Who controls who gets to speak in Parliament? (Canadian Press)

Far more journalists than usual crammed the hallway outside the Conservatives' weekly caucus meeting on Wednesday, drawn by the prospect of a handful of backbench MPs waging an open rebellion against the prime minister.

The issues: free speech and abortion.

Alas, the revolt never spilled into the hallways, where it would have been laid bare before camera and microphone.

But the challenge to Stephen Harper's authority remains. And it's providing a rare glimpse at a real rift inside the Conservative Party.

The rebellion began earlier in the week when Langley MP Mark Warawa publicly accused the party's leadership of trampling his rights as an MP, by refusing to allow him to make a statement in the Commons in the time reserved for backbenchers to speak.

At least two other MPs openly supported Warawa, saying they, too, had been blocked from raising certain topics during members' statement, topics that they say represent the views of their constituents.

They also said that they speak for many others in the Conservative caucus.

Those views, of course, are on abortion, arguably the most troublesome, divisive and politically explosive issue Harper has had to face.

It's a bedrock principle for many in his party, anathema to others.

Not the first attack

The prime minister has repeatedly said that he will not re-open the abortion debate as long as he's in office. And he's been true to that commitment, even as social conservatives inside his caucus continue to craft creative ways to resurrect the subject.

Conservative MP Mark Warwa gets set on Wednesday to ask the Commons house affairs committee to accept his private member's motion. (Fred Chartrand / Canadian Press)

The first volley was a motion brought by Kitchener Centre MP Stephen Woodworth that would have seen a committee investigate whether life really begins at birth.

That motion made it to the floor of the Commons last fall. It was defeated, but not before a number of Conservative broke ranks to support it.

Significantly, the supporters included Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Rona Ambrose, the minister responsible for women's issues.

That led, understandably, to extensive media coverage and even wider speculation about the split inside the caucus, including the willingness of some members of cabinet to break with at least the spirit of Harper's commitment to voters.

Worse still, it was an unwelcome deviation from the prime minister's economic message, a deviation that he doesn't want repeated.

The Prime Minister's Office has exercised tight control over MPs.

Private member's bills are vetted closely. "Talking points" are issued — and repeated without a single altered word — on the most pressing issues the government faces, from the proposed purchase of the F-35 fighter craft to scrapping the long-gun registry.

Which bring us to Mark Warawa. He's not only off-script. He's off-message.

Party games

Warawa's private member's motion calls on Parliament to condemn the use of sex-selective abortion, a position most fair-minded people (even most MPs) would probably agree with.   

The motion, however, was ruled out of order by all the parties on a parliamentary sub-committee, a decision Warawa is now challenging before the full Procedure and House Affairs Committee.

And this is where it gets interesting.

Not content to allow the committee to do its work, Warawa stood in the Commons this week to complain to the Speaker that his own party is violating his privileges by refusing to allow him to make a member's statement on abortion.

He and his supporters argue MPs must be allowed to represent the views of their constituents, an argument that obscures the fact that this is the second attempt in six months to use their public platform to re-open the abortion debate against the express wishes of their party leader.

It's clever, and principled up to a point, though it is also totally cynical.

These same MPs haven't said a peep in the past about being told what to say by the prime minister's officials.

They, and others, routinely devote members' statements to read Conservative Party attacks on NDP leader Tom Mulcair's "$20-billion-carbon tax" and the like.

Before that, they just as routinely assailed then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff for ''just visiting" his home country.

These statements hardly qualified as issues of local concern to an MP's riding — the purpose of the daily 15 minutes devoted to member's statements.

And they are so similar in tone and content that it's clear they've been written by a single hand.

Nor, to this point, are Warawa or any of the other social conservatives who want abortion back on the national agenda prepared to quit the Conservative caucus over this so-called point of principle.

Caucus clash

It's clear, at least to the party brass, that these attempts won't end with Warawa's motion, any more than they did when the Commons voted down the first thinly-veiled attempt to re-open the abortion debate.

"We know who is behind this and what their goal is,'' a senior government aide said prior to the caucus meeting.

So the prime minister went into Wednesday's caucus to try to put an end to the distraction.

His office won't say what he told his rebellious MPs, citing caucus confidentiality. But some MPs didn't hold back.

Nipissing-Timiskaming MP Jay Aspin called the complainers ''rogues.''

"The Conservative Party has a policy. We had a policy going into the last election and they failed to adhere to it.''

Lethbridge MP Jim Hillyer says nobody's privileges as an MP are being denied.

''People willingly choose to be in parties,'' he told reporters. "And it's up to us to decide whether we want to be in a party and we decide how to work together.''

The message appeared to get through to at least one of Warawa's supporters.

Vegreville MP Leon Benoit — who complained on Tuesday that his rights had been taken away "when it comes to representing my constituents on certain topics'' was suddenly full of praise for the prime minister.

"We had a really good caucus meeting and the prime minister has shown his usual really good leadership, and I appreciate that. He's a great leader."

Harper, of course, has many tools at his disposal to deal with malcontents.

He can banish MPs from his caucus, as he did with former MP Helena Guergis. He can also refuse to sign the nomination papers of anyone who ignores the decree that abortion will not be re-opened.

However, despite the PM's intervention, Warawa's efforts continued to draw support inside caucus.

No fewer than four backbench Conservative MPs presented petitions in the Commons Wednesday afternoon calling on Parliament to support his motion to condemn sex-selective abortion.

Warawa may feel he's being muzzled. But his message is getting through.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.