Free-speech battle is for MPs to decide, Speaker rules

Speaker Andrew Scheer left the door open for backbench MPs to continue pressing for greater freedom to speak their minds in the House of Commons, but rejected a Conservative MP's complaint his privileges had been infringed.

Liberal motion delayed until Wednesday, 11 Tories part of appeal for less party control

House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer is expected to rule Tuesday afternoon on a complaint by Conservative MP Mark Warawa that his rights as an MP to speak on a topic of his choosing were violated. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Speaker Andrew Scheer left the door open for Conservative backbenchers to continue pressing for greater freedom to speak their minds in the House of Commons.

Scheer told MPs he is following the rules they have set for him when it comes to taking direction from party whips, but he reminded them that he, as Speaker, can recognize an MP's desire to address the House at any time.

Scheer was ruling Tuesday on a complaint by B.C. Conservative Mark Warawa that party whips are muzzling MPs by dictating who gets to speak during the 15-minute members statements before question period each day.

Scheer found that Warawa's parliamentary privilege was not violated when he was prevented from reading a statement in support of his motion condemning sex-selective abortion, pointing out that Warawa had many opportunities to be heard in the Commons and had in fact taken advantage of those opportunities in the past.

However, Scheer said statistics suggest some MPs do not perhaps get the same opportunity to speak as others, and so, he said, Warawa might have a point in making his complaint.

Warawa reacted to the ruling on the social media site Twitter.

"I'm pleased with Speaker Scheer's ruling that MPs have the right to seek the floor at any time," read the tweet from @MPmarkwarawa.

Party control

Warawa's formal appeal to Scheer, called a "question of privilege" in the language of the House of Commons, stems from being told by his party whip last month he was not allowed to deliver a statement in support of his now-abandoned motion condemning sex-selective abortion.

MPs often use members statements to pay tribute to the passing of noteable Canadians, highlight significant anniversaries or make the Commons aware of recent achievements by their constituents.

But sometimes, parties ask MPs to use their statements to deliver partisan messages.

At issue in Warawa's appeal was the intervention by parties to stop one of their MPs from delivering a members statement the party deems contrary to its own communications strategy.

On Monday, Scheer heard from the Liberals, who recently tabled their own motion on statements by members, proposing an alphabetical list be used to determine who speaks when on the topic of his or her choice.

The Liberals had asked Scheer to defer his ruling until after their motion could be debated and vote upon.

"I would urge you, and I believe it would be prudent for you, to wait a few more days, in the hope that this House is able to pronounce itself through a vote ... which we believe would — in a common sense and very democratic way — resolve this issue," said Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc.

The Liberals saw their motion postponed until later this week when the Conservatives suddenly moved up debate on S-7, the anti-terror bill that until recently had languished dormant on the House agenda.

Warawa told the CBC's Julie Van Dusen on Tuesday morning he was leaning towards supporting the Liberal motion.

11 Tories among those supporting Warawa

Independent MP Bruce Hyer also jumped into the fray Monday. Hyer lost the opportunity to deliver one of those statements in the Commons a year ago when the NDP realized he was about to announce he was leaving their caucus.

"We must all recognize that we have developed a problem in Parliament of excessive party control and we must move to fix the problem before it erodes our democracy any further," Hyer said.

The NDP weighed in, but only to say they feel it is more of an internal issue for the Conservatives. Green party Leader Elizabeth May has made comments supportive of Warawa.

At the same time, Scheer was receiving emails from Conservatives with a viewpoint on the issue, and has so far heard from 11 Tories in the Commons, with some making detailed and passionate statements to support Warawa's cause.

The Conservative backbenchers have not challenged or criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper at any point. The frustrations seem to be directed at the attitude taken by party whip Gordon O'Connor, who told Scheer that it wasn't the job of the Speaker to decide who speaks, but rather to act only as a "referee."

"While each party manages the process from a different perspective, the bottom line is that each party makes these decisions," O'Connor said last month.

"The practice for many years in the House is for the Speaker to follow the guidance provided by the parties on which members to call on any given day."

with files from The Canadian Press