Apr 012013
Print Friendly

PM shuts down backbencher attempt to drag out the crazy old aunt in the Tory attic.

by Geoffrey Stevens

The mini-revolt that Stephen Harper suppressed in the Conservative caucus may not have amounted to much last week, but it did raise a couple of important principles — conflicting principles.

The first is the principle that elected members in our system have the right to speak their minds and vote their consciences. They are sent to Parliament (or a legislature) to serve and to represent the interests of their constituents. But they are not mere delegates; they have opinions of their own; they are not witless mouthpieces for their voters.

For the Conservatives, the abortion issue is like having a crazy old aunt who is kept hidden in the attic lest she escape and embarrass the family in front of visitors. Stockwell Day’s leadership of the Canadian Alliance was destroyed when old Reform party got its teeth into abortion and gay rights.

The second principle is that when politicians make promises, they should keep them. If a party leader endorses a particular policy and the party wins election, the electorate is entitled to expect that the government will honour its election commitment.

The two principles came into conflict last week when the social conservative wing of the government caucus, led on this occasion by British Columbia MP Mark Warawa, tried by the back door to reopen a parliamentary debate on abortion.  The device was a motion calling on MPs to condemn the practice of using abortion to determine the gender of newborns — presumably choosing males over females.

Sex-selective abortion is not a burning national issue in Canada. Most MPs, I suspect, don’t even know if it goes on here. But they knew enough to be aware that Warawa and his pro-life allies, including, prominently, Stephen Woodworth, the Conservative MP for Kitchener Centre, were using sex-selective abortion as a device, as the thin edge of a wedge to force a full parliamentary debate on the recriminalization of abortion.

The Prime Minister saw through the transparent tactic. He refused to allow Warawa to introduce his motion — an all-party Commons subcommittee had already decided it was “non-votable,” meaning it was ineligible for further debate. He reminded the Tory caucus of his election commitment not to reopen the abortion issue. He said allowing the motion would be tantamount to breaking that promise.

For the Conservatives, the abortion issue is like having a crazy old aunt who is kept hidden in the attic lest she escape and embarrass the family in front of visitors. Harper doesn’t have to be reminded how the leadership of Stockwell Day, then head of the Canadian Alliance, was destroyed by the Flintstone fringe of the old Reform party when it got its teeth into party policy on abortion and gay rights.

There are still Flintstones in the Tory caucus and occasionally they get out and grab attention. Although Harper was able to muzzle them last week, they will appeal to the speaker of the Commons, and he may let them out again.

But isn’t that what parliamentary democracy is all about? Shouldn’t MPs be free to speak their minds, no matter how controversial or unpopular the issue? Should leaders be able to silence their followers, even the Flintstones among them?

Elizabeth May, the Green party leader, made a valid point. “It cuts to the core of what is wrong with parliamentary democracy,” she said. “We are not here as teams. The principle of Westminster parliamentary democracy is that we are here as representatives of our constituencies and our constituents. Incidentally, we are merely members of political parties.”

The principle is splendid. But how could a country like Canada be governed if MPs were only incidentally members of parties? How would government function? For that matter, how could the Green party survive if its members were free to vote in favour of more oil sands development, more clear-cutting of virgin forests, more pipelines across First Nations lands, or less regulation of air and water pollution?

In the case of abortion, Canada has not had an abortion law for 25 years — not since the Morgentaler decision of 1988. Most Canadians seem content with the situation. There is nothing to be gained from reopening the subject.

Prime Minister Harper says the door is closed — even the back door. Good for him.  

About Geoffrey Stevens

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. He welcomes comments at the address below. This article appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and the Guelph Mercury.

© Copyright 2013 Geoffrey Stevens, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.