Since 2005, Stephen Harper’s government has been accused of stifling the freedom of its Members of Parliament (MPs), and being overly controlling of the parliamentary agenda. This past week, Conservative MP Mark Warawa attempted to debate and pass a motion in the House of Commons that would condemn the practice of sex-selective abortion. He found his motion declared ineligible by a bipartisan House subcommittee.
The clearest explanation for why this motion was not allowed to go to the floor was supplied by Minister Rona Ambrose, who said, “The concern about Mr. Warawa’s motion is that the opposition has positioned it as an issue about abortion, so it becomes a very divisive issue.”
The Conservative whip, Gordon O’Connor, also gave a revealing glimpse into the mind of the government, by comparin Harper’s control of his MPs, to that which a coach would have over his athletes. Instead of playing a vital role in Parliament, MPs are viewed essentially as puppets, and are subject to censure if they wish to state anything remotely controversial.
There are so many dysfunctions at play here, that it is difficult to start with just one. Obviously, much of the blame must fall with the Prime Minister, who has repudiated the notion of parliamentary freedom within his own party. This not only sets a bad tone for the present, but it will also give future Prime Ministers the precedent to muffle the voices of their MPs. It seems that with every new parliamentary session, the Prime Minister’s office gains more power, while MPs are increasingly relegated to the sidelines. To some extent though, Harper’s concern is understandable. It is likely, had this motion gone to the floor, that it would have turned into a partisan shouting match, with Harper’s opponents accusing the government of finally enacting a secret pro-life agenda.
This fear of an overblown reaction to a symbolic motion, with which most Canadians would probably agree, is another dubious trait of our current system of government. However, Harper may have miscalculated whether this is really an issue that the opposition wants to fall on its own sword for. I cannot imagine that a large portion of MP’s would be so vocal against this motion, even if they feared it would open a conversation about abortion. While to be taken with a grain of salt, an Environics poll commissioned by LifeCanada found that 92 per cent of Canadians were against the practice of sex-selective abortion. Thus, Warawa’s motion would theoretically be met with approval, either silent or overt.
Besides the public support battle, Harper is also losing a tactical skirmish with opposition parties. While Harper appears obstinate, the NDP is busy sticking up for MP independence, with house leader Nathan Cullen saying that whether one agrees or disagrees with Warawa, every MP should be able to speak their conscience. Though undoubtedly a bit cynical, Cullen has only shown how Harper has positioned his opponents for a win-win situation. If Harper doesn’t allow Warawa to bring his motion to the floor, he is rightly deemed as someone overly controlling of his caucus. If Warawa does bring the motion to the floor Harper will be decried for wanting to strip women of their abortion rights.
Given the choice between those two unsavory options, it would seem that the right choice regarding both principle and strategy would be to permit Warawa to bring his motion to the floor—allowing at least some modicum of autonomy to be brought back to the House of Commons.