Democratic reform should start at home. It is presumptuous and disingenuous for the Conservative government to appoint a minister of state with such a noble name and charged with undertaking such a noble mission, and to advocate reforms to, say, the Senate, no matter how desirable they may be, while at the same time enforcing rigid procedural controls that deny MPs fundamental freedom of speech.
The Speaker of the House of Commons is expected to rule soon, perhaps Monday, on a matter of privilege, after Mark Warawa, a Conservative MP, was prevented by his party whip from speaking for one minute during the 15 minutes reserved each day for members’ statements. The Speaker has a chance, in a small way, to strengthen Canadian democracy by asserting his own power of recognition in the House.
Mr. Warawa has been concerned about sex-selective abortion, and abortion is a fraught subject for the party. The Conservative leadership has successfully fought off the perception that the party is beholden to a hidden social conservative agenda. Their political instincts are to stay clear of this thorny issue, and they are probably right. That exercise in judgement on a host of issues is why they are in power today. Used appropriately, the whip is a necessary tool in parliamentary democracy, and there are plenty of ways that the party leadership can exercise control over MPs who wander off message.
But to apply heavy-handed “command and control” tactics (to use the words of one Conservative MP) to members’ statements is going too far. Mr. Warawa was told his promised slot was removed and his topic “was not approved.” There are precious few opportunities for ordinary MPs to speak on issues that are of concern to them and their constituents, and this right is worth fighting for, as a number of Conservative backbenchers are doing.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announced on Friday that the Liberals will introduce a motion that would strip party whips of their power to decide which MPs are allowed to make members’ statements in the House of Commons. This intervention adds an unhelpful layer of partisanship. The Tory MPs may be moved to vote against the motion. Rather than Mr. Trudeau, it is the Speaker who needs to defend members’ privileges.