The revelation this week that the Harper government blocked a Conservative MP from speaking on the Commons floor about his proposal to condemn sex-selective abortion should not be dismissed as just another exercise in party discipline. Mark Warawa was not proposing to vote against a budget motion. He was not taking a public line in opposition to the government on some major piece of legislation. He was attempting to do, in his way, what Canadians elect their MPs to do, and that is to speak for them. Sometimes the issues they speak about are on uncomfortable subjects, and sometimes that discomfort is felt by party leaders, who have other, overarching considerations. But they should not be silenced.
Some degree of party cohesion is integral to parliamentary functions and even to debate – it is easy to imagine the chaos that would ensue if MPs constantly wandered off on their own. Our party system developed for a reason, and the whip can be useful. The party’s discipline around the issue of abortion is responsible for calming public fears of a hidden social agenda and helped win the Conservatives a majority in the last election.
But when it comes to private members’ business, MPs have traditionally had more freedom to champion their ideas and the views of the constituents that elected them. Yes, the issue Mr. Warawa wanted to raise is sensitive. But should he have been prevented by the party whip from reading a 60-second statement in the Commons? Of course not.
The practice of aborting a fetus based on its sex has “migrated” to Canada from Southeast Asia, according to the Canadian Medical Association, which last year raised questions over how doctors here should confront this problem. If the CMA can raise the issue, why can’t an MP? Mr. Warawa’s proposed motion was non-binding, and would only have condemned a practice that most Canadians would consider undesirable.
The House rules state that the 15 minutes before Question Period are dedicated to minute-long member statements – a privilege enshrined in Parliament’s standing orders. Mr. Warawa argues the Speaker, not a party whip, controls the speaking roster. Conservative Whip Gordon O’Connor disagrees, likening the Speaker to a “referee” who should leave it up to the “teams” (party leadership) to field players they deem appropriate in (on) positions they deem appropriate.
Some 36 Conservative MPs apparently do not think Mr. Warawa should have been silenced. This public airing of backbencher grief affords MPs an opportunity to assert that they retain some modicum of freedom and unfettered speech.