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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Feb.26, 2013 . (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Feb.26, 2013 . (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Tory backbenchers plead for greater freedom from Harper's tight grip Add to ...

Conservative backbenchers rose in the Commons to challenge their own party leader, signalling an open revolt against Stephen Harper’s stranglehold over what they can say in the chamber.

The backlash is a consequence of the Conservative Prime Minister’s heavy-handed efforts to silence a Tory MP who wanted the Commons to pass judgment on sex-selective abortions. On Thursday, three backbenchers stood in solidarity with B.C. MP Mark Warawa, whom caucus bosses prevented from reading a statement in the House this week.

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The agitators, including New Brunswick Southwest MP John Williamson, who once served as the Prime Minister’s director of communication, argued for the right of members of Parliament to speak their minds in the Commons and are asking Speaker Andrew Scheer, as referee of the House, to grant them more autonomy.

It falls to the novice Speaker to settle this battle of wills.

It will be the first big test for Mr. Scheer, a 33-year-old Conservative Regina MP, who will have to adjudicate a dispute between fellow Tories and Mr. Harper, the man who signs his nomination papers before each federal election.

The MPs are asking the Speaker to effectively remove the party whip from the equation when he decides whom to call upon to deliver member’s statements each day during the 15 minutes before Question Period. Mr. Williamson went even further Thursday, calling on Mr. Scheer to also change the rules so even Tory MPs would be free to ask unscripted questions of the government during Question Period.

The fight over 60-second member’s statements may seem like a minor matter, but Canadian MPs are constrained by some of strictest party discipline among Western democracies. In the seven years since his Conservatives won office, Mr. Harper has kept his MPs on a tight leash. Tory MPs are often assigned member’s statements to deliver – instead of speaking about their constituents’ concerns – and the party whip decides who gets to speak. The questions Conservative MPs ask of their own cabinet during Question Period are also written by the government.

That members of Mr. Harper’s caucus have been emboldened to stand in the Commons and publicly challenge the authority of the government whip, and by extension the Prime Minister, is extraordinary.

It is already prompting his cabinet ministers to close ranks publicly. Treasury Board President Tony Clement suggested Thursday that MPs should quit their party caucus if they feel they cannot play by the rules. “You have the right to speak in Parliament but you also are part of a party. So at some point if you want to have an unbridled right to speak in Parliament, be an independent.”

The dissenting Tory MPs disagree. “If you can’t at all rise to speak, you certainly can’t enjoy freedom of speech which is one of the things we consider to be sacrosanct in this place,” Kyle Seeback, the Conservative MP for Brampton West, told the Commons. He and Stephen Woodworth, the Tory who represents Kitchener Centre, rose with Mr. Williamson Thursday.

More Conservative MPs are expected to join this dissent when the Commons resumes sitting after an Easter break.

The fact that the debate is no longer about abortion but about an MP’s ability to speak freely in Parliament poses a problem for Mr. Harper because it has the potential to resonate much more broadly.

Mr. Harper has forcefully defended shutting down Mr. Warawa’s sex-selective abortion motion as keeping an election promise not to reopen the abortion debate. But he will have a tougher time explaining why he needs to control his MPs’ speeches in the Commons.

In the Warawa case, Mr. Scheer is being asked to make a precedent-setting decision about the control party leaders have over their caucuses. The MPs are arguing that a politician’s ability to talk about the issues that matter to their constituents is fundamental to democracy.

“The very existence of parliamentary questions and the opportunities that they provide for the representatives of the people to question the government of the day are of constitutional importance,” Mr. Williamson told the House. He is also a former national director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a lobby group that presses Ottawa for greater democratic accountability.

The convention that says party whips will draw a list of MPs who will read member’s statements was put in place 30 years ago for the convenience of the Speaker. But, Mr. Williamson said: “Rules and convention cannot trump a parliamentary privilege.”

The New Democrats, who have also exercised strict control over their members, appeared at first to be sitting on the fence with regard to Mr. Warawa’s case. But Nathan Cullen, the NDP House Leader, said Thursday that New Democrats agree MPs should be able to say whatever they want in member’s statements, as long as it does not violate the rules of decency and respect.

Mr. Warawa wanted to use his member’s statement to talk about a motion he put before the House condemning sex-selective abortion that was rejected as unvoteable by a parliamentary subcommittee.

In his comments to the House Thursday, Mr. Woodworth said parties should not be able to dictate when MPs get to deliver member’s statements and what they say: “Many Canadians have voiced concerns that members of all parties are becoming mere proxies for party leaders. Will that phenomena now extend even to 60-second statements?”

In a related matter, Mr. Warawa asked a Commons committee on Wednesday to overturn the ruling of a sub-committee, which said his motion on sex-selective abortion did not meet proper criteria and could not be put to a vote. In a report that was tabled in the Commons of Thursday, the all-party committee upheld the sub-committee’s ruling.

Mr. Warawa can now appeal that matter to Mr. Scheer – a measure that would also be precedent-setting and which could prompt a secret vote in the House of Commons. He told reporters he had not yet decided how to proceed but that he was not prepared to drop the matter.

As for the controversy over member’s statements, Mr. Warawa said he was encouraged that it has been respectful and “I think it’s very healthy, important debate.”

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