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Conservative MP Mark Warawa speaks on Parliament Hill Wednesday December 5, 2012 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Conservative MP Mark Warawa speaks on Parliament Hill Wednesday December 5, 2012 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Conservative MPs take aggressive stand on speech restraints Add to ...

Backbench Conservative MPs are taking the most aggressive stand to date against the control exercised by the Harper government over what they are permitted to say in the House of Commons.

But the government says its MPs are members of the party team, and the coach of that team gets to decide the plays.

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The rebellion originates in the anti-abortion faction of the Conservative caucus, where lesser incidents of backlash against the tight restraints imposed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper have occasionally flared in the past. It centres on the efforts of Mark Warawa, the Tory MP for Langley, B.C., to introduce a non-binding motion condemning sex-selective abortion.

A sub-committee of the House of Commons declared that the motion was not eligible for further debate – essentially rendering it dead – despite the opinion of a Library of Parliament analyst who said it was entirely within bounds.

Mr. Warawa tried to fight back by reading a statement in the Commons but says the Conservative brass struck his name from the list of members set to make statements. “The reason I was given was that the topic was not approved of,” Mr. Warawa said.

Mr. Harper has made it clear to his caucus that he does not want the abortion debate reopened in the House. Mr. Warawa, on the other hand, insists he has the right to raise whatever issue he sees fit.

“Each of us has that responsibility to represent our communities, the people who elected us,” he said to Speaker Andrew Scheer on Tuesday. “We need to have those rights to be ensured that we have the opportunity to properly represent our communities.”

Many Conservative MPs agree. Leon Benoit, an Alberta MP, said there are at least 36 members of the caucus who do not believe the government should have been allowed to censor Mr. Warawa.

“I have had my rights taken away when it comes to representing my constituents on certain topics and I just do not think that is appropriate,” Mr. Benoit, another abortion opponent, told the House.

Brent Rathgeber, a Conservative MP for Edmonton, said on a blog post that the fact that the topic of abortion makes “some leaders” nervous is entirely irrelevant. “To essentially censor the motion out of the gate against the advice of an independent analyst is heavy handed,” he said, “and I would suggest contrary to the expectations of constituents who rightly believe that their MPs have a voice and can represent them in Ottawa.”

But the Conservative government, which has managed to keep its members well scripted both inside and outside the Commons for more than seven years, disagrees. Gordon O’Connor, the government whip, reminded Mr. Scheer that the lists of MPs making members’ statements has been drawn up by the party whips.

“Put simply,” he said, “this is a team activity and your role is referee. It is not your job as referee to tell the coach or manager which player to play at any given time. That is a question for each team to decide.”

The New Democrats at first seemed unsure how to respond to Mr. Warawa’s point of privilege. On one hand they undoubtedly enjoy seeing fractures in the Conservative caucus; on the other, they may have concerns about their own members being granted too much licence.

Nathan Cullen, the NDP House Leader, told the Commons that his party wanted time to consider the matter. Later, he told reporters that his party does not vet members’ statements.

“Whether the Speaker can intervene and whether it is actually and technically a question of privilege is one debate,” Mr. Cullen said. But “we have been hearing a growing frustration just in the back corridors of Parliament from Conservative MPs about the controlling nature of the PMO and that there’s maybe a list, and a growing list, of taboo topics that the Prime Minister doesn’t want raised.”

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