More Harper government MPs are standing in the Commons to publicly challenge the Prime Minister’s Office’s iron grip over what caucus members can say in the chamber.
One is Pierre Lemieux, an Eastern Ontario MP who is also an assistant to a cabinet minister. He’s parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Agriculture.
The other one is Michael Chong, MP for the Southern Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills, who told the Commons on Monday that heavy-handed party control over who gets to speak in the House is eroding MPs’ ability to hold governments accountable.
It was unusually candid commentary from a Conservative caucus member and it speaks to the frustration among the sprawling Tory backbench. Mr. Chong once resigned from cabinet after he broke ranks with the government over whether Quebec should be recognized as a nation.
Like five fellow Conservatives before the Easter break, Mr. Chong and Mr. Lemieux are standing in solidarity with B.C. MP Mark Warawa, whom Conservative caucus bosses prevented in March from reading a statement in the Commons that would have discussed abortion.
The rebellion is a consequence of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s heavy-handed efforts to silence Mr. Warawa, who wanted the Commons to pass judgment on sex-selective abortions by voting to condemn it.
Backbenchers are arguing 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. The MPs are asking the Speaker to effectively remove the party whip from the equation when he decides whom to call upon to deliver members’ statements each day during the 15 minutes before Question Period.
Other Conservative MPs who have risen in the House to back Mr. Warawa include New Brunswick Southwest MP John Williamson, who once served as the Prime Minister’s director of communications, Kyle Seeback, Brent Rathgeber, Stephen Woodworth and Leon Benoit.
On Monday, Mr. Lemieux said that it’s wrong to refuse to allow a vote on sex-selective abortions and wrong to deny Mr. Warawa a chance to raise the matter in the Commons if his constituents call for it.
“A member of Parliament must have maximum freedom of speech in speaking to an issue such as this, but more importantly, being able to raise it in the first place,” he said.
Mr. Chong said a change 30 years ago that put parties in charge of making lists of who would ask questions during Question Period has turned into a leash that leaders can use to control who asks questions and what they say.
“Today, members of the House of Commons no longer have that right to ask questions of the government and to hold it to account,” the MP said.
“They no longer have that fundamental right, whether they sit on that side of the aisle or on this side of the aisle,” Mr. Chong said.
“The only people who get to ask questions are those who are given approval by the House Leader or party whips.”
Mr. Lemieux, as parliamentary secretary, is the most senior ranking Conservative MP to join this group of agitators.
Mr. Chong said parties are now using the same list-making power to control what statements MPs make in the Commons.
“This shift from scheduling and co-ordinating to command and control has stripped members of the right to ask questions during Question Period and is now threatening to do the same during members’ statements,” he said. “It has also eroded the power to hold the government to account – the fundamental concept of responsible government.”
The fight over 60-second members’ statements may seem like a minor matter, but Canadian MPs are constrained by stricter party discipline than most 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 members’ 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.
It falls to the novice Speaker to settle this.
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.
Mr. Chong joined Mr. Williamson in calling on Mr. Scheer to change the rules so Tory MPs would be free to ask unscripted questions of the government during Question Period.
“Members must be afforded the greatest opportunity and latitude in being able to raise important matter and fully represent those Canadians they have been elected to represent.”