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Backbench Tories flex muscles over electoral reform bill

Conservative MP Mark Warawa talks to media in Ottawa, Wednesday Apr. 17, 2013.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

In a display of backbench power, Conservative MPs raised enough concern about a government bill on electoral reform during a caucus meeting that the minister responsible has sent the legislation back to the drawing board for revision.

Meanwhile, the Tory Member of Parliament who put caucus activism back on the agenda and earned the ire of the Prime Minister's Office announced on Wednesday that he's setting aside – at least for now – his campaign to bring the abortion debate back to Parliament Hill. MP Mark Warawa of British Columbia said he'll focus his legislative efforts elsewhere for the time being.

In an abrupt change of plans on Wednesday, Minister of State for Democratic Reform Tim Uppal announced the Conservatives will delay the long-awaited Elections Reform Act, which only a day earlier he had said would be unveiled on Thursday.

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His office offered no timetable for when it might table the bill, which is expected to address concerns Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand raised over problems such as robocalls designed to mislead or harass voters.

"In our desire to rapidly incorporate recent recommendations made by the Chief Electoral Officer, we discovered a last-minute issue in the proposed Elections Reform Act," Mr. Uppal said in a prepared statement.

"Therefore, we are postponing the introduction of legislation. We will take the time necessary to get the legislation right."

The about-face came after a Conservative caucus meeting – which Prime Minister Stephen Harper missed because he was at Margaret Thatcher's funeral on Wednesday – where Tory MPs were consulted about the new bill.

Conservatives were tight-lipped about the changes that Tory MPs requested, but sources said there was broad consultation in caucus concerning the bill. Sources said that while the government did not show a copy of the bill to MPs, it explained the legislation and asked for feedback. MPs considered to have expertise on the file raised objections, and this led to the consensus changes were needed.

"There is a great deal of support for the bill, but there are some measures that need to be tweaked," a source said. "They're going to fix it so it gains caucus support."

It is rare for the government to yank a bill slated for introduction after caucus opposition, but the legislation's withdrawal offers a glimpse of the relationship between the Prime Minister and his caucus, which Mr. Harper uses as a barometer to gauge grassroots support for the Conservative government.

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Tory MPs may chafe under tight control from the party whip concerning what they are allowed to say in the Commons, but when it comes to government bills, they still have power. Legislation must enjoy broad caucus support or it does not proceed.

Late last month, Mr. Mayrand warned of a repeat of the robo-calls fraud that stained the 2011 federal election if tougher rules are not in place by 2014. He released a report calling for stiffer penalties for impersonating election officials and wider investigative powers for Elections Canada.

The PMO's iron grip over caucus has been challenged in recent weeks by a group of backbenchers upset that Mr. Warawa was silenced when he tried to complain in the Commons that the Tories and other parties sidelined a motion condemning sex-selective abortions that he wanted to bring to a vote.

Nine Conservative MPs have risen in the Commons to ask Speaker Andrew Scheer to free them of the party whip's control over which Members of Parliament may deliver 60-second statements in the House during the 15 minutes before Question Period.

This disagreement has caused friction in Conservative ranks. "If you want to have an unbridled right to speak in Parliament, be an independent," Treasury Board President Tony Clement said last month.

Mr. Warawa, meanwhile, offered no explanation for his decision to drop his legislative push on sex-selective abortions, saying he would still speak on the topic outside Parliament.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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