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Bruce Anderson: Harper isn’t the only leader to muzzle his MPs

Last week's political chatter was all about muzzled Members of Parliament. Ostensibly, this was a test of wills pitting Stephen Harper, wisely wary of any noises that might support speculation that his Party wants to re-open the abortion debate, against some MPs who want speak on behalf of their constituents, or to say what's on their minds, or both.

It's the fashion to accuse Mr. Harper of ruling with an iron fist, exerting excessive control over what his caucus members are allowed to say. But it's a bit simplistic.

Central control of messaging isn't unique to the Conservatives, nor did Mr. Harper invent it within the conservative movement. Messrs. Clark, Mulroney, Charest and Manning all experienced rogue caucus comments that cost them votes or at least embarrassment. Typically, when these accidents happen, the reflex of observers is to decry the lack of talent or toughness on the part of the leader. Leaders respond by leaving less to chance when it comes to the utterances of MPs, especially where "brand sensitive" topics are concerned.

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Message control isn't only something that is "done by leaders to MPs." It's is a long accepted practice that candidates are highly familiar with when they pursue a party nomination. Most would say it serves their own interests as much as those of their leader. In any event, far more go along with it, than push back.

And of course it happens in every party, not just the Conservative Party.

Mr. Harper's party wants him to grow a bigger, more durable long-term coalition, one that attracts more women, more urban, and more centrist voters. His assurances that the question of abortion will not be re-opened are not incidental; they a foundation stone of this effort. In that sense, paradoxically, last week's muzzle debate was probably not harmful to his interests.

Still, the cumulative effect of too much message management is a weaker, less vibrant political system, and change would be welcome. Whether or not you share Mark Warawa's views on abortion, who wants a Parliament where he has no ability to state them?

If he can do that and remain a member of the Conservative caucus is an internal matter for Conservatives, not a question of free speech per se. He can sit as an independent, if he feels that the tension between his views and the position of his party is too discomfiting.

Equally, Mr. Harper may reflect on whether loosening things up a bit will improve caucus morale without putting much at risk. But, the Conservatives are free to choose to do what they are doing, and voters are free to attach those consequences they see fit.

The debate last week about how much control is too much, before our democracy becomes sterile and anemic, is an important one. Muzzling should be part of the discussion, but a worse problem may be the form of political ventriloquism practiced on the Conservative backbench.

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Everyday, someone causes Conservative MPs to read childish taunts into the public record, just before Question Period. These are along the lines of "The sun came up in the east today, but if the NDP were ever allowed to impose their job killing $20-billion carbon tax, it never would again." "Your mother wears army boots" would at least be worth a laugh. This blather does no harm to their political targets, is an insult to Parliament, and embarrasses their MPs. Some refuse to be part of this spectacle. If more did, it would be easier to believe that the Conservative caucus is determined to find its own voice.

Bruce Anderson is one of Canada's leading pollsters and communications strategists. He is a member of the CBC's popular At Issue Panel, a regular Globe blogger, and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising.

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