How a backbench revolt turned into a debate over the power of all MPs

The issue isn't abortion -- it's democratic reform

Tory MPs (left to right) Rathgeber, Warawa, Benoit, Williamson and Woodworth are challenging their own party

Brent Rathgeber, the Conservative MP for Edmonton-St.Albert, has a blog. And on that blog, on Feb. 6, Rathgeber wrote something simultaneously remarkable and mundane. “I understand that members of Parliament, who are not members of the executive, sometimes think of themselves as part of the government; we are not,” he wrote. “Under our system of responsible government, the executive is responsible and accountable to the legislature. The latter holds the former to account. A disservice is provided to both when Parliament forgets to hold the Cabinet to account.”

Here was a simple, if generally forgotten and regularly ignored, principle: MPs, even those who run under the same party banner as the prime minister and his cabinet, sit in the House of Commons for the purposes of holding the government to account.

Two months later, the basic place and principle of the MP is a point of open debate in the House of Commons. What began, with a motion from another Conservative backbencher, as a discussion about abortion—specifically, “sex-selective pregnancy termination”—has become an even more profound debate about the way in which our representative democracy functions. At its essence is the question of what we elect MPs, and send them off to Parliament Hill, to do.

It might feel, in many ways, that this was a long time coming. The power and purpose of the backbencher seem to have been subject to question and mockery for nearly as long as there have been backbenchers—and, in the current era of the talking point, partisan scripting and message control have made it even easier to mock those MPs who seem to be reduced to messengers for their party leaders. Three years ago, Conservative MP Michael Chong proposed changes to question period that would have, in part, made it easier for backbenchers to ask questions of their own volition. Last month, Conservative MP Brad Trost tabled a motion that would give the House the power to elect committee chairs—another small move that would empower the legislature. According to two Conservative sources, a nebulous group of 20 or so Conservative backbenchers—no cabinet ministers or parliamentary secretaries included—have been gathering periodically over the past year to discuss the power dynamic between backbenchers and party leaders and possible parliamentary reforms (Rathgeber says he has participated in some of those meetings).

Parties are integral to our system of government and a certain tension between party and person is natural—a certain discipline and consistency of message is to be expected—but the events of the last few weeks would seem to have compelled a debate about the basic purpose of the MP. And that might lead to a wider discussion about what kind of House of Commons we should aim for. “I think we have to look at questions, statements, speeches, all of it, and say, ‘is this the best that Parliament can do, that we all can do?’ That’s a huge fundamental issue,” says Conservative MP James Rajotte, who has not been part of those backbench meetings. “That’s not a Conservative debate. It’s, frankly, a debate with all parliamentarians and all parties.”

Conservative MP Mark Warawa tabled motion 408 in September. It read, in full, “That the House condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination.” This new motion arrived a day after one from Conservative Stephen Woodworth—which sought to launch a study of the legal definition of a human being—was defeated. Both motions followed the suggestion that MPs in the Conservative caucus opposed to abortion were going to be more aggressive in their efforts to deal with the issue, a vow that came in the wake of the government’s decision to provide funding for Planned Parenthood.

What might have remained another story about Stephen Harper and the social conservatives in his midst became something else for two reasons. First, the subcommittee on private members’ business, which vets the bills and motions proposed by MPs to ensure they are in order, deemed Warawa’s motion non-votable, despite comments from an analyst with the Library of Parliament that suggested the motion was in order. The same day, Warawa was told by his party whip that he would not be allowed to stand during the 15 minutes reserved each day for statements by members—time nominally set aside for MPs to speak to any matter of international, national or local concern—to deliver a 60-second statement on his motion. A few days later, Warawa stood in the House and testified to the Speaker that, in not being allowed to speak, his privileges as an MP had been violated. Conservative MP Leon Benoit, also known for his opposition to abortion, stood and said he too had been prevented in the past from speaking during that time. In the ensuing days, four other Conservative backbenchers added their concerns.

While the issue of abortion has complicated the ensuing discussion, the primary question put before the Speaker remains to be answered: should the party whip be in charge of determining who is able to stand and speak during the time allotted for statements by members? Conservative MP John Williamson, in his intervention, pushed the Speaker to go further and consider whether party whips should have control over who asks questions during question period. At present, the Speaker defers, on both counts, to lists provided by the whips. “There have been backroom grumblings and concerns and little meetings from time to time, but I think the Warawa incident caused those [concerns] to go from the backburner to the frontburner for some of us,” Rathgeber says. “I’ve been asked a number of times, ‘Why now? Why this one? This is just a pro-life cause in disguise of democratic reform.’ It’s not. The reason that people have become vocal now is because you can’t challenge a practice in a vacuum. You needed a test case.” If the Speaker sides with Warawa, it will set in motion a process that could lead to small, but substantive change in the way the House operates.

Warawa has pledged his full support for the Prime Minister and if what has ensued in the wake of his motion is a revolt, it seems, for now, to be a revolt against the system. One Conservative suggests more backbenchers will speak to Warawa’s question of privilege when the House returns next week. If Warawa chooses to do so, he can also appeal the ruling against his motion to the House, where a secret ballot vote of all members would determine whether it is votable.

Meanwhile, Rathgeber continues to blog. He has commented on private members’ bills and contentious issues like the future of Via Rail and supply management. A fiscal conservative, in a post last year he questioned the government’s policies on ministerial limos. He says he is loyal to his party and party leader, but that loyalty means a willingness to constructively criticize. “I started the blog with the view that I was going to write things that were important to me and that were important to my constituents and it was not simply going to be a reposting of communication products that had been provided to me,” he says. “That I was actually going to personally sit down and write these things.”

The question now is to what extent MPs might apply the same empowerment to their contributions in the House of Commons.

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