On abortion, what’s the difference between Harper and Trudeau?

Comparing the party leaders’ positions

Asked a question about abortion access in New Brunswick last week, the Prime Minister decided to muse aloud about the inclusiveness of the Conservative party of Canada—musing that has been interpreted as a reference to Justin Trudeau’s recently questioned stance on abortion-related votes in the House of Commons.

“Ours is a big party where we understand the Canadian people have different, often conflicting views on issues like this, deeply held views — and all such views are welcome in the Conservative Party of Canada.”

This was cute. Not least because it’s not clear that there’s much of a difference between Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau on this point.

It was 14 months ago, of course, that a Conservative MP, Mark Warawa, was stymied in both his attempt to move forward with a motion on gender-specific abortion and his attempt to deliver a statement in the House on that motion. The latter move was explicitly the responsibility of the government whip, the former was merely said to be the doing of the Prime Minister’s Office.

From a Toronto Sun report at the time:

“Scott Armstrong was whipped,” one MP said. “There’s little doubt that the Prime Minister’s Office wanted this motion removed so that it not be dealt with by the House of Commons.”

A week after that subcommittee on private members’ business made that decision, the Conservative caucus met. Details of that meeting were subsequently leaked to the Globe.

The Prime Minister reminded his MPs he made a pledge to Canadians during the 2011 election: that his government would not reopen the abortion debate and that Conservatives wouldn’t bring forward legislation on the topic.

“He said he’s determined to keep his word to the people of Canada and he views this motion as tantamount to breaking the promise,” one source said. “He vowed he would use whatever tools are at his discretion to prevent the abortion debate from being reopened.”

As I noted at the time, the Prime Minister had seemed to blur the distinction between government business and private members’ business. But the Prime Minister’s position on abortion, at least as of March 2013, would seem to have been fairly clear: no Conservative MP shall endeavour to make it a matter of parliamentary business.

A ruling from the Speaker subsequently undercut the government side’s ability to govern what MPs say during the time reserved each day for statements by members, but the ability to block an abortion-related bill or motion from reaching the floor of the House has not really been tested since (though Stephen Woodworth did ask for unanimous consent for a motion in April that would have recognized the equality of every human being).

And so now along comes Justin Trudeau and his demand that all incoming Liberal MPs will be expected to vote against any restriction on abortion. The edict does not bar anyone who holds anything but the most absolute pro-choice opinion from joining or running for the Liberal party.

In a message to supporters this weekend, Mr. Trudeau expanded on his relative open-mindedness.

Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada. But under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights.

Change the wording around a bit and you’ve got Stephen Harper’s position. In fact, here is what Mr. Harper said at one point during the last election.

“As you know, in our party, as in any broadly based party, there are people with a range of views on this issue,” Harper said. “But I think I’ve been very clear as party leader.… As long as I’m prime minister we are not reopening the abortion debate.”

You’ve got to thread a needle, I think, to find a distinction between those two positions.

Mr. Harper might still be willing to do everything in his power to prevent an abortion-related bill or motion of a Conservative MP from reaching the floor of the House, but he presumably wouldn’t whip the vote if a vote did occur. In fact, I don’t think he could whip the vote even if he wanted to. Going back to Motion 312, a vote in September 2012 showed a healthy split in the Conservative caucus—in that case not even the cabinet was unanimous, which arguably went further to break Mr. Harper’s campaign commitment than anything Mark Warawa would do.

Of course, if Stephen Harper does everything in his power to prevent a motion or bill from reaching the floor of the House and Justin Trudeau holds his caucus to a status quo position (and the NDP is doing likewise), it is unlikely that there will be any vote to whip. At least unless someone wants to make trouble. (The NDP briefly flirted with a motion on abortion last week before backing off.)

Less concrete, but still potentially relevant: How free are Conservative and Liberal MPs to publicly express views that do not correspond with their leaders’ positions on abortion? Would Justin Trudeau tolerate an MP who was open in his or her disagreement with Mr. Trudeau’s stance? Can MPs who have concerns speak freely without fear of being somehow punished?

If we expand our perspective beyond Parliament Hill, we get to what might be the only abortion debate this country’s politicians are willing to engage: whether foreign aid funds should be used to provide access to abortion. The Harper government has been careful to ensure its maternal health initiative and even its funding of Planned Parenthood avoided abortion. The Liberals, on the other hand, “believe that the full range of reproductive health services must be included in government aid for maternal health.”

That seems like the proxy fight for the fight that isn’t really happening in Parliament.

(One other thing that might be speculated about: What becomes the position of a Conservative government if that government isn’t led by Stephen Harper? Does a future Conservative leader or prime minister maintain Mr. Harper’s commitment to the status quo? Or does he or she take a slightly different position?)

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.