Mark Warawa challenges the soul of our parliamentary democracy

A point of order that exposes the rot

Shortly after the start of business this morning, Conservative MP Mark Warawa rose to complain that he had been prevented from delivering a member’s statement last week.

Mr. Speaker, I rise on a question of privilege. It is an honour to come before you regarding the right of a member of Parliament to introduce an S. O. 31. Looking at our policy manual, O’Brien and Bosc, at page 60, it says that the classic definition of “parliamentary privilege” is the sum of the particular rights enjoyed by each House collectively and each member of each House individually, without which they could not discharge their functions.

What are those functions? What are those responsibilities? They are found on page 212 of O’Brien and Bosc, where it states: Members sit in the House of Commons to serve as representatives of the people who have elected them to…office. And: The member of parliament represents his constituency through service in the House of Commons.

That is the ultimate responsibility of us, as members of Parliament, each having the great honour to represent their communities. I am honoured to represent the community of Langley. It goes on, at page 61 of O’Brien and Bosc, to say: For example, the privilege of freedom of speech is secured to Members not for their personal benefit, but to enable them to discharge their functions of representing their constituents…

And there it says it, again, the importance of having that privilege, freedom of speech, to represent constituencies. On page 62 of O’Brien and Bosc, it says: Privilege essentially belongs to the House– To yourself, Mr. Speaker: –as a whole; individual Members can only claim privilege insofar as any denial of their rights, or threat made to them, would impede the [functions] of the House.

So, it clearly says that we each have responsibilities and we have privileges and rights to ensure that we fulfill the responsibility of representing our constituencies. It also goes on, at page 82 of O’Brien and Bosc, where it states: Any disregard…or attack on the rights, powers and immunities of the House and its Members, either by an outside person or body, or by a Member of the House, is referred to as a “breach of privilege”…

Last Thursday, it was my turn to present an S. O. 31. I was ready and prepared to introduce the S. O. 31. Now, some would ask, what is an S. O. 31? S. O., Standing Orders, clause 31 states: A Member may be recognized, under the provisions of Standing Order 30(5), to make a statement for not more than one minute. The Speaker–Yourself, Mr. Speaker: –may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order.

It refers to Standing Order 30(5). That Standing Order states the days and the times that S. O. 31s can be made. However, back to S. O. 31, it is clear, Mr. Speaker, that each member in this House of Commons has the right, the privilege, of presenting an S. O. 31, on a rotational basis, that gives each member in this House equal opportunity to represent their constituents.

That has been managed by yourself, Mr. Speaker, for those who are independent members of this Parliament. Those who are members of an official party, myself being a member of the Conservative Party, we, in an organized way, and the Liberal Party and the NDP, provide you with a list of those who will be making S. O. 31s in coordinated way. However, what has to be guaranteed is that each member of this House has the equal opportunity to make an S. O. 31.

If at any time that right and privilege to make an S. O. 31 on an equal basis in this House is removed, I believe I have lost my privilege of equal right that I have in this House. I was scheduled on March 20 from 2:00 to 2:15 to make an S. O. 31. Fifteen minutes prior to that time, I was notified that my turn to present the S. O. 31 had been removed. The reason I was given was that the topic was not approved of. However, there is no reason why an S. O. 31 should be removed.

The only person who can remove that is you, Mr. Speaker, according to S. O. 31. The authority to remove an S. O. 31 from any member of this House is solely in your hands, and the guiding is under S. O. 31. Again, it states: A Member may be recognized, under the provisions of Standing Order 30(5), to make a statement for not more than one minute. So we cannot go over one minute. It could be less. Then it states: The Speaker may order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order.

So that is only in your authority, Mr. Speaker, to ask a member to return to his seat if you feel that the S. O. 31 that is being made is not in order. I believe that my privilege as a member to present an S. O. 31 was infringed upon by the actions that happened on March 20. This is my earliest opportunity to present my question of privilege, today. I believe it is not an issue specifically for me. I have experienced the removal of my right and my privilege, but it is a question as to how this House operates. The question for you, Mr. Speaker, is should every member have that equal right? Yes, it is clear that every member does. How is it being managed? Is it being managed in a way that members could have that right removed? Yes, I have experienced that and others have too.

Mr. Speaker, I am asking you to rule the matter prima facie, a question of privilege. I also reserve the right to speak again to respond to comments that may be coming from others. The Canadian Parliament is based on rules, responsibilities and privileges. Each of us has that responsibility to represent our communities, the people who elected us. We need to have those rights to be ensured that we have the opportunity to properly represent our communities.

I look forward to your comments, Mr. Speaker, and I appreciate the opportunity to bring this to the attention of the House.

Essentially, Mr. Warawa is challenging his party’s ability to control which Conservative MPs are allowed to stand and speak in those 15 minutes before Question Period.

Government Whip Gordon O’Connor followed Mr. Warawa, arguing that the Speaker was in no position to tell a party how to conduct its own affairs.

Mr. Speaker, I rise to respond to the point of privilege by the member for Langley. He claims that his rights and privileges as a parliamentarian have been breached with regard to his desire to deliver a member’s statement on March 20, 2013.

The practice of the House, as it developed over time, is clear with respect to the delivery of members’ statements by members of recognized parties. Page 423 of O’Brien and Bosc states very clearly: The opportunity to speak during Statements by Members is allocated to private Members of all parties. In according Members the opportunity to participate in this period, the Chair is guided by lists provided by the Whips of the various parties and attempts to recognize those Members supporting the government and those Members in opposition on an equitable basis. While Ministers are not permitted to use this period to address the House, Parliamentary Secretaries may.

Let me repeat that the House of Commons Procedure and Practice says clearly in this regard the Chair is guided by lists provided by the whips of the various parties.

Mr. Speaker, as you know, while each party manages the process from a different perspective, the bottom line is that each party makes these decisions. The practice for many years in the House is for the Speaker to follow the guidance provided by the parties on which members to call on any given day. The member for Langley is essentially calling on you to inquire into the question of how such lists are prepared by the parties in the House, essentially being invited to become involved in adjudicating the internal affairs of party caucuses and their management. Under any reasonable and generous interpretation of your powers, it is not for the Speaker to assume such a novel and expansive power.

The management of caucus affairs, from voting whip lines on bills to assignment of committee responsibility, to preparation of lists for the members making statements are managed differently in all parties. However, what these have in common is that these decisions are made within parties. Put simply, this is a team activity and your role is referee. It is not your job as referee to tell the coach or manager which player to play at any given time. That is a question for each team to decide.

In closing, I submit there is no case for a member’s privilege being denied in this matter as the rules, as clearly outlined in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, were respected. I ask you to rule accordingly.

The submission of a list by the party leadership is also how the line-up for Question Period is determined each day.

Conservative MP Leon Benoit followed Mr. O’Connor, reporting that he too had been kept from delivering a statement.

Mr. Speaker, I am not going to go through the process that has been well laid out by the member for Langley, but I want to say that I too feel that my rights have been infringed on by members of the party because I am not allowed to speak on certain topics in S. O. 31s. I have had S. O. 31s removed and I have been told that if I have one on a certain topic, I simply will not be given S. O. 31s. I believe this is infringing on my right as an MP to freedom of speech and to represent my constituents freely.

The government whip has pointed out that the procedure has evolved and the parties have been given control of these lists. I do not think I would object to that as long as they do not infringe on the rights of individual members, but that is what has been happening. I have had my rights taken away when it comes to representing my constituents on certain topics and I just do not think that is appropriate. Already, as you know, independents are given S. O. 31s, so it is not only recognized parties that have S. O. 31s.

In considering this issue, I ask you to consider that and the possibility that members from all parties may be handled in some way as independents if they feel their rights are being infringed upon or overridden in some way by the leaderships of their parties.

NDP House leader Nathan Cullen stood to say that the official opposition would have something to say in the future, but Green MP Elizabeth May quickly rallied to the cause of Mr. Warawa and Mr. Benoit.

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my hon. colleague from Langley, as well as the hon. member for Vegreville—Wainwright. For a specific case, may I say this is one of the most important points of privilege that I have heard in the brief almost two years I have been serving here. It cuts to the core of what is wrong with parliamentary democracy that the hon. government House leader could put before you a sports metaphor that we are here as teams, as brands or colours and we are all to take instructions from our team boss.

We are not here as teams. The principle of Westminster parliamentary democracy is that we are here are representatives of our constituencies and our constituents. Incidentally, we are merely members of political parties. Political parties do not exist in our Constitution. They are not an essential part of our democracy. They have grown to be seen to be the most interesting thing going on and we have grown to see politics as some sort of sport. However, democracy is not a sport. We are not playing on teams, and each individual member has individual rights and the members for Langley and Vegreville—Wainwright feel that their rights have been infringed upon.

I would add that I rose on a point of order to you some many months ago on the question of S.O. 31s and the fact that they were increasingly being used for purposes that while not against our Standing Orders as they are written are against the spirit of Standing Orders as described by former Speaker Madam Justice Sauvé, who pointed out that they should typically speak to matters of local concern in our constituencies and should not be used as a place for attacks on others, specifically ad hominem personal attacks.

At the time you said you might comment on that later. Perhaps this point of privilege might give you a chance to further elucidate when it is inappropriate for the approved S.O. 31s from the Conservative war room to be very vicious attacks and the ones that members wish to make about the concerns of their constituents be censored and prevented from being presented in this place.

So here we are. Last week, Mr. Warawa’s motion on sex-selective abortion was deemed out of order. Now he has apparently been barred by his party from standing to speak about an issue that concerns him during the time specifically reserved for MPs to do just that. Here is the great problem with the House of Commons as it now is. It is not a new tension, this conflict between individual and party. But the balance of power has become entirely unbalanced and that imbalance is at the root of everything that is wrong with our parliamentary democracy: from the inability of the House of Commons to properly scrutinize government spending and hold the government to account to omnibus legislation to the daily sight of grown men and women in business attire elected and then paid to stand and read their assigned talking points into the official record. Here is the rot.

In the past, the time reserved for statements by members has been the subject of complaint for the partisan and negative tone that some of those statements have adopted. Last fall, for instance, Ms. May raised concerns. In responding, Government House leader Peter Van Loan invoked the freedom of MPs to speak their minds.

What I find curious is her suggestion that somehow it is inappropriate for members of the House to stand up for the views of their constituents … I find it very unusual that a member like her, who is always fighting to have her voice heard, rises repeatedly to try and suppress the voice of others in this House. Both of these seem paradoxical to me, especially when we are talking about members’ statements under Standing Order 31, one which has been the greatest tradition in this House of allowing members the utmost freedom to speak their mind. However, the member of the Green Party seems to want to keep them from speaking their mind when it is not an issue that she disagrees with, the carbon tax, and I find that quite disturbing.

The government’s argument now is apparently that this freedom of speech extends only so far as the leadership of the party is willing to permit it.

The particulars of Mr. Warawa’s cause and whether you agree with him or disagree with him matter not a bit here. Should he have the right to stand and speak in the House of Commons during the 15 minutes reserved each day for MPs to do so? Is he of significance in his own right or is he merely an outlet of the Conservative Party of Canada? What precisely do we want this gathering of 308 individuals to be? What do we want them to do with their time and their privilege?

That we elect individuals with partisan affiliations is useful and understandable. But that we would elect mere servants to the party leader seems a rather shoddy way to run a modern parliamentary democracy.

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