Stephen Harper vs. Mark Warawa

How to be a Conservative MP, but not part of the government

The Globe reports on yesterday’s Conservative caucus meeting.

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.”

There is a case to be made that any Conservative candidate who could not abide by a commitment to never reopen the abortion debate should have thus resigned. But there is also a distinction to be made here that excludes Mr. Warawa from the Prime Minister’s commitment.

Mr. Harper might have made his pledge at various points during the last campaign, but here is one version of the commitment.

“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.” … “Very clearly I am against reopening that debate,” he said. “That is my position, now and in the past five years as well, and as long as I am prime minister, we will not reopen the debate on abortion. We will leave the law as it stands.”

Mr. Harper did not say, “As leader of the Conservative party, I will demand that anyone who runs under the party’s banner be committed to not reopening the abortion debate and I will seek to eject from caucus anyone who breaks this commitment.” He references his status as a party leader, but he says, “As long as I am prime minister, we will not reopen the debate on abortion.” He would seem then to have been speaking as the current and (potentially) future leader of the government. (If you watch the video above that story, you’ll hear him say that his “government” will not bring forward any legislation related to abortion.)

Is Mark Warawa part of the government? This, I suppose, depends on your definition. By the strictest definition, no. Here, again, is Brent Rathgeber’s assessment last month.

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. 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.

Mr. Warawa is not part of the cabinet, he is an MP. He is a Conservative MP, but not a member of the executive. That distinction between the government and private members’ business is one that the Justice Minister seemed to assert last year when discussing Stephen Woodworth’s motion.

Indeed, if the Prime Minister’s commitment was to never allow a Conservative MP to ever bring forward anything that might “reopen” the abortion debate, it is a commitment he has already broken, twice—last year with Mr. Woodworth’s motion and three years ago with Rod Bruinooge’s bill.

So if Mr. Warawa’s motion crosses a line, where is that line drawn and when was it drawn? (And what happens if anyone else insists on crossing it?)

Update 12:06pm. The Conservative party of Canada policy declaration includes two references to abortion.

First, on Page 3:

7. Free Votes
The Conservative Party believes in restoring democratic accountability in to the House of Commons by allowing free votes.

i) All votes should be free, except for the budget, main estimates, and core government initiatives.

ii) On issues of moral conscience, such as abortion, the definition of marriage, and euthanasia, the Conservative Party acknowledges the diversity of deeply-held personal convictions among individual party members and the right of Members of Parliament to adopt positions in consultation with their constituents and to vote freely.

Second, on Page 19.

62. Abortion Legislation
A Conservative Government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.

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