What we're talking about when we talk about Mark Warawa

We're talking about abortion, but also Parliament

Scott Reid, the former advisor to Paul Martin, argues the Prime Minister is right to “come down” on Mark Warawa with “both boots.” Scott’s argument, it seems to me, is essentially this: the rights of duly elected MPs and the principle of open parliamentary debate are important, but, for selfish political reasons, the Prime Minister is smart and right to shut down any discussion of abortion by members of his caucus.

Fair enough. The political logic is perfectly understandable. But the democratic logic is complicated: Parliament should be empowered to act and debate freely… except when the issue at hand is abortion. Are there any other issues that MPs, for political reasons, shouldn’t be allowed to raise in the legislature? Should we put together a list and post it on the front door to Centre Block?

On that note, here is David Frum, arguing that Mr. Warawa is just another implement for the liberal media to use for the purposes of knocking Mr. Harper around, but also trying to square this small matter of how we order our democracy.

Parliament is the place where governments are made and held to account. But held to account for what? In April 2011, Stephen Harper made a commitment to the Canadian people: “As long as I’m prime minister we are not reopening the abortion debate.” Maybe that was an appropriate pledge, maybe not. Maybe that pledge caused some people to vote for him who otherwise wouldn’t, or again maybe not. But Prime Minister Harper gave his word, and having given that word, he won a majority government. Is it really an offence against democracy for a government to enforce its own commitments upon its own MPs?

Your parents and grade school teachers probably told you it was impolite to answer a question with a question, but that rhetorical query deserves another: Does the government own Mark Warawa? He is a Conservative MP and he participates in meetings of the Conservative caucus, but he is neither a cabinet minister, nor a parliamentary secretary. As noted previously, Mr. Harper’s commitment seems to have applied to his government and the distinction between government policy and private members’ business is one the Justice Minister seems to have been willing to assert as recently as a year ago.

If Mr. Harper wishes to impose a party policy on his party’s candidates and MPs, he has the option of attempting to do so. He might refuse to sign the nomination papers of anyone who refuses to never say a word about abortion. He could move to remove from the Conservative caucus any MP who brings forward a motion or bill that in any way relates to the issue. Those would be political responses to a political issue. If commentators believe he is smart, politically, to leave the abortion debate alone, they should argue for him to set out those consequences.

Frum goes on.

The pro-life view is a serious and important one. As a matter of wise party management, Prime Minister Harper probably would do well to open places of dialogue in which those who uphold pro-life views can gain a hearing from party colleagues. But the disciplined commitment of the Harper government to do those things it promised to do — and to refrain from doing those things it promised not to do — does not threaten Canadian democracy. That disciplined commitment is essential to real democratic choice.

If government is too riven and disrupted to honour its commitments to the voters, then voting becomes meaningless.

Indeed. One shudders at the thought of the existential dread and chaos that would ensue were a government to ever deviate from a commitment.

But if “disciplined commitment” is integral to democracy and a Conservative MP doing or saying anything in the House of Commons in regards to abortion is to violate that principle, then I fear it is already too late. Just last year, there was this. And three years ago, there was this. If Mr. Harper is drawing a line now, he is it drawing it after it was crossed.

For sure, there is some sense in Mr. Harper doing whatever he has done to prevent Mr. Warawa from moving forward with or advocating for his motion on sex-selective abortion. One might even attempt to argue that access to abortion is a right which should not be threatened. But these attempts to justify the Prime Minister’s position ignore the specific questions Mr. Warawa has raised about the functioning of our parliamentary democracy: Should Motion 408 have been ruled out of order? And should party whips control who is allowed to speak during the 15 minutes reserved each day for statements by members?

Those are the real questions at hand. Yes, Mr. Warawa’s motion deals with abortion. And, yes, Mr. Warawa wanted to speak about abortion. But to explain why he shouldn’t have been permitted to do so in this case, one must—or at least should have to—defend the committee decision and the parliamentary management that brought us to this point.

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