The House votes for (some vague notion of) freedom!

MPs vote to endorse their own freedom, or at least some undefined and non-binding notion of freedom

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

MPs stood yesterday afternoon, almost unanimously, and voted to endorse their own freedom as individuals of conscience. Whatever that means.

Officially, the House of Commons voted 273 to 1 to endorse Motion #590, which set out “That, in the opinion of the House, all Members of Parliament should be allowed to vote freely on all matters of conscience.” The motion was tabled by Conservative MP Ed Komarnicki. The lone nay was registered by Conservative MP Gordon O’Connor. A few MPs abstained.

The motion is a non-binding expression of the House’s opinion. But even as a statement of the position of our federal legislature it hardly matters because the notion of “conscience” is left undefined.

As I wrote and reviewed last year when Justin Trudeau stated that Liberal MPs would be expected to vote against any initiative that would reduce access to abortion, there is a history of certain matters being considered votes of conscience. But it’s not easy to tidily define what should constitute a matter of conscience.

NDP MP Alexandrine Latendresse attacked this point during debate of Komarnicki’s motion.

What, therefore, is the legal definition of a matter of conscience? One might say that all human beings know what conscience is, that it is unique to humans and that it is recognized automatically much like humans recognize beauty or truth. Esteemed colleagues, that is what Plato said. Even though philosophy is the noblest endeavour of humankind, our job here is to manage the federal Canadian state with just and constitutional laws, not to add new material to the Western philosophical canon.

In order for that motion to be applicable and have any value at all to the parliamentary exercise that it is supposed to improve, a legal definition of the concept of conscience is crucial. Without that, this is nothing but hot air. However, we will never get that legal definition because it simply does not exist. This means that my colleague’s motion could just as easily read as follows, “That, in the opinion of the House, all members of Parliament should be allowed to vote freely on all matters of beauty.” Good luck with that.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux tested the idea as well.

I would ask the member who has introduced the motion, if I feel very passionate about the issue of poverty, is that not a matter of conscience? Would that mean that votes on health care or poverty should be based on one’s conscience? The member was very limited in terms of what he thought were conscience votes. Are we to believe that those are the only ones that need to be taken into consideration?

Komarnicki, who attacked the Liberal leader in both of his speeches, attempted to define the concept as anything that might result in the ending of a life.

There may be a great deal of debate and some difference of opinion on what are matters of conscience. I can, however, say with a great deal of confidence that matters relating to life, more particularly to the termination of life at any time from the point of conception to the point of natural death, would easily fall within that definition. Whether or not to terminate before death naturally occurs, or to terminate a life before it fully becomes a living being or while it has the potential to be a living being is certainly a matter of conscience, as may be a number of other matters falling somewhere between these two.

He then, though, added a fairly broad proviso: “In my view, a matter of conscience would arise out of a religious, moral or ethical issue that has to do with one’s inner sense of what is right or wrong.”

So Komarnicki would seem to at least include abortion and assisted suicide in his concept of conscience. But if the definition is “matters relating to the termination of life,” then it seems to me any endorsement of aggressive military action must also be considered a matter of conscience. Capital punishment would meet the definition too. Perhaps embryonic stem-cell research as well.

Same-sex marriage would not be a matter of conscience. Unless we go with Komarnicki’s allowance for “religious, moral or ethical” matters. In which case we might have to include issues like gambling, prostitution and alcohol and drug laws. And maybe now climate change?

The government apparently supported Komarnicki’s motion, which is perhaps fascinating.

Though the Conservatives committed in 2006 to free votes on all matters except the budget and the estimates, the party has come to include “core government initiatives” in its official understanding of party discipline. The government also does not comment publicly on how MPs are advised to vote. Indeed, the government whip’s office wouldn’t tell me whether yesterday’s vote on free votes was a free vote for Conservatives.

Regardless, there’s another question here: If the Conservative government is happy to let its members vote freely on matters of conscience, is it also willing to let its members bring such matters forward for votes? Two years ago, Conservative MP Mark Warawa tabled a motion on sex-selective abortion. On flimsy procedural grounds, another Conservative MP helped block that motion from reaching the floor of the House and then the committee on procedure and House affairs, of which a majority of the members are Conservative MPs, confirmed that decision to rule the motion out of order. After a subsequent meeting of the Conservative caucus, a source told the Globe and Mail that the Prime Minister had “vowed he would use whatever tools are at his discretion to prevent the abortion debate from being reopened.”

The ability to vote freely is of little utility if there is no opportunity to vote.

And this is where any hope of “free votes” meets the realities of power and influence within Parliament. If you wanted to establish some basis for MPs to vote freely, you’d eliminate or loosen all of the levers that the party whips control. You’d take away the power of whips to control committee assignments. You’d eliminate the lists that the whips give to the Speaker to set out who will speak during the 15 minutes reserved each day for statements by members or ask questions during question period. You might take away the ability of whips to endorse or refuse requests to travel. Party discipline isn’t an instruction about how to vote, it’s the ability of party leaders and caucuses, through formal and informal means, to persuade MPs to adhere.

It would be useful to know which votes are considered “free votes” by each caucus. But it is also necessary to know how MPs are encouraged or discouraged to do one thing or another, or punished for not doing as their leaders or colleagues would like. (It would also be useful to sort out what degree of party unity is necessary.)

A certain ability to promote cohesion is fine—political parties can refuse support, prime ministers can promote MPs to ministerial positions, opposition leaders can bestow or revoke critic portfolios. Those are basically internal matters. But we might remove many of the controls that pertain to parliamentary business and the rights and abilities of an individual as a member of Parliament.

That, more than agreeing to an undefined notion, would be a commitment to freedom.

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