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Easter break not likely to bring Harper any relief from caucus unrest

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OTTAWA - If Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping the Easter break would quiet down his restless caucus, a fresh group of MPs made it clear Thursday they're not letting their grievances drop so fast.

Three more Conservative members stood in the House of Commons to assert their freedom to say what they want in Parliament, including New Brunswick MP John Williamson — Harper's own former director of communications.

Their frustrations build on a complaint by Vancouver-area MP Mark Warawa that he was prevented from delivering a public statement by the party leadership, presumably because of its politically divisive subject matter: abortion.

"What we have seen over the last 30 years has all happened very slowly. To use an analogy, it is a bit like a frog in a pot of water," Williamson said of the political strategizing that influences what gets said in the House.

"Toss a frog in hot water, it will quickly recoil and jump out. Slowly increase the heat, the frog will not jump out, and instead the increasing heat will eventually kill it."

Said colleague Kyle Seeback of Ontario: "If you can't at all rise to speak, you certainly cannot enjoy freedom of speech, which is one of the things that we believe to be sacrosanct in this place."

The dissent is especially likely to resume following the two-week parliamentary recess thanks to another battle Warawa is waging.

On Thursday, a parliamentary committee — of which a majority of members are Conservative — once again declared his private member's motion on sex-selective abortion to be "unvotable."

Warawa has not revealed what his next step will be, but if he appeals to the Speaker, the result could be an extremely rare secret-ballot vote by all members of the Commons.

"I'm sure it will come up, there have been all sorts of issues that have been in the media," Saskatchewan MP Randy Hoback said of the concerns he expects to hear in his riding over the next two weeks.

"That's our job, to sit there and listen and understand what (our constituents') concerns are and explain what really went on, and try and clear the air."

On Wednesday, Harper tried to reason with his MPs during their weekly caucus meeting, making it clear that the Conservatives had repeatedly promised that the government would not reopen the abortion debate.

Some MPs, however, feel the debate is more about their commitment to constituents than it is about abortion.

Harper has faced other internal skirmishes in the past, and has managed to weather them. MP Michael Chong, for example, resigned his intergovernmental affairs portfolio in 2007 in opposition to a government motion on Quebec's nationhood.

The Official Opposition hasn't been immune either — three MPs have left the NDP caucus since last spring's leadership race.

The extent of the unrest and what its ultimate impact will be is unclear. In a majority government, some MPs who see no future beyond the backbench may feel they have nothing to lose by stepping out of line. Warawa was once a parliamentary secretary and a committee chairman, but currently has no official position.

Unlike caucus revolts inside the Liberal, Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties of the past, MPs in this case are not criticizing the leader — at least not yet.

"It always depends on how you're going to move ahead as a team," said Ontario MP Harold Albrecht.

"When you're part of a team, there are some times you don't get exactly what you want, but you recognize that you get a better result as a total team than you would on your own."

The anti-abortion group Campaign Life Coalition, however, is openly chastising Harper.

"The decision to crush (Warawa's motion) is proof that Harper will go to any extreme to distance himself from any reference to abortion, even if that means compromising on democracy," Jim Hughes, President of Campaign Life Coalition, said in a statement.

"Mark Warawa is to be praised for his courage in standing up for private members rights and for his commitment to condemning the lethal discrimination of women and girls."

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