Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Freedom of thought? Not on Harper's watch

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OTTAWA -- If ever one needed more proof of just how tight the reins are on individual MPs, one need look no further than the events of last week.

B.C. Conservative MP Mark Warawa was spitting mad from having a House of Commons committee deem a motion he introduced to condemn sex-selective abortion out of order. Warawa's motion, which would be non-binding, called on Parliament to condemn the practice.

Although a Library of Parliament analyst reported the motion was within federal jurisdiction, was not too similar to a previous motion and was constitutional, the committee, which has a majority of Conservative MPs, decided otherwise. An appeal of that decision was also rejected Thursday by committee members who went behind closed doors to discuss it.

The motion didn't have any traction. The NDP and most Liberals were sure to vote against it, as were most members of the Conservative caucus, who are following Prime Minister Stephen Harper's directive the abortion debate will not be reopened on his watch.

Preventing it from even being debated seems unusually heavy-handed. A motion on abortion was already defeated earlier this year. On that motion from Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth, calling for a study about the idea life begins at conception, it was the NDP that said it shouldn't be allowed to be debated. But it was, and it was defeated 203 votes to 91.

This time, the motion didn't even get to the floor for debate, let alone a vote.

But the hammer on democracy didn't end there.

Five days after his motion was declared non-votable, Warawa tried to take a moment to put his displeasure on the record by using a members' statement. Those are one-minute comments given to non-cabinet ministers before question period each day to air information important about their constituents.

However, Warawa was barred from that by Conservative party whip Gordon O'Connor. Warawa told the House he was told he was no longer on the daily list for members' statements, 15 minutes before he was to speak, and it was because "the topic was not approved."

Warawa then complained to House Speaker Andrew Scheer that violated his right as a parliamentarian to speak. O'Connor responded to the complaint by saying it is up to the parties to decide which of their members has a right to speak.

"This is a team activity and your role is referee," O'Connor told Scheer. "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."

So the question now sitting before Scheer is, whom do MPs really represent? When they rise in the House to speak, are they doing so on their party's behalf or on their constituents' behalf?

Party discipline seems to get stronger and stronger by the day in Ottawa. The Conservative caucus in particular is well-known for saving any dissent for private discussions that will never see the light of day.

Warawa's point of privilege is therefore a rarity in that it is pitting MPs from one party against their own party. Several Conservatives stood up to support Warawa, including Manitoba's Rod Bruinooge. The MP for Winnipeg South told the House the original parliamentary system in the United Kingdom allows the Speaker to decide who speaks, not the parties.

"Therefore, I do not think we are talking about anything that is unique or novel," Bruinooge said.

It's clear why Harper wanted Warawa's motion and subsequent members' statement hushed up. Since he became party leader, Harper has been accused of having a hidden, socially conservative agenda that will see him end gay marriage and ban abortion as soon as he can. That he has been the head of a majority government for nearly two years now and has done what he can to keep the abortion debate from being reopened doesn't matter to his harshest critics.

Harper is in many ways between a rock and a hard place on this one. If he allows the MPs in his caucus who are against abortion to constantly bring up the issue with motions and private member's bills, it plays into the criticism his party is too socially conservative to govern. Or he can shut down the conversation from within, as he has done with Warawa.

It says a lot that Harper would rather stifle democracy than be accused of allowing another debate about abortion that was sure to end with Parliament voting it down.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2013 A6

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