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Tory MPs complain of being muzzled

Party refuses to let them speak in House

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OTTAWA -- A growing contingent of Conservative MPs, including Winnipeg's Rod Bruinooge, lashed out at their own government Tuesday in a rare show of rebellion against the party discipline that has been the hallmark of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The backbench MPs complained of being muzzled in the House of Commons, winning support from other Conservatives in an extraordinary challenge to Harper heading into what promises to be a dramatic caucus meeting today.

Mark Warawa complained stifling party discipline is preventing him from representing his Langley, B.C., constituents, and asked Speaker Andrew Scheer to intervene in what he called a breach of his privileges as an MP. Warawa's complaint was echoed by another Tory backbencher, Alberta MP Leon Benoit, and backed by others.

Their concerns revolve around their ability to take part in the 15-minute period each day set aside for MP statements, known as S.O. 31s.

Warawa said he was on the Conservative roster to make a statement last Thursday but was informed moments before that he'd been struck from the list. "The reason I was given was that the topic was not approved," he told the Commons.

Benoit said the same thing has happened to him more than once. "I want to say that I too feel that my rights have been infringed on by members of the party because I am not allowed to speak on certain topics in S.O. 31s," he said.

"I have had S.O. 31s removed and I have been told that if I have one on a certain topic I simply will not be given S.O. 31s."

Neither Warawa nor Benoit specified what topics they've been prohibited from speaking about. But it's likely Warawa's banned statement involved his motion calling on the Commons to condemn sex-selective abortion, which earlier the same day had been deemed non-votable by the subcommittee that oversees private member's business.

The decision spared Harper -- who has vowed not to reopen the abortion debate -- the spectacle of another embarrassing split in Tory ranks.

Warawa is appealing the decision to the Commons procedure and House affairs committee, which is to hear his arguments today. He has vowed to appeal, if necessary, to the Speaker, who could order a rare secret-ballot vote by all MPs to determine if the motion should be debated.

Members' statements are supposed to give MPs a chance to speak about issues or events of importance to their ridings. Over the last few years, they've evolved into vehicles for scripted partisan attacks, particularly by the Conservatives.

Other Tory backbenchers sympathized with Warawa, although they said they have never personally been muzzled.

Bruinooge and Edmonton MP James Rajotte noted MPs in the United Kingdom are allowed more freedom to speak their minds.

"I think members should be able to give the statements they want to give in the House," Rajotte said outside the Commons.

However, government whip Gordon O'Connor urged the Speaker to reject Warawa's complaint, arguing it's up to each party to determine which of their MPs will be given a chance to speak.

"Put simply, this is a team activity and your role is referee," he told Scheer.

"It is not your job as referee to tell the coach or manager which player to play at any given time."

Green party Leader Elizabeth May said that analogy "cuts to the core of what is wrong with parliamentary democracy," suggesting MPs "are here as teams, as brands or colours and we are all to take instructions from our team boss."

"We are not here as teams," May said. "The principle of Westminster parliamentary democracy is that we are here as representatives of our constituencies and our constituents."

Noting political parties are not even mentioned in the Constitution, May added: "They are not an essential part of our democracy. They have grown to be seen as the most interesting thing going on and we have grown to see politics as some sort of sport. However, democracy is not a sport."

Scheer said he'll wait to hear other arguments before ruling on Warawa's complaint.

The NDP declined to take an immediate position on the issue. NDP House leader Nathan Cullen said all NDP MPs are given an equal chance to make statements, on a rotational basis. No one vets the statements in advance or bans certain topics from being mentioned.

"We don't have that conversation," Cullen said.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2013 A10

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