Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vote was democracy in action

Harper right to allow motion

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OTTAWA -- Nothing raises the heat on Parliament Hill like an emotionally charged debate.

Last week was no exception, as MPs gathered to vote on a motion from Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth calling for Parliament to study whether medical evidence supports the definition that human life begins at birth.

The motion was defeated by a vote of 203 to 91.

Amid the emotional fray surrounding the debate, New Democrat MPs Niki Ashton and Franßoise Boivin said they want more rules about what business MPs can bring before the House, and that this motion shouldn't have even been allowed.

According to Boivin, there are things "we should not be accepting" for debate.

But opening the door to banning certain topics from ever being debated is like slamming the door on the idea we live in a free and open democracy. Four Liberals and 87 Conservatives voted in favour of the motion, 12 of them cabinet ministers. A dozen "yes" votes were by women.

Their constituents will judge them on their vote when it comes time for re-election. So will the 203 MPs who voted against the motion.

Like it or not, the abortion issue is always going to be a highly contentious one and will always be an issue on which people do not agree.

Polls on the subject show public opinion on the issue is heavily nuanced and never simple. While the hardliners on either side of the debate would have us believe this is a black-and-white matter, few Canadians see it that way no matter which side of the debate they're on.

Surely there are Canadians represented by MPs who voted against the motion who would have preferred they supported it, just as there are Canadians who will be disappointed their MP voted in favour of it.

Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose voted in favour of the motion and is now facing calls for her resignation. For the minister in charge of ensuring women's rights, to vote for a motion many saw as the first step towards criminalizing abortion was unacceptable to women's rights groups.

But the freedom her critics have to express their displeasure with Ambrose's vote is the same freedom she had to express herself when she cast it.

Ambrose may pay a political price for her decision. She has offered little explanation yet for her vote, save a single tweet pointing to concerns about "sex-selection abortion."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may also pay a price for the whole affair. Although Harper has repeatedly said the abortion debate will not be reopened on his watch, the events of last week somewhat proved the opposite.

His harshest critics accused him of letting a backbencher do his dirty work for him, that this was his secret agenda to criminalize abortion sneaking in from the side.

That makes his decision to allow a free vote -- or even allow one of his MPs to introduce the motion at all -- all the more curious.

Harper has been a man of tight control, keeping his caucus in a unified line for years. Dissent is so rare it has always been extremely noteworthy.

Maybe he allowed the free vote on this motion to at least appease the socially conservative base that keeps his party so well-funded. Maybe he did it because he was hoping to test the waters and see how bad going down this road could be.

Or maybe he did it because it was the right thing to do.

Politics aside, what happened last week on Parliament Hill is exactly what should happen in a free, democratic society. Opinions should be expressed freely and motions debated and voted on that not everyone agrees with. Especially on issues that people care deeply about.

Opening the door to ruling out of order what Parliament can't debate is a slippery slope anyone who believes in democracy should reject.

The motion came up, it was debated and it was defeated. The results somewhat mimic polls that show how Canadians feel about the issue of abortion.

One can only hope the freedom Harper gave his caucus to introduce, debate and vote on this motion will now extend to other votes and other issues as well.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2012 A6

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