Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ambrose voted her conscience -- a sign of progress

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TORONTO -- The American commentator George Will has told the story of confiding his anxieties on the subject of becoming a columnist to William F. Buckley. Where would one get a continuous flow of appropriate subjects? To paraphrase Buckley's response: Don't worry, just read the newspapers and you're sure to find things that annoy you. And so it goes.

The flap about Rona Ambrose's vote on M-312 -- the parliamentary motion to review the topic of when a fetus becomes a human being -- is an example of what Buckley presumably had in mind. Her critics demand that she resign her cabinet position as minister responsible for the status of women. Can they really be serious?

The critics' argument goes something like this. Given her portfolio, Ambrose's job is to represent the views of Canadian women, the overwhelming majority of whom are pro-choice on abortion. And as passage of the motion could have opened the door to reconsidering Canada's current "anything goes" legal situation, it was her obligation to vote no.

To put it as gently as possible, this argument is detached from the reality of parliamentary democracy.

It's not a cabinet minister's job to represent a specific constituency. Rather, the minister's job is to implement the elected government's policy with respect to the area covered by the ministry's brief.

To suggest otherwise is to open a Pandora's box of unfortunate consequences. For instance, it would mean the minister of agriculture's job is to lobby for farmers and agribusiness. And the minister of labour's job is to promote the agenda of trade unions. And the minister of national defence's job is to look after the interests of the military and its suppliers. And so on.

In effect, this perspective sees society organized into client groupings, with the role of government being to feed the desires of each group, particularly those with the most political muscle. What's conspicuously absent is any concept of an overall public purpose.

Ambrose's critics are also a tad disingenuous.

It's true that, given a binary choice, the majority of Canadian women are in favour of a right to abortion. However, if you put a more discriminating filter on attitudes, what you'll usually find is substantially more nuanced.

Given a range of options, there's significant support for something between the extremes of "no abortions at any time, for any reason" and the current "anything goes."

That's precisely what many European countries do; for example, allowing abortion on request for the first 12 weeks, but restricting it after that to situations such as serious danger to the woman's physical or mental health.

Then there's the attempt to rule any discussion off limits. We're told the matter is "settled" and the case is "closed." Applied consistently, this kind of thinking means no law of any sort could ever be changed.

For instance, back in the days when abortion was illegal, was the issue "settled" and thus ineligible from further consideration? Or how about the law on capital punishment as it existed 50 years ago? Or the law on same-sex marriage as it existed just a decade ago?

Of course, the critics don't intend to apply this "settled" principle consistently. They merely wish to use it to protect the laws they like while feeling free to change the ones they disapprove of. Arranging the game so that you always get to play offence has obvious attractions, but intellectual coherence isn't one of them.

Finally, there's the question of the integrity of Parliament.

For some time now, there's been considerable angst about the way in which tightly controlled political parties and whipped votes have combined to make Parliament ineffective. Alas, the lament goes, there's no longer any place for elected representatives to freely speak their minds and vote for what they think is right.

To anyone sincerely worried about that, the vote on M-312 should have been a beacon in the darkness.

After all, not only was it a free vote, but prominent members of the governing party, including Ambrose, felt sufficiently motivated and secure to vote against the express wishes of the prime minister.

Strangely, this produced no celebration. It's enough to turn an innocent soul into a cynic.

Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2012 A15

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