Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trudeau stifles conscience

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Justin Trudeau

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Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau's "open" nomination process for potential Liberal MPs is getting to look a lot less so. But the Liberal leader's hard rule that all new MPs must uphold a woman's right to choose abortion should concern all Canadians, as it will further erode the little independence left to members of Parliament.

MPs are expected to fall into the party line when voting on most items in the House, and for legitimate reason. As Mr. Trudeau says, Canadians deserve to know what they get when they vote for a Liberal. Solidarity musters a party as a unified force in Parliament and promotes a party's political agenda.

Canadians understand that, sometimes holding their noses and voting despite the vagaries of party loyalty. But they also see MPs' roles and responsibilities are broader and expect there to be room to allow MPs to balance competing demands. The vast majority do not want MPs to act as automatons, sitting simply to serve the party or leader.

This lies at the core of the long-held tradition of respect in the party system for personal conscience, one upheld even by the more rigid Westminster parliamentary style. MPs must be allowed to vote against the party line when it conflicts with a strongly held personal belief or value.

Few issues strike closer to the heart of personal conscience than that of abortion, the rights of the unborn and of a woman's control over her body and life. Not even the death penalty, today, elicits the conflicted, heated discussion abortion inspires. Mr. Trudeau's edict ignores or dispenses with that for political expediency.

The move may be designed to siphon support from the NDP, which has stated its support for a woman's right to choose. (It may also intend to isolate the Conservatives as the only party that isn't resolutely pro-choice.)

But even the NDP has left room for those in caucus whose views on abortion break with party position. No party whipped the vote on a 2012 Conservative backbencher's motion to open the debate about when life begins, challenging the Criminal Code's definition that a human being is one fully emerged from a mother's body. And all parties saw some members vote to open that debate.

Canada has no law on abortion, making it entirely legal. It is said to be alone in this, but for North Korea. The Supreme Court's ruling in 1988 that found the country's abortion law unconstitutional meant Parliament had to fashion a compliant law. That effort failed under the Mulroney Conservatives and no party since has brought new legislation to the Commons floor.

That is not a sign of agreement on the issue. It reflects the deep divisions and conflicted views of MPs and Canadians, which renders policy on abortion a no-win proposition at election time. There is considerable support in Canada for a woman's right to choose, but it is soft, crumbling when pollsters ask whether abortion should be permitted in late term.

Mr. Trudeau's abortion edict is not so much a problem for abortion -- it is highly unlikely to hit Parliament again -- as it is for the notion of good representation. The independence of MPs is increasingly constrained by party loyalty, a leader's own power and especially the concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office. Free votes anchor the vestiges of autonomy left to those elected by Canadians to represent them in Ottawa. That a free vote is expected for matters of conscience reflects the fact voters recognized conscience is central to one's integrity.

Canada is not done with complex debates over public policy riddled with morality. Euthanasia is a pressing legal and political debate that will demand consideration of all its implications. If Mr. Trudeau would have his MPs relinquish autonomy on a question so intimate as abortion, on what issue will he see fit to allow them the freedom to dissent?

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2014 A10

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