Warawa, centralised power, and Parliament under siege

There’s been a lot of attention paid in the past day about MPs feeling muzzled in the wake of Mark Warawa’s motion on sex-selective abortions being deemed non-voteable by committee, and his being denied a promised Members’ Statement, during which he had planned to raise the issue. Now, of course we know why the heavy hand of the PMO has come down on this issue – because they’re tired of having to defend against the constant accusations that the government has a pro-life hidden agenda, and the opposition parties are happy to keep this agenda off the floor by agreeing that it shouldn’t be voteable, by whichever excuse they find most convenient.

And then Warawa decided he’d had enough, and that it was time to speak up, and he raised this as a question of privilege – that his rights as an MP were being infringed upon because he was being denied the ability to speak about an issue that he and his constituents find to be of concern. Which is entirely valid. And another “maverick” MP, who is not necessarily part of the social conservatives in the caucus but who has certainly woken up to his responsibilities as an MP in holding the government to account, has also decided to speak up on Warawa’s behalf. And on behalf of the honour of the government, the Whip, Gordon O’Connor, recited a prepared script about how it’s all like the “coach” on the “team” assigning them to plays, or some other such sports metaphor, which Elizabeth May then objected to, before she decided that parties were really unimportant (as though she were not the leader of one). And she’s wrong because parties are important, to a degree.

Now, all of the blatant civic illiteracy from all sides that permeates this whole discussion aside, there are a few things that get me in all of this pandemonium that has erupted. Number one is the fact that everyone is shocked – shocked! – at the heavy hand that party leaders have been playing when it comes to the allocation of Members’ Statements, as with QP questions. It’s as though nobody has paid attention to what’s been going on for the past however many years. This of course goes back to changes made in 1993, when there House suddenly had to deal with the fact that there were five parties instead of the three or sometimes four that it had grown used to dealing with, and they decided to remove the power from the Speaker to decide who got to speak, and to instead use master lists given to the Speaker by the House Leaders. This was all done in the name of fairness (to ensure that each party got enough time), and to speed up the process, and lo and behold, this new “efficient” measure was quickly abused by party leaders. Imagine that. Compound this with the fact that the House stopped enforcing the rules around prepared scripts, and suddenly it became all the more easier for MPs to be handed scripts and talking points rather than them having to come up with something on their feet. And thus, we saw the death of actual debate in favour of the robotic recitations that we are treated to on a daily basis.

Of course, the degree of centralisation varies from party to party, and within those parties, can vary from MP to MP. The Liberals seem to be the least controlling party, which has been fairly evident for a while, be it Michael Ignatieff’s choice to generally stay away from votes on Private Members’ business in order to give the caucus a freer hand in that they wouldn’t look to him for direction on how to vote, or the fact that they would allow their MPs to put up Private Members’ Bills that they didn’t agree with (Ruby Dhalla’s bill on lowering the eligibility for old age benefits for immigrants being one example. They let her put it forward, but had no intention of supporting it).

The NDP talk a big game about giving their MPs a free hand, but it’s also quite obvious that they hand their MPs the scripts for the final two members’ statements every day, which have become partisan attacks (despite their pledge never to do so). What is less obvious is the degree to which the NDP has power over Private Members’ Business, whether it’s ensuring that some MPs give up their slots to take on a bill that the party deems important to move on immediately for political reasons, or ensuring that everyone is on the same page. While they insist that they always agree on all of their positions (except when they don’t, and that person finds themselves on the outs, whether it’s being denied their speaking spots, critic portfolios, or their lives becomes so uncomfortable that they decide to leave the caucus entirely), there does seem to be this culture within the party that it becomes “unseemly” to not be unanimous. Case in point was when Nycole Turmel was made interim leader, and people started coming out of the woodwork after she proved to be a less than optimal choice and they said outright (but anonymously) that they had their reservations but it would have been unseemly for them to not make it unanimous, and so on. There is also a lot of talk about the degree to which their staff is centralised, possibly more than any other party on the Hill. But whether they’re all singing from the same songbook because of the whip, or because it would be “unseemly” for them to step out of line, it does make for a picture of centralisation that they pretend doesn’t exist.

And then there are the Conservatives. So much of what has gone on with Warawa and company has to do with the mid-term itch, MPs realising that they’ll never make cabinet starting to stretch their legs – which is good and healthy, and should be a far more common occurrence – but also has to do with restlessness after a party that was founded on a lot of talk of free votes and backbenchers’ independence found itself tightly controlled during the minority years in order to prevent the collapse of the government, was seen as a successful tool and carried forward over into the majority years. The “twenty-five year old jihadis in the Prime Minister’s Office” abound, to coin a phrase, and it’s something that Rathgeber has pointed out repeatedly is a problem, especially when you have a group of assistants whose greatest asset was loyalty instead of experience or competence. (And these don’t only extend to the Conservatives – young party faithful running their MPs is a phenomenon across all parties). But let it also be said that Conservative MPs who have a backbone, who know what their job as an MP is, and who demonstrate the capacity to speak up and not embarrass themselves or the party in the process are given a freer hand. And as what happens with any party where you have MPs who aren’t all, well, competent, well the leader’s office is happy to provide them with scripts to read, or Private Members’ Bills to champion if they don’t have any of their own ideas. And yes, it happens.

There is the added pressure of the reaction when MPs show a hint of independence, and that tends to come from We The Media. Indeed, We The Media pounce whenever MPs speak up – we call Rathgeber a “maverick” and we describe what happened with Warawa and company as a “revolt” when it is nothing of the kind. We simultaneously want MPs to be independent, and yet expect them to remain trained seals, and the moment they show any hint of spine, we pounce, and wonder about whether the leader’s control is slipping. (This practice is doubly offensive when we apply it to Senators, who shouldn’t be under their leaders’ yoke at all). Is it any wonder that the party leaders – and their loyal young staffers – want this kind of independence clamped down on if it will cause headlines or the mildest bit of embarrassment? Especially as not having a completely “never more united than now” front is unseemly?

As for the Warawa situation and what it means for the plight of MPs, we should also remember that this is exactly what the NDP asked for. Every single day that Niki Ashton and Françoise Boivin stood up in the House to demand that Stephen Harper prevent Stephen Woodworth from having his non-binding motion to strike a committee to provide non-binding recommendations on the question of the definition of human being under the law from even making it to the floor, this was the explicit demand. In other words, clamp down on Private Members’ Business, the consequences be damned. Well, those consequences are here now. In this context, I found it quite rich that Megan Leslie went on Power Play tonight to say that she thought that no matter what she thought of Warawa’s motion that he should at least be allowed to present it – completely in contradiction to the party position espoused by Ashton and Boivin just a couple of months before.

Yes, the rights of MPs are in danger. They have been for some time, and if anyone is just waking up to this issue, then you have to wonder where they’ve been. But the only solution is for MPs from all stripes to take their roles and responsibilities seriously, stand up and take those rights back, and not worry about what their party leaders think, or if it’s “unseemly” for them to do so. Otherwise, Parliament as we know it is doomed.

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