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THE SALON

The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Rick Anderson, Anne McGrath and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.


Rick Anderson:

I keep hoping that one of these days we will reverse the 40-year tide that has been draining MPs, MPPs and MLAs of the autonomy they once enjoyed (and in many countries, still do). Alas, with last week's smack down of MPs' efforts to hold a (symbolic) vote, it looks like parliamentary leaders' control on legislator freedom is as robust as ever. Too bad.

 

Richard Mahoney:

I agree with Rick wholeheartedly. The decline in the ability of elected members to represent their constituents is one of the worst cancers on our body politic. This smack down is the latest example, but is by no means unique. And, even when a postive development for this idea happens, for example, Paul Martin's ideas for democratic reform, our political culture frustrates it by making dissenting views in one party a sign of weakness, as opposed to a sign of democracy at work.

 

Anne McGrath:

I think the fact that this "mutiny" is surfacing over the issue of abortion mutes some of the criticism about control. I can't help but feel somewhat relieved that the PMO is being resolute on the promise not to reopen this debate. However, I think that they could have stuck with that promise without completely muzzling their MPs and tightly scripting every intervention in the House. There has to be a balance between party discipline (which I support) and the ability of duly elected representatives to express themselves and their constituents.  

 

Rick Anderson:

Usually one observes the cynical phenomenon of opposition leaders bemoaning PMO control whilst promising greater MP independence "if only we were in charge."  This time, it was particularly discouraging to see opposition parties (including both Justin Trudeau and Joyce Murray) taking the view that MPs do not actually have the freedom to discuss topics they feel important. That's a new low, and does not auger well for an imminent return of greater MP independence. I also think the opposition missed an opportunity to reinforce their narrative about Mr. Control, by buying into the leader-control mantra. As I said, discouraging.

 

Richard Mahoney:

Predictably perhaps, Rick and I part company here. I think what he is referring to is Justin Trudeau's statement that he would put the "whip" on a vote on abortion/choice. This is, as many have observed, a very different thing than removing an MP's right to speak in the House on the issue. What Trudeau said makes sense: that on matters of an election platform, matters of confidence, the "whip" would be on. On other matters, on other legislation, allow MPs to vote their views. Sensible. Democratic. A step forward.

 

Anne McGrath:

I agree that certain matters, such as human rights, including women's reproductive rights, should be "whipped," but the heavy handedness of control on almost all matters is an impediment to the democratic process. The use of all members statements, responses to questions in Question Period, speaking on media panels, etc., as a narrow, partisan, and angry attack on the opposition is insulting not only to the opposition and the public, but also to the government MPs being told to parrot simplistic lines.

 

Rick Anderson:

This is always the excuse: I know better than you what you should and should not be free to talk about.  The topic here was not abortion per se, it is the concern - expressed by pro-choice doctors - that abortion as a form of gender selection may be practiced in Canada. Can we really not even discuss whether that MIGHT be a matter of concern, or has that too become a "fundamental right" as Justin Trudeau termed it? According to the way he put it, off-limits is whatever the leader deems to have been part of a (usually vague) platform or declares to be a "fundamental right." Gender selection is not a fundamental right. But "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression" are fundamental freedoms, according to the Charter:

http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/Const/page-15.html

Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982

 

Richard Mahoney:

Justin Trudeau did say that a woman's right to choose is a "fundamental right"- a Charter right, and our courts have recognized that - the courts struck down the former criminal code provisions on abortion and parliament has never replaced them. Trudeau did not say that "gender selection" is a right, as Rick suggests. But Rick has a point that MPs should have the right to discuss this and other matters. Unfortunately, our Prime Minister disagrees and reserves the right to approve or reject every statement of his MPs. That is anti-democratic, wrong, and a significant retraction of the freedom to speak well beyond anything any previous PM has done.

 

Anne McGrath:

It is the strict control of "Member Statements" in the House that has pushed this to the forefront. In addition, as NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen said, during the debate on the point of order, it is not about agreeing or disagreeing with the issue that MP Warawa wanted to raise. If MPs can't express themselves at all then Parliament can't work. There have to be some places where MPs can speak more or less freely.

 

Rick Anderson:

It's actually only difficult if we distrust MPs to have good judgment. People should relax. A vote on abortion would end up being a pro-choice vote, and an actual pro-choice vote would be heck of a better win for pro-choice advocates than this business of hiding behind leaders who have to suppress the other view just in case its the majority...this is the core elitist problem with our approach.  

 

Anne McGrath:

Except, Rick, the speech by NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen in the debate on the point raised was entirely as you suggest and supported the rights of MPs to speak and opposed the strict control of Standing Order 31s.

"...Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Member for Langley is not at issue here. The issue is the need for Members of Parliament to speak freely on behalf of those we seek to represent."  - Nathan Cullen

Within a caucus there will always be some pressure to conform, but it is usually through "soft diplomacy" and should rarely be through a whipped position. Being a member of a party means that there is some general agreement. Sometimes it is a given, sometimes it is through discussion and consensus, sometimes it is fine to express disagreements, and sometimes it is necessary to impose discipline. The last option should be the most rare.  


You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:

Rick Anderson: @RickAnderson

Anne McGrath: @OttawaAnne

Richard Mahoney: @RicMahoney

About The Salon (Anderson, Mcgrath, Mahoney)

Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
Posted date : April 03, 2013

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