I think an important result of Parliamentary Speaker Andrew Scheer's ruling this week has been the civics lesson learned. It taught us how our Parliamentary system is supposed to work, but hasn't been:
"Andrew Scheer, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has made a potentially landmark ruling on MPs’ freedom of speech that could stem the flow of power from the backbench to party hierarchies, in defiance of the wishes his party leader, Stephen Harper...the Speaker brought down his ruling on the breach of privilege issue involving MP Mark Warawa’s right to talk about sex-selective abortion in a members’ statement."
I had never really understood that our MPs ability to freely speak up in the House of Commons, didn't actually exist. I had always thought they were free to speak--until this happened. I learned that it was actually the party whips who were controlling MP's ability to speak. Unlike the Parliamentary system in the UK, where MPs can speak freely, (as long as they stand up and are recognized by the Speaker) our MPs could not.
Our practice had begun when Speaker Jeanne Sauve started asking for lists of MP names from the parties, since she apparently couldn't remember the names of the MPs and their ridings. Seemed to make sense at the time, until the implications of that practice were fully realized with Mark Warawa's Motion.
For instance Maurice Vellacott, an outspoken pro-life advocate only spoke twice, while Quebec MP Jacques Gourde spoke 35 times in the House:
"Mr. Scheer "acknowledged that members who complain they are rarely on their party’s list have a “legitimate concern.” An analysis of members’ statements, for example, suggests that 10% of Conservative backbenchers delivered 28% of the members’ statements in the last year, with Quebec MP Jacques Gourde giving 35 statements (mostly pushing party messages) and Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott delivering just two."
Justin Trudeau's then brought forward his own free speech Motion:
"That is why we are tabling this motion to open up Parliament and allow all MPs to speak freely on behalf of their communities.”
But it looks like this motion was purely for political reasons. While it seems like his Motion was about free speech, Mr. Trudeau had also stated to a CBC reporter that he was:
"Committed to giving MPs more freedom to represent Canadians, but MPs would be required to support Canadians’ fundamental rights. For me, a woman's right to choose is a fundamental right."
This sounds like his motion would exclude any abortion talk. I sent Mr. Trudeau an email asking him to "clarify for me whether or not, you would allow an MP to use their Member Statement (SO31) to speak out against abortion?"
Because, if Mr. Trudeau really believes that abortion is a constitutional right (which of course it isn't), then he must be excluding it from his free speech motion, right? Since he still hasn't replied to me, I can only conclude that abortion would be excluded. He can certainly correct me if I'm wrong.
The can't-talk-about-abortion-virus started with Mr. Harper, then spread into Parliament, then into most of the mainstream media, then into our democratic practices, then all the way over into one of the most right wing talk show hosts in this country, Lowell Green. Even Mr. Green won't let listeners discuss abortion on his show. We know the can't-talk-about-abortion-virus must be pretty deadly when Mr. Green--the man who says listeners can speak on any topic--won't allow abortion discussion.
The abortion debate is important yes, but freedom of speech is fundamental to its ultimate success. On this we have scored an important win.
If Mr. Harper hadn't insisted on not letting Mr. Warawa speak, none of this would have happened, and Mr. Harper's iron fist squeeze on MPs ability to speak freely would have been maintained. As it is, we learned a valuable civics lesson by all the attention Mr. Warawa's Motion has inspired and the resulting ruling by the Speaker.
We must thank Mr. Scheer for his principled ruling. And a very special thank you to Mr. Harper for making it all possible.