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Conservative backbenchers resist muzzling from Harper’s office


Julian Wolfe
April 18th, 2013


Conservative MPs are breaking ranks and speaking out against Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s quest to muzzle them. As the reasons for breaking ranks vary, one reason has 9 backbench MPs on the same page: freedom of speech, or in laments terms, the lack of it.

It started when Kitchener MP Stephen Woodworth broke ranks and tried to reopen the debate on abortion. He was supposed to speak on March 21 and offer a private members bill on the matter but was taken off the speaker’s list. “The reason I was given was that the topic was not approved,” he said.

Shortly after Woodworth made a racket about it, Alberta MP Leon Benoit rose and said his speaking rights were taken too.

“I want to say that I too feel that my rights have been infringed on by members of the party because I am not allowed to speak on certain topics in S.O. 31s [Standing Order 31],” he said.

“I have had S.O. 31s removed and I have been told that if I have one on a certain topic I simply will not be given S.O. 31s.”

The issue may have gone under the radar over the last few weeks with hype about Liberal leadership and Justin Trudeau but it is returning to the spotlight as BC MP Russ Hiebert joined the 9-MP revolt. On Tuesday he rose in the House of Commons, with Harper’s absence, to defend MPs’ right to speak without needing the approval of the party whip.

He read a list of MPs shot down by S.O.31s over things they wanted to say or motions they wanted to bring forward.

“Afterall, these statements are merely words, no matter how contentious some of these subjects raised might be,” said Hiebert.

“There is no vote or any other action that can be taken during a one-minute statement that is going to topple a government or cause an election. There is nothing to fear on the part of any party in ensuring a members’ rights to speak freely in the House are guaranteed.”

Wasana said he will introduce his next steps in a closed-door caucus meeting and said that Harper and his office have enforced iron discipline on what MPs say and do.

Add to the list, MP Brent Rathgeber, who you won’t find opposing the Conservatives, but he isn’t comfortable with all the stances they’ve taken.

He said the party discipline is all part of a “marketing strategy” young staffers in the PMO came up with to maintain Conservative votes.

“The kids that work over in Langevin Block [which houses PMO offices], they believe – and they believe rightly – that that type of politicking is ultimately effective,” said Rathgeber.

“You’ve got to really, really, really repeat a simplistic point over and over and over again in order to get it to resonate with somebody who thinks about politics about 14 seconds a day.”

Over lunch, he told Global News that the Conservatives asked him to alter blog posts he wrote that were critical of the government’s stances. For instance, in response to the Conservative’s response to the “job-killing” carbon tax, he said, “I don’t like them at all.” One of the articles they asked him to change criticized the ministerial use of limousines which has since changed.

“In the early days of my blogging, junior staffers at PMO would phone with all sorts of reasons as to why they should be the editor of my blog,” he said.

On the topic of an outright revolt, Rathgeber said it was a bit far fetched.

“To the extent that is it is a revolt – and I’m not prepared to concede that, although I see how some people see it that way – to the extent that it is a revolt, it’s not a revolt against the leadership, it’s a revolt against the Parliamentary practice.”

“Yes, I do sometimes challenge the government’s legislation or the government’s decisions. But it’s not being disloyal. In fact I would suggest it’s quite the opposite,” he said.

“Some people think that they’re a good backbencher and a loyal and noble foot servant by taking the talking points home on the weekends and telling all their constituents what a great job the government’s doing. I don’t see that as my role. I don’t see that as necessarily the best use of backbenchers’ intelligence or time.”

While it can be agreed that there isn’t an outright revolt, the lack of freedom of speech has raised resistance in the back benches. If the awareness and fatigue spreads across other backbench MPs who may be muzzled because their right-wing tendencies get blocked to avoid the opposition war chest, one may see the tension build between the outer span of Conservative MPs and the tightly controlled PMO and cabinet. If one thing is certain, MPs looking to reopen abortion can forget it with the Conservative party. Stephen Harper has been clear that he doesn’t want to reopen the debate, and Harper, as well as all political observers in Canada are aware that opening this debate would be a strong nail in the coffin of his career.

We shall see how long back bench MPs stick to their muzzled practices, and if they will continue to resist by coming out to the media. Seeing as how much control there is in MP statements, one can only imagine the stress Conservative MPs actually face as they get pounded by the media who want answers and all they have is a script or disciplinary actions awaiting them. Perhaps MPs who are fed up of their leadership may opt to sit as independents or form a new party that with the right messaging can overrun Conservative support in Alberta. They can start by being the party of the right that strong supports freedom of speech, since the Conservatives don’t celebrate or care for it but so many Canadians do.

Nine MPs seem to be resisting their muzzles, do you think it could lead to something bigger? Will they eventually be disciplined back into the fold? Will these MPs resign or cross the floors to independent status or to another political party?

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