Whither democracy?

  • April 12, 2013

Voters in large, pluralistic democracies rarely reach consensus on any substantive issue, but the opinion of Canadians on sex-selective abortion is near unanimous. They overwhelmingly denounce it.

Polls consistently show upwards of 90-per-cent opposition to abortion based on gender. Even many people who generally support abortion cringe at it occurring solely because the sound of the heart beating within a womb comes from a female.

That is reason enough to be dismayed by a recent decision of a Parliament committee to silence MP Mark Warawa before he could present a non-binding motion to articulate the nation’s deep objection to sex-selective abortion. This is an important issue and deserves to be discussed in the House of Commons. But there is also another issue at stake.

In muzzling Warawa, Parliament has displayed an alarming disregard for the essence of Parliament as a democratic forum where elected officials have the right to speak freely on behalf of their constituents. Parliament should abound with the free exchange of ideas. It should bustle with diverse opinions and lively debate. It should be where voters are given a voice through the representatives they elect to Ottawa to represent their interests.

For it to devolve into a place where MPs are routinely told what they can or can’t say, or scolded like school children to take their seats and be quiet, is a disquieting development that denigrates Parliamentary tradition and cheapens our democracy. Silencing an MP is like hitting the mute button on thousands of voters.

This is not a partisan issue. All three main parties have bulls to whip their members into compliance, and they have back-room apparatchiks and party leaders to decide when and how sharply the whip should be cracked. That is nothing new.

It is one thing, however, to whip a vote or steer a debate on a government bill, or even to prevent a member from introducing a bill, but quite another to use party muscle to slap down an MP before he can rise to present a non-binding motion or make a simple statement in Parliament. It is undignified and undemocratic.

Parliamentary democracy has traditionally made an important distinction between government policy and other members’ business. It’s impossible for a government agenda to tackle every concern of a particular MP or his constituents. But MPs still have a right to raise their own issues in Parliament. In fact, they are duty bound to speak up for their constituents.

But the Warawa episode highlights a disturbing disrespect for MP independence in favour of a system that relegates MPs to little more than backdrops for Parliamentary debates or seat-fillers in committee rooms. Like sex-selective abortion, it is a situation that should be debated and reversed.

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