At some point you have to stick up for yourself. That is especially true in politics, where countless people come after you with their own agendas. If you don’t, you might lose their vote. And if you accede to what they wish, even though you disagree, you might lose yourself. – a tough bargain.
Conservative MP Mark Warawa has recently discovered a thing or two about this. I know Mark, and even took French lessons with him one summer in Quebec. He’s a nice enough guy, though we disagreed on many fundamental issues. He holds strong opinions that are often fortified by support from a large number of his constituents. When he announced in Parliament recently that he wanted to provide a MP privilege motion on the floor he entered a world of hurt. His own party, the party Whip, fellow committee members from his party, even the Speaker of the House (a Conservative) blocked his ability to stand up in the People’s House and represent the people of his riding.
This was all because Warawa desired to put forward a motion against abortion. This is just like Mark – go it alone if you can’t get your party to support you. Yet as difficult as this for some people to accept, that’s exactly what an MP is supposed to be able to do. As a Member Parliament, he has the “privilege” because he is elected to speak on matters important to him in the House.
The entire thing was a mess, but it was also a violation, not only of Parliamentary protocol, but of the lack of spine evident in so many MPs to stick up for the process of MP rights, even if they didn’t agree with the subject. Mark found himself in the uncomfortable position of having his rights defended by a few opposition members, while at the same time having them denied by his own team. But this was never about teams or partisanship; it was about the right of an elected official to raise a matter of privilege in the House of Commons. He even consulted a parliamentary expert who agreed on the process and his right to put his motion forward.
So, Ottawa has come to this. In the end it wasn’t about the government against the other parties, which has reached cancerous levels, but about a single MP representing his riding having no standing in the one place where he is supposed to be able to stand up for his constituency.
I enjoy Andrew Coyne’s writing, in part because he so quickly cuts to the chase on issues like this. In his powerful article, How Mob Rule Muzzled Mark Warawa, and All Other Canadian MPs, he states,
This isn’t a team. It’s a mob: mindless, frightened, without purpose or direction except when the leader decides, and unquestioning in its acceptance of whatever the leader decrees. What we have been watching these past few days is an exercise in raw power politics, designed as much to humiliate the individual in question as anything else. And let it be noted that a good many members of Warawa’s ‘team’ were more than willing to take part.”
It’s bad, isn’t it? Even shocking. But we would miss the point of all this if we merely placed the blame on parties, or even the Prime Minister. The real lesson here is that MPs not longer defend the process of Parliamentary procedure and democracy. This is where Coyne is his most compelling: “… it is as much about the character of the individuals involved … Everybody has a choice … They could, as a few have done, stand up for what was right: they could protest against the leader’s abuse of power and the steady erosion of MPs’ prerogatives that made it possible. Or they could choose to pile on, and collude in their own servitude.”
At the bottom of all this is you. If Mark can’t be defended by other fearful MPs, then what happens when something urgent in your riding arises and you require an advocate for the cause? What if the leader doesn’t want it championed? What if your MP’s party decides it’s too risky? Well, in the end, democracy isn’t really about them anyway, is it? It’s about you, whether you deserve it or not. A system has been put in place that permits your voice to be heard in the very centre of power through an elected representative. The moment that is no longer possible, then you, your MP, and the entire democratic system, is worth little.
This is why Parliament itself can only be saved from its downward spiral by conscientious MPs who put ethical Parliamentary procedure before their party or even their ambition. Their choice is a torturous one – legitimacy or the party. They either stick up for the process of open access to power or they bury it.
This is what citizens have been suspecting all along and Mark Warawa’s blocked efforts only confirm it. Politics is all about fighting on a field between well-prepared and resourced troops drawn largely from the professional political class. Not being able to play an equal part through their representatives, citizens have vacated things altogether because for them it was never a battlefield.
The deepest lesson in all this is clear. The system can only be saved by courageous individuals, and not just a new leader or party renewal.