John Weston last month was among a group of 11 Conservative Party backbenchers who stood up to voice support for the right of all MPs to speak in the House regardless of the wishes of their party leaders.
It could hardly be called a rebellion in the Tory ranks. Weston and others made it clear that in raising the question of parliamentary privilege, they had no quarrel with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s policies. According to the MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast- Sea to Sky, though, the ruling issued last Wednesday, April 24, by House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer was “essential for the institution of Parliament that MPs stand for the freedom of a member to speak, not just for me or my colleagues today and in the future, not just for our Parliament, but for all parliaments.”
Weston rose in the House to support an appeal to Scheer made by Langley Conservative MP Mark Warawa, whose statements on the abortion issue have sometimes put him at odds with the Tory leadership. In March, Warawa was told by Tory party whip Gordon O’Connor that he was not allowed to make a statement in support of his motion condemning sex-selective abortions, which has since been abandoned.The issue facing Scheer was whether the allocation of speaking time in the House should be controlled by the speaker or by the parties through the practice of party whips presenting the speaker with lists of “approved” speakers.
In a four-page ruling, Scheer wrote that while he will “continue to be guided by the lists that are provided to me,” he “will exercise my authority to recognize members…in a balanced way that recognizes both the will of the House and the rights of individual members.”
In his House address, Weston described Harper as a leader who has “fostered unprecedented mechanisms for caucus participation” and “has consistently demonstrated a standard of integrity and honest government.”
However, he argued that neither the prime minister—no matter who holds the office—nor others of his or her party should be allowed to supersede or usurp the power of the legislative branch, one of those legislative powers being the right to speak freely in the House on their constituents’ behalf.
“Does this [Harper’s supposed virtues] mean that, because the people in executive or cabinet positions of our government are model democratic leaders, we should allow our institutions to be stretched to accommodate a swelling of power of the executive at the expense of the legislature?” Weston asked. “I would argue that the doors opened by a good and benevolent prime minister and whip will still be open for access by a much less praiseworthy, less accountable executive who may someday follow.”
In an interview on Friday, April 26, Weston said, “I believe strongly that we have a right to have balance between the control of the party and the whip and the freedom of the individual member of the party to speak out.”
He said it was “disappointing” that other parties didn’t also formally rise to support the Tory members’ stance on what he considers an important principle for all MPs, regardless of their party. Others, including the Green Party’s Elizabeth May, reportedly voiced agreement outside the House.
Weston said he was “delighted” to see Scheer, in his ruling, make reference to a 22-year-old ruling made by one of his predecessors, former House speaker John Fraser. Under similar circumstances, Fraser told the House in 1991, “My answer is yes, there is a list. I am not bound by it. I can ignore that list and intervene to allow private members, wherever they are, not only to ask questions but to ask supplementals.”
Fraser, who has sat on the Conservative Riding Association board for the past decade, has been a mentor to Weston. After hearing the ruling, Weston said he phoned the now-retired Fraser and said, “‘You have influenced this speaker’s judgment and influenced this Parliament.’”
Added Weston, “It’s great for people in our riding to know that we have contributed someone like John Fraser, who has illuminated the country and who, even though he’s a speaker long past, is still illuminating Parliament today.”