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Harper puts backbench on notice, vows he'll keep MPs in line

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Feb.26, 2013 .

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Stephen Harper is working to defuse a challenge to his strict control over Conservative MPs, telling his sprawling and restive caucus he will not be moved from an agenda that got them elected to government.

The Prime Minister faced a brewing revolt from backbenchers this week concerning the grip his office exerts on their conduct, a rebellion that was triggered by Mr. Harper's refusal to allow a vote on a B.C. MP's motion condemning sex-selective abortions and then escalated into a bigger fight over how much autonomy Tory members of Parliament should have in the Commons.

Mr. Harper managed to put a temporary lid on the dissent during a lengthy caucus meeting Wednesday where he defended his position, sources say.

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The Prime Minister reminded his MPs he made a pledge to Canadians during the 2011 election: that his government would not reopen the abortion debate and that Conservatives wouldn't bring forward legislation on the topic.

"He said he's determined to keep his word to the people of Canada and he views this motion as tantamount to breaking the promise," one source said.

"He vowed he would use whatever tools are at his discretion to prevent the abortion debate from being reopened."

Conservative MPs had entered this weekly caucus meeting expecting a quarrelsome confrontation after several backbenchers had gone public Tuesday and complained their rights to speak for their constituents were being "taken away" by the PMO.

The Tories let the caucus meeting run overtime Wednesday, giving all a chance to vent and raise concerns about how the Prime Minister's Office thwarted Langley, B.C., MP Mark Warawa's efforts to pass a non-binding motion criticizing the practice of aborting fetuses because they are female.

The Prime Minister's power of persuasion seemed to have worked – for now. MPs leaving caucus were reluctant to criticize the heavy hand of the PMO and those who talked spoke in favour of giving the government the right to decide what gets said by Conservatives in the House of Commons.

Jay Aspin, the Conservative who represents Nipissing-Timiskaming in Northern Ontario, called Mr. Warawa a rogue. Other MPs talked about the need to be a team player.

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Even Leon Benoit, the Alberta MP and abortion opponent who stood in the House on Tuesday to support Mr. Warawa, was conciliatory toward Mr. Harper. "We had a really good caucus meeting and the Prime Minister has shown his usual good leadership and I appreciate that," said Mr. Benoit.

The debate is far from settled. Mr. Harper has to tread carefully to keep from alienating not only the sizable anti-abortion faction in his caucus but also those MPs who still hold onto the democratic-reform tenets of the Reform Party and its early fondness for free votes in the Commons.

Last week the Conservatives collaborated with the NDP and Liberals to declare Mr. Warawa's motion ineligible for further debate – essentially rendering it dead – despite the opinion of a Library of Parliament analyst who said it was entirely within bounds. The B.C. MP tried to fight back by reading a private-member's statement in the House but Conservative Party leaders refused to allow him.

Mr. Warawa is fighting both moves. He asked Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer on Tuesday to find that his parliamentary privilege had been breached when he was prevented from delivering his member's statement. Gordon O'Connor, the government Whip, says it is the party's right to decide which of its caucus members will be permitted to speak in the House.

Late Wednesday, the B.C. MP appeared before the Commons procedures and House affairs committee to ask its members to reconsider the decision to rule his motion ineligible.

"The question for each member here today is 'what kind of Parliament do we want?' " Mr. Warawa told the committee. "Canadians want a Parliament that follows the rules and procedures – 90 per cent of Canadians want the practice of sex selections condemned."

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But, in a highly unusual move, none of the MPs on the all-party committee had any questions for Mr. Warawa after his five-minute address. The committee then went behind closed doors, evicting both the media and the small number of Mr. Warawa's Conservative caucus supporters who had turned out to watch the proceedings.

Just five minutes later, committee chair Joe Preston – a Conservative – emerged to say the committee had reached a decision and it would remain confidential until it was tabled in the House of Commons on Thursday.

If the committee turns him down, Mr. Warawa will have five days to file an appeal with Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer. It would be the first time in the history of the House of Commons that such an appeal had been lodged.

It must be signed by five other MPs and Mr. Warawa says he would have no trouble obtaining those signatures. If the appeal is in order, Mr. Scheer would call a secret vote on the matter in the House of Commons.

That means that, if there is a large contingent of Conservative backbenchers upset with the way the Harper government has shut down Mr. Warawa and his motion, they could register their disapproval anonymously.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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