Tory backbench pushback grows

As the Conservative backbench pushback grows over party restrictions on what they can say in the House of Commons, Stephen Harper doesn’t really need to be worried about a coup.

The prime minister and party leader still has a lock on the party, despite media and opposition dreams of a palace coup.

They should forget about it.

However, Harper needs to be worried about the precedent of a former national Conservative leader refusing to allow contrarian western MPs to speak their mind or the mind of their constituents on issues that contradict national party policy.

In 1993, Reformers like Harper swept the Progressive Conservatives out of the West in part because then prime minister Brian Mulroney and his party disciplinarians would not allow MPs to deviate from party policy that sought a broader and central Canadian-centred consensus.

When they tried to speak about western sensitivities on issues like bilingualism, deficits, Quebec favoritism and immigration, they were shut down.

Western voters finally tired of seeing their MPs muzzled.

They abandoned the Progressive Conservatives after decades of loyalty as part of an historic PC rout from majority to just two seats in 1993, neither of them from the West.

It is a lesson Harper must remember even as he allows party whip Gordon O’Connor to decide which MPs will be allowed to give one-minute statements on a topic of their choice. O’Connor has decided to stop MPs planning to raise sensitive issues such as reviving the abortion issue.

There always is a delicate balance between maintaining a consistent party message and recognizing that MPs are not simply nobodies there only to echo the party line.

In an unprecedented show of defiance, a parade of close to a dozen Conservative MPs have risen to complain that their rights to represent their constituents or their conscience is being violated by party discipline. Many do not agree with reviving the abortion issue but insist MPs are elected to represent their constituents and their own judgment and not just to be part of a party machine.

None are proposing to oppose their government on fundamental issues like budgets.

Last week, the stakes were raised when two higher-profile MPs — Pierre Lemieux, parliamentary secretary to agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, and Michael Chong, official languages committee chair and former cabinet minister — added their voice to the dissent.

It is up to speaker Andrew Sheer to decide the issue, a delicate matter since as a Conservative candidate, Harper will have to sign his nomination papers before the 2015 election.

Liberals have decided to wade into the debate with a motion April 24 removing the right of parties to decide which MPs get to speak about what.

Of course, opposition parties are hypocritical on the issue, imposing their own discipline on MPs. Look no further than the gun registry debate when both rural Liberal and New Democrat MPs were disciplined for breaking party ranks by supporting the end the registry.

They also see it as a winning issue either way.

If Conservative MPs venture into moral issues, they are reflecting Harper’s “hidden agenda,” critics argue. And if they are not allowed to speak, then Harper is a dictator.

Still, while no palace coup is in the offing, the prime minister should remember from his own history that stifling local political voices in the name of party discipline can drive voters away.

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