In our political system under most circumstances individual members of parliament cannot vote as they see fit because they are bound by party discipline. If you are part of the Conservative parliamentary caucus, in virtually all cases you must vote with your colleagues or face punishment for not doing so. Although Canada has a constitution “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom,” as the Constitution Act, 1867, puts it, party discipline here is even more rigid than that across the pond. Nevertheless, on the rare occasion party discipline will be relaxed and party leaders will allow for a free vote. This is particularly likely if a divisive moral issue comes before the Commons. Nearly 40 years ago, for example, Parliament voted narrowly to abolish the death penalty on a free vote.
Just over a dozen years later Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government proposed Bill C-43, An Act Respecting Abortion, which would have filled the legal vacuum created by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1988 decision in R. v. Morgentaler, which struck down Section 251 of the Criminal Code. Once again, because abortion was deemed a divisive moral issue, the political parties permitted a free vote, thereby avoiding the need to take a stand and risk alienating voters whose support would be needed at the ballot box. The bill passed the Commons, but it died in the Senate. Although the appointed Senate rarely obstructs legislation approved by the popularly-elected Commons, it did so this time because Senators were free from party discipline and thus able to vote as they pleased.
In the absence of a popular consensus on an issue, there is much to be said for party leaders permitting their members to vote their conscience. Whether the controversial measure passes or is defeated, the party as a whole does not have to assume collective responsibility and can focus instead on other potentially less divisive issues. It can thereby avoid alienating potential voters.
However, federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau seems to have cast aside this time-honoured political wisdom. Four months ago in this space I reported that Trudeau had decreed that future Liberal candidates for Commons seats would have to toe the party line on abortion, accepting a woman’s right to choose as a nonnegotiable. Pro-lifers already sitting in the party’s caucus would be allowed to remain for the time being.
By September, however, Trudeau appeared to have hardened his position, arguing that a woman’s right to end her pregnancy trumps an MP’s freedom of speech and right to vote his or her conscience. “If they vote in favour of restricting women’s access to abortion, that’s taking away their rights. And that is something that we will not accept in the Liberal party. We are the party of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that’s a serious, serious position that Liberals have to defend. It’s time the Liberal party actually defended rights.”
Trudeau is undoubtedly sincere in his desire to defend human rights. Yet, as Mary Ann Glendon has pointed out, the use of claimed rights as a trump card tends to end debate prematurely and does little, if anything, to advance dialogue. In this case, Trudeau has unnecessarily risked offending would-be supporters in the pro-life camp, which may not be the most astute political move on his part.
Trudeau’s controversial move illustrates the degree to which an inflexible ideological commitment can assume something approaching religious fervour, as its adherents deliberately ignore those factors that might mitigate that commitment. In particular, as the claims of sexual freedom have expanded, they have effectively taken over the space occupied by other, arguably more politically significant, liberties such as religion, speech and the press. It seems the arguments for sexual freedom will brook no dissent, and that should tell us that we have crossed into the dangerous territory of idolatry.
Is it possible for believing Christians and others less enamoured of sexual freedom to compromise with its proponents for proximate political purposes? It should be, at least in theory, but it appears that we will not be able to look to Trudeau to provide a way forward.