Joyce Arthur
Undermining democracy and human rights: A cautionary tale about anti-choice politics

| February 7, 2014
Photo: Alexandra Lee / Flickr

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Last week, Parliament and the pro-choice movement got a temporary reprieve from the relentless onslaught of anti-choice motions and bills introduced by Conservative backbenchers who won't take Harper's "No abortion debate allowed" for an answer. Not a single one made the list of pending private members' business for this session.

The news must have come as a huge disappointment to the anti-choice movement, which had been eagerly anticipating the introduction of two explicit anti-choice motions that had already been fully prepared and announced in December by long-time Conservative MP Maurice Vellacott (Saskatoon-Wanuskewin). So what happened?

Vellacott actually had a total of four private member items on the order paper. This forced him to make a "difficult decision," since only one item can proceed to second reading and a vote. On January 31, he chose to go with his Bill C-560, which would require judges to apply the principle of "equal parenting" in custody disputes unless there is proven abuse or neglect.

Vellacott's fourth item was a cloaked anti-choice motion. It would have made it easier to bulldoze just about any private member bill or motion through Parliament, no matter how offensive or illegitimate, by removing committee powers to deem them non-votable. Ironically, Vellacott called this a "democratic reform initiative." All three of his dropped motions can be viewed here.

One might wonder why Vellacott created this surplus of private member business to begin with, knowing he'd have to sideline three out of four items. The main clue is his announcement last July that he's stepping down from politics and will not run again in 2015. The motions therefore represent his last kick at the can, the "pro-life" legacy he wants to leave, and the final kudos he wants to bask in from the anti-choice movement.

Still, why bother with three extra motions that won't go anywhere? Likely because Vellacott is confident that they'll be back soon, even if he won't be: "[B]ased on considerations I have been a part of, I have good reason to believe that the other three items I have on the order paper will be picked up in due course by other good MPs who have spine and foresight." The wording hints that Vellacott himself is a member of this elite club of brave visionaries, and that he's been busy convincing the other members to boldly go forth into the future with his motions.

Vellacott has been an MP since 1997 and has a perfect "pro-life" record according to Campaign Life Coalition. Over the years, he has introduced six anti-choice private member bills, all with the same single-minded goal: to prohibit healthcare workers from being forced to participate in procedures such as abortion or euthanasia. The last version was the most preposterous.

Returning to the "equal parenting" bill for a moment, it's notable that this bill is at least several degrees less contentious than abortion (although it makes one wonder about Vellacott's possible affinity with "Men's Rights Activists"). One might also wonder whether Vellacott was the object of a talking-to by some higher-up who may have been anxious to avoid yet another iteration of the dreaded "abortion debate."

Since Vellacott's three dropped motions may indeed be coming back, are they worth worrying about? It's almost certain the two explicit anti-choice motions would never go anywhere even if they were introduced, but the cloaked motion to remove the ability of the Committee to veto private members' business, M-490, is perhaps a bit of a wild card. Vellacott claims that:

The motion would fix a current vulnerability in the system that has led to a situation where a small group of MPs are able to control, often from behind closed doors, what issues are and are not allowed to be voted on in the House of Commons. … The motion I am proposing is a bulwark against arbitrary and capricious decision-making when it comes to Private Members Business. Were this motion to pass, decisions on the votability of private members' bills and motions would be made in a fair and objective fashion, free from any sort of political interference or shenanigans.

Really though, the shenanigans are mostly on the side of anti-choice politicians like Vellacott (and Stephen Woodworth, Mark Warara, and others), who continually put forward these hopeless motions and bills against the wishes of Harper, and occasionally throw a hissy fit when they fail to go anywhere. Or, when a bill start to go somewhere like in 2008 with Ken Epp's Bill C-484, it creates division in the caucus, a media circus, and a headachy distraction from the government's agenda. Instead of getting the message though, anti-choice stalwarts in Harper's caucus carry on like they're more determined than ever -- not unlike true fanatics.

With his M-490 motion, Vellacott is complaining about the treatment of Mark Warawa's Motion 408 last March by the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Private Members' Business. That motion, to "condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination" was deemed non-votable because it failed to meet two of the four votability criteria -- so it wasn't exactly an "arbitrary and capricious" decision.

Bills and motions must not concern questions that are outside federal jurisdiction, or are substantially the same as ones already voted on in the current session of Parliament. The Subcommittee members said that abortion is healthcare and therefore under provincial jurisdiction, and that Stephen Woodworth's Motion 312 was also about abortion and was voted on just six months previously, in September 2012.

The other two criteria are that the bill or motion must not "clearly violate" the Constitution Acts and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that it must not be on the same topic as items currently on the Order Paper or Notice Paper as items of Government business.

Vellacott's motion would have dispensed entirely with the constitutional and Charter violation criterion, as well as the one requiring it to be within federal jurisdiction. One can only imagine the kind of odious private member business from backbenchers that would have to be "debated" in Parliament without the Charter criterion in place to deflect them.

Ironically, Warawa's Motion 408 wasn't deemed non-votable based on the Charter criterion, so Vellacott's motion would have made no difference to the result anyway. Vellacott even retained in his motion the criterion that bills or motions could not be "substantially the same" as ones already voted on in the current session, even though that was probably the key criterion that deep-sixed M-408. The Subcommittee's decision was made unanimously by three MPs from three parties (Liberal, NPD, and Conservative), which weakens Vellacott's accusations of political interference. Finally, although the Subcommittee's "expert analyst" had advised the members that Motion 408 was votable under all criteria, the analyst's interpretation was nowhere to be found in the criteria's straightforward language and had no evidence or precedent to support it. Also, his advice was non-binding, so the MPs were free to discount it.

Vellacott's "democratic reform initiative" in M-490 was designed to undermine democracy and remove basic safeguards that protect human rights and other constitutional guarantees, in order to make it easier to smuggle in anti-choice bills and motions.

It's worth remembering that the anti-choice movement has never been a friend of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Let's also remember the decidedly undemocratic motivations behind this motion should it arise again in Parliament.

In the meantime, the pro-choice movement will be happy to say goodbye to Maurice Vellacott. 

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Joyce Arthur is the founder and Executive Director of Canada's national pro-choice group, theAbortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), which protects the legal right to abortion on request and works to improve access to quality abortion services.

Photo: Alexandra Lee / Flickr


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