On matters of conscience

For most Canadians, infrequent glimpses into the workings of their Parliament reveal what appear to be elected bobble heads and applauding armies cheerleading for their party leaders.

For most Canadians, infrequent glimpses into the workings of their Parliament reveal what appear to be elected bobble heads and applauding armies cheerleading for their party leaders.

For the most part, that is sadly accurate, but independence does erupt in the House of Commons, indecision is sometimes confessed and MPs can veer from party lines on principle, without being branded mavericks or sparking a media feeding frenzy.

Three such instances in recent weeks deserve attention.

Two dealt with Canada’s contribution to an allied attempt to degrade the Islamic State in northern Iraq and another dealt with parliamentary accountability.

One of the war votes involved some soul-searching from Brent Rathgeber, an Edmonton MP who chose his own independence, resigning from Harper’s caucus in 2013.

One could argue his choice didn’t matter. It would not influence the final outcome because it had been deemed a vote of confidence by the government and the majority would carry the day.

But on such a weighty measure, every vote is important and Rathgeber confessed he was torn.

“I have never been more conflicted regarding any imminent vote in my six years as a Parliamentarian,’’ he wrote on his blog on the eve of the vote.

“That ISIS is an evil group of misguided jihadists, who practise barbarism such as summary executions, war rape, enslavement and broadcasting beheadings of journalists and humanitarian workers, is beyond debate,’’ he wrote.

But another long, distant war with imprecisely defined goals and dubious outcomes?

“I have severe reservations,’’ Rathgeber wrote.

Rathgeber worried about the eventual need for ground troops and the possibility of a protracted Afghanistan-style campaign. He agreed the costly air campaign in Libya was no success.

He argued that Canada and the world does not respond to all acts of barbarism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, pointing to Rwanda, Darfur and, more recently, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

He even argued the Conservatives had set up a wedge because the wording of their motion implied that those who were against it do not unequivocally support Canadian soldiers.

Finally, he argued a commitment to a theatre of war deserved some support from opposition benches.

History will record he voted “Yes.”

Liberal Irwin Cotler received much attention last week by abstaining on the war vote, the only member of his caucus who did not vote against the government motion.

Cotler argued that, even though he had called for military intervention to aid displaced and brutalized civilians under the doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect, the government had not made a clear case for military intervention and Prime Minister Stephen Harper had signalled a willingness to carry out operations in Syria with the permission of Bashar Assad.

That turned Responsibility to Protect “on its head,” Cotler argued.

“Assad (is) not a coalition partner,’’ he said.

History, however, will not officially record this abstention because Cotler was not in the House for the vote.

On the accountability front, three Conservatives voted in support of a defeated NDP motion that would have given Speaker Andrew Scheer more power to force government members to give relevant answers during the daily question period.

The trio included a longtime reformer and author of a private member’s bill on parliamentary reform, Michael Chong, retiring Conservative MP Brian Storseth and a veteran MP and chair of the Commons finance committee, James Rajotte of Edmonton.

Rajotte merely informed his party whip’s office, voted his conscience and life went on.

“Any efforts to improve question period debate should be supported,’’ he told me.

Rajotte argues there is more independent thought in his caucus than the media portrays.

He has, in the past, abstained on another NDP motion, that one dealing with asbestos, and he argues an MP can vote differently from the party majority five per cent of the time and still be a loyal member of a government, or the NDP or the Liberals.

“We should see that as a healthy thing, not something that is out of the ordinary.’’

Last spring, Rajotte wrote to Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre outlining five substantive changes his constituents wanted to the government’s controversial Fair Elections Act.

The letter, when made public, was a major impetus for the amendments finally introduced by the minister.

Rajotte routinely writes ministers with concerns of his constituents. Sometimes the ministers listen, sometimes they don’t.

Three, largely quiet, examples of MPs voting with their conscience and wrestling with decisions.

The world didn’t spin off its axis. It should happen more often.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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