Canada’s Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made headlines last week when he announced that all potential candidates running for nomination in the Liberal caucus for the 2015 federal election must support pro-choice ideals and policies on abortion. This top-down marching order seems at odds with Trudeau’s earlier announcements on opening candidate nominations in riding associations, as well as his proposal that his MPs, should the Liberal Party win the next election, would only be subject to party discipline on votes such as budget bills. In an age of Canadian politics where the Prime Minister’s Office has never had more centralized power and Prime Minister Harper’s “control freak” reputation has become notorious, Trudeau had seemed to be the refreshing candidate of MP empowerment. Unfortunately, his pro-choice announcement serves to weaken this image and paradoxically hinders his potential members of Parliament from choosing to vote according to their conscience on an extremely personal issue.
Politically, Trudeau’s announcement is well-executed. Abortion is a hot topic issue that engages even many individuals who are otherwise politically apathetic. While the subject matter of the debate is extremely divisive on the surface, the political attitudes and climate of Canada continue to lean increasingly further towards pro-choice values being the norm. Only 27% of Canadians remain firmly pro-life as of 2010, and that number continues to dwindle as time goes on. Almost all of this 27% who vote would likely opt to vote Conservative regardless of the Liberal’s stance on the issue, and Trudeau’s announcement makes a splashy headline for the 52% of Canadians who are decisively pro-choice.
Furthermore, by bringing the abortion discussion back into the news cycle, Trudeau implicitly reveals a large distinction between his Liberal Party and the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper. Under Harper, the Conservatives have had to walk a careful tightrope between the pro-choice values of Canadian popular opinion, and the pro-life attitudes among many in its voter base. By highlighting himself as the pro-choice candidate, Trudeau could reignite the tension that exists in the Conservative caucus if Harper, who is typically reluctant to speak on the issue, feels sufficiently pressured by the public and the media to voice his own opinion before the election.
This announcement may lend itself to easy publicity, may successfully bandwagon onto the clearly victorious side of the issue, and may ultimately help Trudeau’s electoral cause. However, Liberal supporters of his previous ideas on party discipline should be greatly disappointed. True parliamentary democracy thrives on discussion and debate of the issues that matters to its citizens. The Liberal Party in particular (at least on paper), should further emphasize with this stance given the broad, pluralist pragmatism that has defined much of their governance. The Liberals are a progressive party whose voting base generally tends to be socially liberal. As a result, pro-life candidates would likely have a difficult time winning their riding associations in today’s social climate. But this should at least be permitted to be put to a test- and should those candidates win their riding, they should be allowed to express views that are in accordance with their conscience.
While MPs of every administration have at some point been subject to the “party whip” to varying degrees, it seems unethical to subject them to this discipline on the issue of abortion. Although the majority would say (including this author) that the pro-choice argument is more fitting in our rights-based democratic system and better serves the principles of fundamental justice, an ideological stance on abortion is an extremely personal decision based on many cultural, emotional, and religious factors. Barring political participation for individuals based on a categorical, broad standard for an issue so deeply personal is not only unseemly for a Parliamentary democracy, but morally objectionable too. By extending the argument, it could possibly be said that this constitutes a form of religious discrimination for those who feel that their religious beliefs preclude them from supporting abortion, even if these otherwise suitable candidates support everything else in the Liberal platform.
Justin Trudeau had seemed like the candidate who realized the problems that top-down, overly partisan party discipline could create for Parliamentary democracy. And despite this hiccup, it seems likely that if elected Prime Minister Trudeau would loosen this discipline at least to some degree, given his pledges to that effect. However, that does not make this announcement any more encouraging, and signals that he is willing to compromise freedom of political expression for pro-choice support. When discussing abortion, Trudeau speaks glowingly of a woman’s right to make a choice on a deeply personal decision. Ironically enough, this right to choose has descended autocratically from the Liberal leader to limit the right of his MPs to make their own ethical choice. We live in a setting where political correctness is often guilty of barring free exchange of ideas, and paradoxically being intolerant of contrasting opinions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. By hedging his bets on the pro-choice camp, Justin Trudeau has drawn a line in the sand showing exactly what degree of politically correct populism is reserved for justifying the limitation of political expression, in what was purported to be a more open and less hierarchical political party than others past.
– Eli Vincent Zivot