This morning I recounted the somewhat bizarre tale of a Republican North Party member of Parliament who tabled a private member’s bill to, in a semi-oblique way, spark debate over access to abortion in Canada. To my sincere surprise, the bill’s author (Stephen Woodworth of Kitchener) was rebuked by all parties in Parliament, including by a high-ranking member of his own party. Considering the fact that a sizeable proportion of the RNP voting base is anti-choice, it seemed odd for the government to come down so heavily on its own MPs motion, especially to have a high-ranking member dish out the tongue-lashing.
As I said in this morning’s post, all that really matters is that women’s reproductive autonomy is preserved and appears to be well-safeguarded from Parliamentary interference, even under this government. However, what I am profoundly unclear on is why this motion – doomed to fail as it was – even saw the light of day. There are a number of potential explanations I can think of, and I will spend a little time on each one.
1. The obvious one: everything is exactly as it seems
Stephen Woodworth, acting within his privilege as a private member of parliament, bucked his leader’s wishes and tabled a bill that nobody liked.
It is the case that any member of Parliament can put forward a bill for the general consideration of the House of Commons without needing consent from their party leadership. It is entirely possible that Stephen Woodworth is so passionate in his desire to restrict women’s choices (or so infuriated at the idea of a 400 year-old definition in a 6000 year-old world) that he simply couldn’t help himself. Prime Minister Harper, giving an uncharacteristically long leash to a zealous MP (who would seriously embarrass his government), was forced to make his pro-choice wishes clear, and asked Gordon O’Connor to do the honours.
The reason I don’t buy this one is that the Prime Minister runs an incredibly tight ship. He knew this motion would fail, and that he would be blamed for his MPs truculence. The smart damage control move, especially if he didn’t want to alienate the religious right (which he absolutely has), would have been to save Gordon O’Connor and instead ask another back-bench MP to give a long-winded speech about the importance of religious freedom while quietly instructing his party to vote against the motion or else. None of these things happened, which means someone within the RNP power structure assented to this.
2. The fractured one: the party is coming apart at the seams
This motion is the result of a behind-the-scenes mini-coup on the part of frustrated social conservatives tired of having their issues ignored
Stephen Woodworth may have felt a subtle shifting in the winds as scandal after scandal began to shake the foundations of the Harper government. He may have felt that the time was ripe to flex some anti-choice muscle, while the government was weak and couldn’t afford to alienate its voter base. What better time to introduce a bill like this? He could peel off both the anti-choice vote in the RNP caucus as well as other pro-choice RNP MPs who were afraid to lose support in their ridings.
If this is what happened, Stephen Woodworth is even more stupid than I original gave him “credit” for. The Prime Minister has most of his MPs by the short hairs, and Stephen Woodworth is a nobody from a tiny riding. If anything, the RNP gains popular support by dropping the hammer on this upstart fundagelical and his wildly unpopular ideas. Considering the fact that the NDP is 100% pro-choice, the Liberal party is 80-90% pro-choice and only 61% of the RNP caucus is anti-choice, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which this strategy could garner enough votes to pass.
3. The clever stunt one: this was all political theatre to gain centrist support
Stephen Woodworth jumped on his sword in a brilliant strategic move on behalf of the RNP to tack away from their reputation as equivalent to American Republicans, and thereby pick up support in the middle.
With his support in the polls slipping, someone in the back room of the RNP political apparatus might have suggested allowing (or even instructing) Stephen Woodworth to put his motion forward with the full knowledge that it would be struck down. By having a high-ranking party member stomp all over the bill, Prime Minister Harper sends a strong message to the centre of the Canadian electorate that he is not beholden to the social conservative wing of his party.
Except that he is beholden to the conservative wing of his party, and they are the kind of people who will remember this event forever (and vote accordingly). Those in the centre are not nearly so monomaniacal in the issues they care about. Besides, the RNP isn’t running for anything for at least another 3 years – it makes absolutely no sense to start trying to govern for centrist support right now. Now is the time you push through all the stuff you know is unpopular but you hope people will forget by the next election.
4. The grooming one: Stephen Woodworth or (and?) Gordon O’Connor are being pushed into the spotlight
Stephen Woordworth is being moved off the backbench to appease the right wing and/or Gordon O’Connor is being positioned to carry the torch for the libertarian wing.
Knowing that the right flank of the RNP is becoming progressively more agitated by the lack of attention being paid to nullifying gay rights (a.k.a. “family values” issues – as though gay people don’t have families), Prime Minister Harper is elevating Stephen Woodworth as his token fundie. He takes a hit in the polls now, but come election time there’s Stephen reassuring everyone that he is there to stand up for their small-minded beliefs. At the same time (or as an added bonus), party whip Gordon O’Connor is being branded as a pragmatic centrist in time for the next cabinet shuffle (as other MPs who have disgraced the party are quietly moved into the background).
This one is certainly the most plausible, since it doesn’t hold any obvious downsides for the RNP, but the question remains why now? Stephen Woodworth could have held on to his stupid amendment until the party was on stronger footing (or never tabled it at all and merely agitated from the sidelines to gain much of the same support), and Gordon O’Connor could have been elevated without any need for fanfare or alienation of social conservatives. This would also require more of a head for political strategy than the RNP has shown to date, preferring instead to bully and demonize their way through the issues.
I honestly do not know the answer. Whatever the truth is, you can bet that none of it is going to come through the official channels of any of the political parties. It will be interesting to see what happens down the road, because for now I am sincerely mystified by last week’s events.
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