OTTAWA - Former MP Paul Szabo remembers the day he jammed a stick in the spokes of his own majority Liberal government's bill on reproductive technologies by getting opposition help on 76 amendments.
When the legislation finally passed, Szabo said he overheard a group of his colleagues complaining to Liberal health minister Anne McLellan: "That bastard has killed the bill."
"We made changes to it which, let's say, frustrated the operational viability of the bill," Szabo, a passionately pro-life Catholic, said in an interview Wednesday.
"But I fought it openly in caucus. I gave all my arguments directly in writing to the minister."
Since before the Supreme Court struck down Canada's abortion law in 1988, governments of various stripes have struggled to manage internal divisions over deeply held MP opinions on the subject.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is just the latest, although circumstances may be conspiring to make his a particularly difficult juggling act.
Harper is battling old perceptions of a party built on social conservative foundations and more recent evidence of a prime minister with an iron grip on every aspect of party policy. Squelch one perception and it reinforces the other.
"It's especially sensitive for Harper and the Conservatives because they got a reputation before they came into office for being on the hot, right side of all these social conservative issues," says Lowell Murray, the Mulroney-era Conservative cabinet minister who oversaw the committee that drafted Canada's last attempt at an abortion bill in 1990.
Don Boudria, the former Liberal House leader under Jean Chretien, outlines the other side of Harper's dilemma.
"If he hadn't been perceived from the beginning as wanting to control everything on everybody's agenda, it would be a little bit easier for him" to allow MPs to speak freely on abortion issues, Boudria said.
"How can he say today: 'I want to control everything — except this?' Who will believe that?"
Brian Mulroney was renowned for his caucus management skills and his ability to get everyone onside for massively ambitious projects, be they rewriting the Constitution or redrafting abortion laws.
He allowed a free vote on capital punishment — a bill Mulroney himself spoke against in the House of Commons.
But after the Senate effectively killed the Conservative abortion bill in 1991, "the subject was exhausted," Murray said in an interview. "As far as we were concerned, we had to move on."
The Liberals under Chretien had a large pro-life contingent — Tom Wappel once claimed it was close to 40 per cent of caucus — but the party also embraced many MPs at the other end of the spectrum. The party was known, sometimes derisively, for its "big tent."
"Most people shrugged their (shoulders) and said, 'Well, they're Liberals,'" Boudria explained.
For the anti-abortion hard core who soon realized their Liberal government would never propose a new abortion law, they could say, "All right then, I'll have my own private member's bill," said Boudria. "And people would say, 'Go ahead, that's what they're for.'
"Even if someone wanted to make the government wear it, it wouldn't catch."
The dilemma of "wearing" a bill his government doesn't support faces Harper, although some like Murray say it's time to stare down that perception.
The former Progressive Conservative senator argues that after seven years in power the Conservatives have a proven record on social issues and shouldn't be so hung up on the old Reform party labels.
Murray said he doesn't believe an abortion debate by a dissident faction does present-day Conservatives any harm — "unless Harper decides to double down and bear down hard on them."
Norman Spector, a chief aide to Mulroney during the abortion debates of the late 1980s, said there were lasting lessons learned after the Senate killed the last abortion bill.
"The reason Mulroney put his hands up — and I think Harper understands this — it's futile to have the debate," said Spector.
An abortion debate may provide great media grist but it is lousy politics, said Spector.
"Harper understands you're not going to get a compromise, people don't want to compromise on this issue."
Nonetheless, the former prime ministerial adviser says, "my own advice would have been to let members spout off."
That may sound callously phrased, but it speaks to a deeper and very real condition for backbench MPs, in the opinion of former Liberal backbencher Szabo.
He said both Chretien and Mulroney before him recognized the importance of letting MPs speak their minds.
"It's long hours. You're away from your family for eight months. You're not sleeping in your own bed," said Szabo, who was an MP for 17 years. "For some people it's hard to cope.
"Throw on top of that: 'While I'm here, making these sacrifices to try to be a good member of Parliament, I'm now told that I can't speak. I can't be trusted to speak independently.' That's an insult."
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