… At least, not to the (relatively straightforward) question that was asked:
A spokeswoman for Mr. Ignatieff refused to say whether the new Liberal Leader will allow any of his members to continue to advocate openly for reduced access to publicly funded abortions.
“I don’t think we are in a position to answer those questions today. I think they are speculative at this point,” said Jill Fairbrother, adding that it is impossible to know if the committee mentioned by Mr. Bruinooge even exists and, if so, whether there are members from parties other than the Conservatives.
“This is a matter that was settled by the Supreme Court more than 20 years ago and that’s our view on it today,” Ms. Fairbrother said.
First of all, of course the “committee” exists – although to be fair to Ms. Fairbrother, it’s not an official House committee, per se, but an informal, ad hoc group of parliamentarians who have been meeting periodically in relative obscurity for years.
The membership has always been secret, although there are MPs who are almost certainly on the list, including those who have spoken at rallies like the annual March for Life, as well as the various chairs and vice-chairs who have allowed their names to be attached to the very occasional press release that surfaces under the PPLC letterhead (yes, it has – or had – its own letterhead under Bruinooge’s predecessor, Maurice Vellacott).
One of those vice-chairs, as it happens, was the (now retired) backbench Liberal MP Paul Steckle, who held the position for at least four years without facing repercussions from the party, despite his longtime – and very public association – with the group, and former Liberal MP and PPLC supporter, Tom Wappell, who – on the occasion of his retirement from politics - delivered a somewhat embittered parting rebuke not to his former party, but the Canadian Catholic leadership for, in his view, all but ignoring the existence of the pro-life contingent on the Hill. After his self-described twenty years of sustained and unapologetic opposition to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage, if anyone was begging for a slapdown from a PPLC-averse party, it would have been Tom Wappell – yet he sat as a member of the Liberal caucus for his entire career.
To put it bluntly, Ms. Fairbrother may not be able to confirm the existence of this caucus, but if she’d bothered to ask around, anyone who has spent any time on the Hill would have been able to fill her in – the question that remains, however, is whether there will be any change in how the party handles it.
Compare the Liberal response to what the NDP’s Karl Belanger told ITQ when we sent along a similar inquiry about what fate might befall any of their members who were found to be members of the PPLC:
I can’t really speculate on what would happen, but I can tell you that we had MPs in the past who supported legislation that could be qualified as “pro-life”, and they weren’t “booted out”.
That said, it is easy for Mr. Bruinooge to claim he has a secret club. I could also claim, for instance, that there is a secret club of Conservative MPs ready to support the coalition government.
Of course, it’s easy – or easier, at least – for Belanger to answer the question; following Bev Desjarlais’ departure from caucus in 2005 and the retirement of Bill Blaikie earlier this year, there just aren’t any NDP MPs left in the PPLC, which renders the issue of repercussions somewhat moot. Even so, Irene Mathyssen was unequivocal in her response; she told the Globe that “no NDP MP would be expelled from caucus for holding anti-abortion views. ‘We have a policy where we talk things through.’”
Over on the Liberal side of the House, out of 27 MPs who voted for Ken Epp’s infamous private members bill to protect the “unborn victims of crime” last spring, just fifteen remain in caucus following the election. Several of those members made it clear at the time that they were unlikely to support the bill at final reading. But there are still a few whose names are almost certain to appear on the PPLC membership list, and who would be among the parliamentarians that Bruinooge is apparently hoping will be at the forefront of the debate over abortion that he is seemingly so keen on reopening.
Given that fact, pointing out that the matter was “settled” by the Supreme Court might be an acceptable answer to questions on the official Liberal position on the issue, but it does absolutely nothing to address Bruinooge’s claim that he has supporters from all parties, but whose identities must be kept secret for their own political protection. But the most inexplicable thing about the Liberals’ non-responsive response is how unnecessary it was.
If the longstanding hands off policy towards the PPLC still applies, Fairbrother could have said that as far as her party is concerned, it is an issue of conscience, and, as such, MPs are free to associate with any and all likeminded colleagues. If the new leader wants to initiate a new policy, and MPs will, in fact, be censured for taking part in overtly anti-abortion campaigning, or if it is something that will have to be discussed by caucus, she could have said that instead. By playing vague instead of giving a clear response, the Liberals have guaranteed that the next phase of this story will no longer focus on the PM’s less than enthusiastic reaction to this latest outbreak of freelancing by a backbench MP, but the apparent incoherence on the other side of the aisle.