There has been much talk about the “democracy deficit” recently, as Prime Minister Paul Martin championed the cause of more freedom and accountability for MPs. Of course, almost every candidate seeking the leadership of any party promises a greater role for MPs; no leader wants to be seen as being against democracy. But few have acted on those promises once they have gotten a hold of the reins of power.

For at least two years before becoming prime minister, Martin espoused democratization of the House of Commons, and there are many Liberal MPs – including pro-life MPs – who backed Martin because of his promises to allow more free votes and voting according to consciences. Indeed, many pro-life and pro-family Canadians had hoped that a Martin-led Liberal government might offer more hope for private members’ business (bills and motions) to address life and family issues.

On Feb. 4, government House Leader Jacques Saada released a 15-page “Ethics, Responsibility, Accountability: An Action Plan for Democratic Reform” discussion paper. Fortunately, the document included a section on allowing MPs a freer voice and vote in Parliament. Unfortunately, what the Martin government delivered fell short of what the prime minister indicated he would do as a candidate. Yes, the paper calls for granting MPs more latitude in voting, but if the document is accepted without changes, there will be a three-level system of voting. On budget and Throne Speech items, MPs must tow the party line. On a second set of yet-to-be-determined issues, cabinet ministers (but not MPs) will be forced to follow the party line. On other votes, there will be complete freedom to vote one’s conscience or to represent the wishes of constituents.

Theoretically, The Interim has no problem with this, but we pause when we consider that the government could put moral issues in a future Throne Speech – perhaps announcing a plan to implement same-sex “marriage” in the 2005 Throne Speech, safely after an election is held this year – in order to demand party unity.

In practice, we have serious concerns about the special cabinet operations committee that will determine which votes fall under which rule. Is this new committee going to merely replace the overbearing and all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office, wielded with tremendous (and brutal) effectiveness by former prime minister Jean Chretien to ensure that pro-life issues were not even brought to the floor of the House of Commons? Furthermore, we will watch closely the chair of this committee: Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, a supporter of both abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

The Interim will have to take a wait-and-see approach before passing final judgement on whether these reforms will increase the likelihood of: 1) pro-life and pro-family issues coming before Parliament, and 2) whether MPs actually have any greater freedom to vote as they know they should on such issues.