Parliament rebukes Maclean’s

What does it mean in practical terms?

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A House motion upbraiding Maclean’s for the magazine’s cover story on corruption in Quebec politics is thought to be only the second time in a century that MPs have closed ranks to express their disapproval with the work of a news publication.

Only one independent MP, Quebec City’s André Arthur, openly argues the motion was misguided, although Liberal MP Marc Garneau also expressed concern about the precedent. “If in two weeks, another magazine writes something that’s considered excessive,” Garneau said, “we can’t make a habit of putting out a motion every time we’re not happy about what’s written in the media.”

But Government House Leader John Baird, whose party approved the motion without argument, suggested the situation was “somewhat unique.” He added, “It goes without saying that matters of national unity are sensitive.”

This week’s House motion was prompted by the Maclean’s cover story headlined “The most corrupt province,” which was illustrated by a satirical depiction of Bonhomme Carnaval—the popular snowman mascot of Quebec City’s famous winter carnival. The story chronicled scandal in Quebec politics and an accompanying column by Andrew Coyne discussed why the province might be prone to it.

The motion by Bloc Québécois MP Pierre Paquette said: “That this House, while recognizing the importance of vigorous debate on subject of public interest, expresses its profound sadness at the prejudice displayed and the stereotypes employed by Maclean’s magazine to denigrate the Quebec nation, its history and its institutions.”

It passed without debate or a recorded vote.

Maclean’s requested an interview with Paquette, but a Bloc spokeswoman said the party would not answer any questions from the magazine until it issues an apology “to the people of Quebec.”

Baird, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s point man for House business, said the motion was shown to him on Wednesday. He agreed to it without asking for changes, although he said the precise wording wasn’t what he would have used had he drafted it himself. He didn’t say how his version might have been different.

Baird drew a distinction between Paquette’s motion and a formal censure from the House. “Censure would imply a judgment with consequences,” he said. “This just expresses sadness.”

In this case, the House did not ask for an apology, as it did after the Globe and Mail published a story in 2006 on the shooting at Montreal’s Dawson College, in which author and journalist Jan Wong prompted outrage inside Quebec by suggesting that the province’s history of linguistic strife contributed to the incident.

That prompted Liberal MP Denis Coderre to introduce this motion: “That, in the opinion of the House, an apology be given to the people of Quebec for the offensive remarks of Ms. Jan Wong in a Globe and Mail article regarding the recent Dawson College tragedy.”

It passed with the approval of all parties, like Paquette’s this week. However, the motion denouncing Maclean’s nearly failed to sail through unopposed: André Arthur, an independent MP from Quebec City, who is an outspoken former radio host, initially answered No when the Deputy Speaker asked if the motion had the unanimous consent of MPs.

Paquette immediately rose to warn Arthur “that he had better stick around for the rest of the week and all of the next week because I will move this motion every single day.” Arthur then left the chamber, and the motion was then agreed to by all MPs present.

“What they’re trying to do is make people who haven’t read Maclean’s or don’t read English believe that you said Quebecers are corrupt, when in fact Maclean’s clearly showed the political system in Quebec has unbelievable corruption problems,” Anthur said in an interview. “That’s perfectly true.”

Beyond the content of the Maclean’s story, Arthur questioned the wisdom of the legislature pronouncing on journalism, except where Parliament itself is directly involved. “I think the only case in which Parliament would have the right to comment on news coverage would be in a case where the integrity of Parliament itself was called into question,” he said. “It could call in the journalists and have them explain themselves. In any other case, Parliament has no business censuring, endorsing, or criticizing a newspaper article.”

In fact, the House has very rarely passed motions to rebuke the media. The Library of Parliament could find only two other comparable episodes, both obscure footnotes, before the recent Maclean’s and Globe cases. In 1873, the editor of the newspaper Courrier d’Outaouais, Elie Tassé, was ordered to appear before the bar of the House to answer questions about an article reflecting on two MPs. Then in 1906, a journalist named Joseph Ernest Eugène Cinq‑Mars was also called to appear before the bar, where he answered questions about a story that reflected poorly on an MP, after which the House passed a motion of censure against him.

Censure, though, is the term usually applied when MPs are upset over some action that directly affects their work—not wider controversies unfolding beyond Parliament. In 2003, Parliament censured former privacy commissioner George Radwanski for allegedly providing misleading information, and RCMP Deputy Commissioner Barbara George was found in contempt by the House in 2008 for misleading a parliamentary committee.

Paquette’s motion fits the definition, not of a censure motion, but of a “resolution.” According to the Glossary of Parliamentary Procedure used by the House Speaker’s office, a resolution is: “A motion adopted by the House in order to make a declaration of opinion or purpose. A resolution does not have the effect of requiring that any action be taken.”