Finger-guns, pigeon struts and the tearing of our democratic fabric

The Fair Elections Act debate is going splendidly

And so the Fair Elections Act can now be said to have set back the cause of Canadian democracy by some 32 years, at least insofar as we should find ourselves being lectured to by a Brit about the manner in which we govern ourselves.

“I hope that the discussion can look at the realities because that is how you find technical solutions,” Michael Pinto-Duschinsky advised a Senate committee this morning, when it was suggested to him that the Fair Elections Act might be rigged to stymie the elections commissioner. “If people are impugning the bona fides of others, then you will never come to a common sense, robust answer to questions. I would rather not impugn anybody’s motives but to look for effective ways of controlling things that need to be controlled. Needed now are lines of communication between officials and the parties, with each other, to try to resolve the technical questions to everybody’s satisfaction.”

We await such conciliation amid the din of disagreement, with finger-gun gestures (or at least the accusation of such), the comparison of a minister to a messy pigeon and the sight of a Conservative MP on the other side of the House trying to confront an NDP MP.

In the immediate wake of Pierre Poilievre’s decision to publicly question the chief electoral officer’s motivations, there were worried words at midday. Thomas Mulcair called “it is a fundamental breakdown of parliamentary institutions to see a sitting Minister of the Crown attacking independent officers … of Parliament,” while Justin Trudeau  offered that “for a minister of the crown to engage in such blindly partisan attacks is weakening the fabric of our democracy.”

In Question Period, Mr. Mulcair asked Mr. Harper whether he agreed with the minister’s remarks and the Liberals attempted to draw Mr. Poilievre into addressing the matter of Mr. Mayrand, but such entreaties would be mostly sidestepped.

Mr. Mulcair had first quoted Mr. Harper’s own words of 1996, specifically the bit about how “Using time allocation for electoral law, doing it quickly and without the consent of the other political parties, is the kind of dangerous application of electoral practices that we are more likely to find in third world countries.”

Mr. Mulcair lectured the Prime Minister and the New Democrats regularly lept up to applaud and Mr. Mulcair challenged Mr. Harper to name one expert who endorsed the government’s approach and the Prime Minister attempted to sound reasonable and at one point sighed that “Once again, the leader of the NDP continues to try and avoid debate on the substance of the legislation.” The New Democrats laughed and Justin Trudeau challenged the government side to allow a free vote on the Fair Elections Act.

Mr. Mulcair would lecture the Prime Minister and the New Democrats would regularly leap up to applaud and Mr. Mulcair would challenge Mr. Harper to name one expert who endorsed the government’s approach and the Prime Minister would sigh that “Once again, the leader of the NDP continues to try and avoid debate on the substance of the legislation.” The New Democrats would laugh and Justin Trudeau would challenge the government side to allow a free vote on the Fair Elections Act. (Mr. Trudeau would also announce today that if the bill passes in its current form, he’ll be sure to repeal it when he becomes prime minister.)

The House would mostly talk round and round that substance: the opposition entirely fixated on this matter of voter identification. Mr. Mulcair would raise a concern and Mr. Poilievre would refer to his beloved list of the 39 pieces of identification that an individual might possess or obtain in order to vote. Somewhere in here, Mr. Mulcair would swipe his hand and dismiss the minister as a “lightweight” and the Conservatives would howl indignity.

It was all nearly enough to obscure the potential compromise on this point. But perhaps to agree on that would spoil each side’s fun.

With the last of its questions on the bill, the NDP would send up Niki Ashton to bring the House’s attention to the fact that the Environment Minister had recently misstated the precise year in which the government of Nunavut had purchased cameras for the territory’s communities. Leona Aglukkaq stood here and clarified for the nation that the cameras had been purchased in 2004 and that, indeed she was a member of the territory’s governing cabinet at that time.

A moment later, Liberal MP Wayne Easter was up to declare that “Dealing with this minister is like playing chess with a pigeon. He flaps his wings all over the place, knocks the pieces off the table, messes all over the table then struts around like he won the game.” And the Liberal MP would demonstrate what he meant by flapping his arms and swiping his hand and then thrusting his hands in his pockets and doing something of a strut in his place.

But it was as the Conservatives stood to cheer the Environment Minister’s clarification that the real trouble would begin. It was here that the finger-gun, or at least what NDP MP Dan Harris perceived to be a finger-gun, was fired.

The allegation of a pretend firearm would not be raised until after Question Period, when Mr. Harris rose on a point of order to report that a finger-gun had been fired in the direction of his colleague, Ms. Ashton. The weapon holder was said to be Ed Fast, the minister for international trade. And Mr. Harris claimed to have heard Mr. Fast say, “Boom”, presumably to indicate that the finger-gun had been fired.

Mr. Harris would ask that Mr. Fast apologize, but Mr. Fast would stand and declare that he had possessed no finger gun and thus would Mr. Fast demand that Mr. Harris apologize to him. The Conservatives, thus assured of the minister’s innocence on the charge of reckless discharge of a make-believe weapon, stood and cheered.

(The video evidence shows some kind of gesture, though the microphones apparently did not pick up any audible evidence of a make-believe weapon being make-believe fired.)

Cross words were then exchanged across the aisle as Mr. Easter (no longer impersonating a pigeon, mind you) stood on an extensive point of order to explain why another member’s bill had been handled in an unparliamentary fashion. Conservative MP Ron Cannan, who had appeared displeased with Mr. Harris’ allegation, suddenly appeared on the NDP side of the House, gesturing at Mr. Harris until NDP MPs were able to direct him to the opposition lobby. A few moments later, Mr. Fast was across the aisle, he and Mr. Harris pointing their fingers at each other and seeming to discuss matters rather heartily, before down the aisle came NDP House leader Peter Julian to break it up and redirect Mr. Fast back across the two sword lengths.

In the foyer afterwards, NDP MP Glenn Thibeault would testify that the exchange between Mr. Harris and Mr. Cannan had included some suggestion that the matter be settled outside. It would seem to be Mr. Cannan’s version of events that he suggested Mr. Harris repeat his allegation against Mr. Fast outside the House, where, of course, parliamentary privilege does not apply and where, presumably, a man can be sued for erroneously suggesting another man brandished a finger-gun.

Appearing before the cameras, Mr. Harris, suggesting as well that unkind things had been said to him, would note that he was wearing a pink shirt on account of anti-bullying day.

In Britain, of course, they at least settle this over a cup of tea. Or have the decency to brandish a make-believe sword.

“What happened in Britain was that after the tough things in public, the officials and experts from different parties and electoral administrators did get together in private to have cross party discussion about some of the technical details,” Mr. Pinto-Duschinsky had explained earlier. “I can’t help feeling that with a bill as complex as the one before you, a lot of the divisions that seem to be huge gulfs of principle will be actually quite easily solved with technical discussion.”

And if we do not figure out a way to settle this amongst ourselves, perhaps we should fear that the Queen will ground us and take our democracy away.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.