Irwin Cotler’s Speak No Evil Day

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

As part of our series of stories about the House of Commons ahead of this year’s Parliamentarian of the Year awards I wrote about the necessity and scourge of partisanship and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler’s proposal for a national Speak No Evil Day.

Here is the text of the motion that Cotler would put to the House for unanimous consent.

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should designate December 10 each year as National Speak No Evil Day, when parliamentarians and citizens are called upon to partake in a day for the promotion of mutual respect and public civility, deploring (a) the increasing incidence and intensity of assault of abusive speech in parliamentary discourse and debate and (b) the decline in civility and the corruption of public discourse.

(December 10 was chosen because it is International Human Rights Day.)

It’s not, Cotler explained to me, that MPs wouldn’t be able to say anything negative that day. “What we don’t want ad hominem attacks,” he says. “In other words, you can take tough-minded stands on the issues, you can be seriously argumentative on the issues, you can be partisan on the issues, but what we don’t want is impugning people’s integrity, that kind of thing.”

The sort of line Cotler imagines drawing here is explained near the end of my piece.

“The line that I try to draw is that it should be issue-oriented,” he says. “It should be based on: We’re here for common cause, but we can agree to disagree and we can disagree on the merits and we can debate them and we can argue them and we can oppose each other, but not get personal on it and not engage in undue wedge politics and not try to score cheap political points and not do it at the expense of people’s reputation and things of that nature.”

A similar resolution was tabled in the U.S. Senate in 1995.

To get this passed in a single go will require the unanimous consent of the House, which is to say that whenever Cotler stands up to ask for unanimous consent he will have to hope that no one present audibly objects (requests for unanimous consent are decided on simple voice votes). This will be preceded by some degree of discussion among the party House leaders.

It’d be fun to see the House adopt such a motion, even if only to see how everyone defines what constitutes “evil” or undue partisanship. We might get a day in which everyone was basically civil with each other or we might just get a day that ended with everyone debating whether what the other said was inappropriate. Either way, it’d be useful—as an example of how things could be or as an opportunity to wrestle with how things are. Democracy depends on competing sides challenging each other. And as long as we’ve had democracy, we’ve probably been debating how they should do that.

It’s very easy to lament for partisanship, it’s something else to sort out how much there should be or how it should be expressed. I, for instance, would say that we should avoid letting partisanship become a kind of insanity—as it does, say, when the weekly statement of House business becomes an exchange of rants that is likely only witnessed by the most ardent CPAC viewers. Or all the mindless clapping that MPs engage in each afternoon at QP. Or the sight of grown men and women in professional attire standing in public to read their scripts of talking points. Possibly participants should be asked to ask themselves how ridiculous they think they look in the moment and whether this is really what they want to be doing with their lives. This could be applied to all partisans and might, at the very least, result in no one ever again smashing two thundersticks together at a campaign rally.

Somewhere in here is probably a discussion about how a political party should be in a basically cynical and individualistic society. At present, it might be a competition for our scant attention that drives the permanent campaign. But it’s unclear whether the permanent campaign, at least as it is currently practiced, is a basically good or bad thing or whether it’s simply driving everyone and everything insane.

Following this post over the next couple of days I’ll post some thoughts on partisanship from partisans.

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