A rookie minister finds herself in a minor furor

Maryam Monsef, the rookie minister for democratic institutions, faces opposition indignation in her second question period

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Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, right, takes part in a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, November 5, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Canada's new Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie  - RTX1URRR
Canada’s new Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef is sworn-in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 4, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie –

“Mr. Speaker, some questions must be answered with a clear yes or no,” posited Conservative MP Blake Richards, apparently heralding a new era for question period.

The question, in this case, was something the new official Opposition had asked of the new government the day before: Would the Liberals conduct a national referendum before overhauling, as promised, the federal electoral system?

“Yesterday, the Minister of Democratic Institutions skated around the question when asked whether the Liberals would be holding a referendum on a proposed new electoral system,” Richards recounted. “Today, I will ask a very direct question. After the consultations on electoral reform have taken place and a proposed new electoral reform system has been designed, will the government hold a referendum on that proposed new system? Yes or no.”

Over then to Maryam Monsef, the rookie MP and youngest member of cabinet whose preternatural poise will be greatly tested by the hornet’s nest of electoral reform.

“Mr. Speaker, I thank the honourable member for his question and I remind the 337 other members of Parliament in this House that what we committed to was an open and robust process of consultation,” she offered.

The Conservatives, a yappy bunch so far through the first two days, called out for either of a yes or no.

“I will not,” she concluded, “prejudice the outcome of that consultation process by committing to a referendum.”

Monsef stared across the aisle as she returned to her seat. Her fellow Liberals stood to applaud her. But a furor was now afoot.

The Liberal party committed itself earlier this year to ensuring that the 2015 election would be the last federal vote conducted under the current first-past-the-post rules, but without specifying what the alternative would be. Rather, an “all-party committee” would review the options and then make recommendations to Parliament. Then, within 18 months of taking office, the government would introduce legislation to enact reforms.

In June, the Conservative took the position that any proposal for reform should be tested by a referendum. And one read of Monsef’s statement might be that the all-party committee could recommend a referendum. And that would be interesting enough—newsworthy, even*.

But the Conservative benches heard it differently. Conservative MP David Sweet tweeted that this was “one of the most troubling statements” he had “ever heard in the Canadian House of Commons.” Jason Kenney and Tom Kmiec mocked. “Liberals just said a referendum on electoral reform ‘would prejudice public consultations,’ ” reported Kenney. “Huh? A referendum *is* public consultation.”

And when questions in the House came back around to the Conservative side, Scott Reid, the official critic on this file, conveyed this indignation to the House.

“Mr. Speaker, the minister actually just said that she will not prejudice the outcome of her process by asking the Canadian people what they think of her electoral proposals in a referendum,” he reported, proceeding to high dudgeon.

“Heaven forfend that she could ask the Canadian people what they think in a referendum. Is she really asserting that Canadian people are incapable of deciding in a referendum how they should be governed and how our elections should take place? Are Canadians too immature to handle a referendum on this subject, yes or no?”

(Amazingly, this would seem to be the first time in recent history that an MP has used the word “forfend” in the House of Commons.)

So now Ms. Monsef stood to deal with the first furor of the 42nd Parliament.

“Mr. Speaker,” she said, “the people of this country deserve to be consulted on a matter as important as—”

The Conservatives leapt up to applaud, subjecting the rookie minister to the old trick of the premature and disingenuous ovation. Apparently not used to being loudly mocked in public, Monsef put her hands on her hips and smiled awkwardly. When she attempted to continue before the Speaker had restored order, the Prime Minister turned and advised her to wait.

“Mr. Speaker, we were clear in our commitment to the people of this country that this would be the last first-past-the-post federal election in Canadian history,” she eventually said, amid more yapping, “and we will do that by engaging the people of this country, coast to coast to coast, in the robust process that is inclusive and involves every single member of this Parliament as well.”

The Liberals stood to applaud her again.

Here at least was a reminder of how quickly the dander can be sent up.

Afterwards, as MPs were milling about, Monsef got out of her seat and walked over to where Reid was standing and the two shook hands and chatted for a few moments in the centre aisle, the conversation seeming civil. Whatever was said off the record, and whatever Monsef meant to say, the minister and her critic are not likely anywhere near done with this discussion.


*I put this reading of Ms. Monsef’s statement to her spokesman. He responded that, “The Minister has said that she will be working with the Government House Leader to convene an all-party parliamentary committee to examine a wide-range of electoral reform options. The government believes that decisions on this issue should be based on a thoughtful, comprehensive study and an open and collaborative process and we will not pre-judge the outcome of that consultation process.”