Dion v. Harper, Crack-up in the Commons

I’d read about the sound that comes from a boxing crowd right before a major fight, but I didn’t fully understand it until I covered a fight (Mike Tyson’s last as a professional, oddly enough). There is a barely concealed blood-lust to the noise that rises up—a palpable, common desire to see someone grievously injured, an anxious excitement at the prospect of what violence may unfold before our eyes. It was, in my single experience, legitimately frightening.

The cacophony in the House of Commons this afternoon wasn’t quite like that. But that this afternoon was even vaguely reminiscent of that sound is probably enough to conclude that we are now in a dark, and perhaps dangerous, place.

“It was a fine day to be a parliamentarian,” Chuck Strahl said afterwards, selflessly surrendering his claim to be among the reasonable members of this government.

It is impossible to assign blame without being slurred as a partisan—at some point we decided there would be no facts, only arguments—but whichever party you pray for, there surely must be some agreement that we shame ourselves when we casually invoke the flag.

Jon Stewart has a joke about how casually comparing someone to Hitler demeans not only the source, subject and object of such an attack, but also demeans Hitler. Invoking patriotism has roughly the same result. It demeans those whose patriotism is being questioned. It demeans those who are questioning the other’s patriotism. And it demeans patriotism.

Love of country has too often been a source of debate over the last year. Never mind its dubious inclusion in the debates over Afghanistan and the treatment of military detainees, at one point in this fall’s campaign even the Liberal party’s proposed carbon tax was billed as a threat to national unity. If you believe Stephen Harper to be an intelligent man—and you should—it is impossible to believe he believed such a thing. But he said it. Just as he said so much today.

Someone in another thread asked this evening whether I thought Mr. Dion and Mr. Harper hated each other. For the record—based on available evidence—I don’t think they hate each other. I think they dislike each other a great deal. I think Mr. Dion may respect Mr. Harper’s abilities as a political opponent. I don’t think Mr. Harper has any kind of respect for Mr. Dion. I think Mr. Harper’s toughness is consistently overstated. I think Mr. Dion’s toughness is consistently underrated. I think, given his political career, Mr. Dion takes this very personally. I think Mr. Harper, given his personal ambitions, takes this nearly as personally. I think they’d sooner be rid of each other. But whereas Mr. Dion might have an entirely different relationship with a different Conservative leader, I’m not sure Mr. Harper would engage another Liberal leader any other way.

All of that informs what happened this afternoon. The Conservatives were primed for a show of force from the outset (and, by the sounds of it, had a bit of a pep rally in the government lobby afterwards). But it wasn’t until Mr. Harper made indisputably false claims about the flag and Mr. Dion that the proceedings truly turned. At that point, for all intents and purposes, Question Period ceased, giving way to a remarkable clash between the two men who seek a claim to high office. Dion could barely maintain the control necessary to form words, screaming across the aisle at the Prime Minister. Harper challenged and goaded him on.

No matter your perspective and whatever comes next, it is difficult to imagine these moments not proving pivotal.

Here then, for the record, is the official transcript. Full translation won’t be available until the morning, but I will replace this with that when it is made public.

L’hon. Stéphane Dion (chef de l’opposition, Lib.): Monsieur le Président, j’ai donné ma vie pour l’unité de ce pays, pour mon amour envers le Canada. Avec cette entente, le Bloc a accepté d’avoir 18 mois de stabilité politique au Canada. Voilà ce qu’obtient le Canada par le biais de cette entente.

Le très hon. Stephen Harper (premier ministre, PCC): Monsieur le Président, aujourd’hui, la chef du Parti québécois a dit que cet arrangement démontrait la nécessité de la souveraineté. Les députés du Bloc québécois ont applaudi lorsque je l’ai citée. Mr. Speaker, if the leader of the Liberal Party believes in the country, he will walk away from this document and admit it is the worse mistake the Liberal party has ever made in its history.

Hon. Stéphane Dion (Leader of the Opposition, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, the one who is dividing Canadians more than anybody else is this Prime Minister. I will show him that again. He is saying that we Liberals are selling Canada to the separatists. His Quebec MPs are saying that the separatists are selling their souls to the Liberals. He needs to choose between these two lies. Canadians are fed up with these lies.

The Speaker: Order, please. I am not sure what statement the Leader of the Opposition is referring to, but I am sure it was not the Prime Minister’s statement. The Right Hon. Prime Minister has the floor.

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, there are two very clear choices. The Canadian people made a choice to elect the Conservative Party to govern, without the support of the separatists. If the leader of the Liberal Party wants to become Prime Minister with the support of the separatists, he needs to put that option to the people of Canada.

Hon. Stéphane Dion (Leader of the Opposition, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, as a democrat, I know that when a government is elected as a minority government, it has the responsibility to behave accordingly. The Prime Minister has failed to address the economic crisis. He has failed. If he was a democrat, he would allow the House to show how much he failed.

Some hon. members: Oh, oh.

The Speaker: The Right Hon. Prime Minister. Order, please.

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the leader of the Liberal Party–

Some hon. members: Oh, oh.

The Speaker: Order, please. We will have a little order. I know members are enjoying engaging in a vigorous debate during this question period, but we do have to be able to hear the questions and the responses. The Prime Minister has the floor.

Right Hon. Stephen Harper: Mr. Speaker, the leader of the Liberal Party failed to convince Canadians in the wisdom of his platform or in the sufficiency of his judgment to be Prime Minister of this country. If he wants to take the unprecedented step of scrapping the results of an election campaign and forming for the first time in Canadian history a government entirely dependent on the support of separatists to run this country, then he has the responsibility not to hide behind parliamentary niceties or deals, but to go to the people of Canada.

Hon. Stéphane Dion: Mr. Speaker, when this Prime Minister was fighting to put firewalls around the province we all love, I was fighting for clarity for this country.

Le Président: À l’ordre s’il vous plaît. L’honorable chef de l’opposition a la parole maintenant.

L’hon. Stéphane Dion: Monsieur le Président, quand le premier ministre se battait pour mettre un mur autour d’une province que nous aimons tous, moi je me battais pour l’unité du Canada. Tout ce que je ferai pour mon pays, ce sera pour le renforcer, jamais pour l’affaiblir, jamais pour le diviser, jamais pour autoriser les députés du Québec de dire l’inverse de lui, aujourd’hui même, en cette Chambre.

Le très hon. Stephen Harper (premier ministre, PCC): Monsieur le Président, ce Parti conservateur défend les pouvoirs du fédéral et les pouvoirs des provinces. C’est l’histoire de notre fédération que ce Parti conservateur a créé. This has nothing to do with federal-provincial powers. It is very simple. The leader of the Liberal Party wants to turn his back on the results of the last election. He wants to turn his back on the traditions of his own party and he wants to form a coalition with the Quebec separatists. He should either walk away from that or take it to the people–

Some hon. members: Oh, oh.

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