The Commons: This era of shouted fragments and empty sentences

Alas, there are days when even full sentences are insufficient

The Scene. The starry-eyed and shiny new mayor of Calgary—he who is presently hailed as a new kind of political ideal—uses a lovely phrase to describe what he is trying to do: Politics in full sentences. The sentiment contained therein—less a matter of grammar than tone and spirit—seems as much about what politics should be as what it presently is.

As it is, we speak mostly in slogans. The art of political messaging has been so finely tuned that debate is essentially an exchange of sentence fragments—aggrandizing nouns and accusatory adjectives. Sentences and paragraphs exist only to support memorable phrases. Indeed, in relaying the extent of most debates, we needn’t even bother reprinting full sentences.

“Sick or aging loved ones! Women! Family obligations!” Ralph Goodale declared this afternoon. “Tax cuts! Corporations! Bay Street! Conservatives!”

“Liberal leader! Hike taxes! Early election!” responded John Baird. “Bad for Canada!”

Mr. Goodale was undaunted, his right hand emerging from his pants pocket to wave and bob and shake. “Conservative corporate tax cuts! Job-killing payroll tax!” he shot back. “Double standard! Unlimited largesse! Privileged few! Families!”

Mr. Baird was ready for this. “Job-creation taxation policies!” he proclaimed. “Liberal leader! Reckless tax increase! Tax-and-spend Liberal!”

“Big, reckless spending schemes! Stealth fighter jets! Mega-jails! Corporate tax cuts!” countered Mr. Goodale. “Small business! Caregivers! Early learning! Students! Hard-pressed families!”

“Job creation! Economic growth!” pleaded Mr. Baird. “Liberal leader! Blackmail! Raising taxes! Wrong for Canada! Kill jobs! Kill hope! Kill opportunity!”

Thus are we reduced to rhetoric of cavemen.

“Quebec’s turn!” cried Gilles Duceppe a short while later. “Quebec’s demands!”

“Terrorists in Canada!” lamented Immigration Minister Jason Kenney shortly after that.

Conversely, the House turned noticeably quiet when Liberal John McKay rose to question International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda about the curious case of the mysteriously doctored document. Here the measured Mr. McKay read into the record someone else’s full sentences. “Mr. Speaker, in your ruling last week against the CIDA minister, you stated: ‘The full body of material gives rise to very troubling questions. Any reasonable person confronted with what appears to have transpired would necessarily be extremely concerned, if not shocked, and might well begin to doubt the integrity of certain decision making processes. In particular, the senior CIDA officials must be deeply disturbed by doctored documents that they have been made to appear to have signed,'” he reviewed. “The question is, does the Prime Minister agree with your statements?”

The Prime Minister was away this day and thus could not say. In Mr. Harper’s place, Ms. Oda was made to stand and account for herself.

“Mr. Speaker, as the honourable member knows, the department does make recommendations to the ministers. Ministers are responsible for making those decisions,” she explained. “In this case the department made a recommendation, and I did not agree with it.”

Mr. McKay was not swayed. “Mr. Speaker, why does the minister not admit what everyone knows? The minister de-funded KAIROS, then she tried to blame it on officials, then she misled the House, and then she was caught,” he testified. “Will the Prime Minister censure the minister?”

In the Prime Minister’s continued absence, Ms. Oda stood again to assert her authority. “Mr. Speaker, just let me reiterate,” she reiterated. “As members know, departments give advice and make recommendations to ministers. Ministers are responsible for making decisions on behalf of the government. In this case, I did not agree with the recommendation of the department. I have always acknowledged that it was my responsibility. I made the decision. I would never mislead the House.”

Here, alas, a half dozen full sentences seemed insufficient. Indeed, here was an example of something else entirely: the expending of complete and full sentences for the purpose of saying nothing at all.

The Stats. Taxation, seven questions. Immigration and the Prime Minister’s plane, four questions each. The Toronto Stock Exchange and food safety, three questions each. Securities regulation, government appointments, foreign affairs, food prices, the economy, the Quebec City arena and foreign aid, two questions each. The military, veterans and aboriginal affairs, one question each.

Lawrence Cannon, five anwers. John Baird, Tony Clement, Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay, four answers each. Jim Flaherty, three answers. John Duncan, Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Rona Ambrose, Josee Verner, Bev Oda and Gerry Ritz, two answers each. James Moore and Leona Aglukkaq, one answer each.

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