The Commons: This uncivil democracy

It would be nice if MPs were nicer, but that’s not the problem

Just before Question Period this afternoon, Costas Menegakis, the Conservative MP for Richmond Hill, stood in his spot along the back row of the government side and lamented for the NDP’s quibbles with a piece of government legislation.

“The NDP has proven once again that they will always put the interests of criminals first,” he reported, his words thus committed to the official record where they will remain in his name for eternity.

Was this uncivil?

A few spots after Mr. Mengakis, it was Ted Opitz’s turn. “Yesterday my NDP colleague from Scarborough Southwest said that his party will offer practical solutions,” explained the Conservative MP who had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court for the honour to stand in this place and say these words. “What he fails to mention is that the NDP solution is a new $21 billion job-killing carbon tax.”

This is mostly ridiculous, but is it uncivil?

Question Period then began. Soon enough, Bob Rae was on his feet, speaking loudly and wagging his finger at the Prime Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, it is clear after the Minister of Finance’s attack on the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Mr. Kevin Page, that it is the Prime Minister’s intention to turn the taxpayers’ watchdog into his personal lapdog. That is the plan that the government has,” he declared. “Why is the government having to fire Marty Cheliak, Pat Stogran, Linda Keen, Peter Tinsley, Paul Kennedy, Adrian Measner, Munir Sheikh, Steve Sullivan and Remy Beauregard? Why is the name of Kevin Page being added to this list of people who are being thrown out of the bus because they had an independent opinion about something?”

Was that uncivil?

After a response from Tony Clement about the future of the parliamentary budget officer, David Christopherson, seated directly across the way, made a silly face and a “nonsense talking” motion with his right hand.

Was this uncivil?

Peggy Nash criticized the government’s reductions in the corporate tax rate. “When,” she wondered, “will the Minister of Finance stop putting his well-connected friends ahead of the rest of Canadians?”

Was that uncivil?

The NDP’s Jack Harris asked a question about the management of military bases. Defence Minister Peter MacKay stood and dismissed the “the usual inflammatory and ignorant language of the member opposite.”

Was this uncivil?

Liberal MP Scott Brison asked about mortgage policy. The Finance Minister stood and explained that the government had sought to tighten the market. “You loosened them!” Mr. Brison shouted.

Was that uncivil?

NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice challenged the government to explain the cost of flying the Prime Minister’s limousines to India. Pierre Poilievre stood and wondered aloud if Mr. Boulerice was interested in seeing Quebec separate from Canada.

Was this uncivil?

The NDP’s Sadia Groguhé asked the government to account cuts to the health care provided by the federal government for refugee applicants. “Mr. Speaker,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney explained, “it is clear that the NDP wants to force Canadian taxpayers to subsidize the required medical care for illegal immigrants who have no right to be in Canada.”

Was that uncivil?

It is necessary to ask because civility is something we often say we are concerned with. Just this morning, Nathan Cullen, the NDP House leader, stood in the foyer and announced the launch of a Civility Project. Fines and suspensions would be dealt to those who were found to have acted without sufficient grace. Everyone would strive, together, to be better.

It is no doubt a lovely idea: that we should be nicer and more respectful and more mature and better mannered. It is the sort of thing we teach our children (or at least the sort of thing we used to be able to teach our children before this age of incivility corrupted our youth with its rock music/hippies/video games/rap music/violent movies/Internet/baggy pants ). Even at its vaguest, civility is a principle worth following: don’t be a jerk, say please and thank you, hold the door open for little old ladies and so forth.

But this is not a tennis match and this is not a place of friendly competition. This is a necessarily adversarial environment with profound and meaningful stakes. Here we place 308 individuals on our behalf to hash out our differences of opinion and thoroughly air the possibilities for our future. It is not merely that there will be conflict, but that there need be conflict. Through debate, through the direct and repeated meeting of strongly held views, we hope to end up with something of benefit to the greater good. It needn’t—shouldn’t—always be awful to behold, but it is inherently a fight.

So how to separate the acceptable expressions from the unacceptable, the permissible from the harmful? We have come up with laws of war, so probably we can devise standards of democracy. But it is difficult to enforce rules on the rhetorical, dangerous even to say what can and cannot be said—all the more so in a place that is supposed to represent all of us, even the jerks. You could easily describe any or all of the above as uncivil: beneath us, beneath this place, silly at best, abhorrent at worst. And that is just an hour on a Tuesday afternoon. Where would you draw the lines?

You might start with a line that already exists. Question Period is to pertain to the administrative responsibility of government. The Speaker has periodically seen fit to intervene on those grounds to rule the odd question out of order: questions about phone-calling tactics employed during the last election, for instance, are not particularly relevant to the affairs of government. Speaker Scheer could start to enforce that standard more forcefully. He could, for instance, cut Mr. Poilievre off when the parliamentary secretary, as he is fond of doing, turns a question from the New Democrats into an excuse to stand and expound on the failings of members of the opposition. (Something like this.) Between 2:15pm and 3:00pm each afternoon (and between 10:15am and 11:00am on Friday mornings), the House is not constitutionally obliged to give Mr. Poilievre time to talk about whatever he would like to talk about. (And Mr. Poilievre is a smart young man who could surely come with something more relevant to say.)

Here, meanwhile, is the question Lawrence Toet, the Conservative MP for Elmwood-Transcona was sent up to ask just yesterday.

“Mr. Speaker, Canada is not immune to global economic challenges from beyond our borders. That is why in 2013 we will continue our commitment to grow the economy and create jobs by keeping taxes low and through measures like major new investments in research and development. However, while we are focused on helping the economy grow, the NDP wants a $21 billion carbon tax which would cripple our economy and put Canadians out of work. Could the Minister of Finance please give this House an update on our government’s action to grow the economy and create jobs for hard-working Canadians?”

The Conservatives would argue that this was a question about government business—you see, even when rules are applied, there are ways of getting around them for your partisan purposes. But the Speaker might have stood up immediately after that third sentence, pronounced the question unfit and moved on to the next MP in line. He might set the standard that no wandering into such nonsense in this particular way would be tolerated.

The Speaker’s hand might be strengthened in this regard by new standing orders and the agreement of the House. The Civility Project might ultimately succeed in this way. But it would only be part of a solution—a small something in service of making things somehow better.

Because if we really wish to do something about making this place a more respectable spectacle, we would not worry about parsing Mr. Toet, we would wonder why Mr. Toet was up asking this particular question in the first place. For while this House may be dragged down by dispiriting words and accusations, it is brought lowest by the talking point and the use of precious time and adult human beings in business attire to convey scripted banalities.

In a more perfect House of Commons, such a backbencher—and this is not to single Mr. Toet out, only to use him as a convenient example—would be in the House during Question Period to do two things: represent his constituents and hold the government to account. He would be here primarily not to lob friendly set-ups at the Finance Minister, nor to fill out the camera frame or clap or nod in affirmation of whatever his side just said. He, and backbenchers on the opposition side, would be free to stand up every so often and ask a question of the government about some matter of particular concern to him or his constituents—a question that had not been vetted by anyone with any authority over him.

That would be a more civilized House of Commons.

But that would require a fundamental change to the Elections Act—eliminating the requirement of a party leader’s endorsement to run as a party’s candidate, then fashioning a more coherent rule—and a change in the ways our political parties do business. And that would entail risks for those parties and their leaders. And we—the public, the reporters, the pundits—would probably have to reorient ourselves around the idea that MPs weren’t necessarily automatons and a party leader was not judged on his ability to maintain absolute and total unity.

It is, of course, easier to say we would like our elected representatives to be somehow nicer, somehow more respectful and respectable. And it is easier still to sigh and lament when they seem to fail to change or succeed only in seeming to get worse. But there are something like 35 million of us and there are 308 of them. They are outnumbered. Ultimately we get the House of Commons we are willing to accept. And we are only deprived what we are not willing to fight for.

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