The House: 'When politicians speak to us'

Rather than simply lament for how little attention is paid to the institution, I thought I’d ask some smart people if they had anything to say in response to my piece about the state of the House of Commons. Over the next little while, those responses will appear here. First up, Nick Taylor-Vaisey.

Does Canada’s House of Commons matter? Well, it can matter. But that all depends on what our MPs are talking about and how they’re approaching the conversation.

Remember that debate about the gun registry? Civil it might not have been, but was it popular? You bet. People paid attention because they cared about what was at stake. It helped that Ottawa’s politicians had just returned from a summer break, and news media around town were looking for a juicy story. But people everywhere were talking about the gun registry. The House of Commons mattered.

Often, it doesn’t matter. Take Question Period, for example. It’s the reason people tune in to politics, but it’s also why they tune out. MPs do a whole lot of yelling and flailing, and they ask plenty of questions. No matter who is in government, no one gets answers. We’re all used to it. Maybe it can be fixed, or at least improved, or maybe not.

Regardless, Question Period, and the 15 minutes of MPs’ statements that precede it, only account for an hour every day. That leaves a lot of time to fill. As Aaron writes, there’s usually someone in the House talking about something. Often, they’re debating legislation. When that’s the case, it goes like this: first, an MP rises and makes a speech; next, their colleagues ask them questions about their positions.

The speeches tend to be thoughtfully prepared—a mixture of research, anecdotes, and partisan talking points. They’re a reminder that smart people are elected, sometimes. And outside the fray of the daily theatre that is Question Period, those speeches can be refreshing.

But then there are the questions.

Sometimes, MPs ask friendly questions, especially when they can find nothing to criticize. Other times, they ask questions that offer constructive criticism, even if it’s only half-serious. Still others ask questions that are, to put it lightly, tangential to the matter at hand.

Not long ago, Jim Maloway, the NDP backbencher quoted throughout Aaron’s story, stood up in the House. His colleague from the Bloc Quebecois, Daniel Paillé, had just finished explaining why Canada shouldn’t ratify a free-trade agreement with Panama. The bill approving the bilateral agreement was working its way through the Commons.

Just after 4:10 p.m. on Feb. 7, 2011, Maloway rose to pose a question to Paillé. The Bloc and NDP shared many of the same concerns with the trade agreement on the table, so Maloway had to find a different target. Here’s the exchange that followed:

Mr. Speaker, I wonder whether the member would like to comment on the curious position of the Liberal Party on this free trade debate.

We saw what those members did on Colombia when they changed leaders and changed critics. They changed their position. Now they seem to agree with the Panama agreement even though they have been told by the Americans that the American Congress refuses to pass a similar type of agreement with Panama because it is a country that launders drug money and, as the member pointed out, is a tax haven.

In his opinion, why would the Liberal caucus support this agreement when its friends, American Democrats, are opposed to a similar agreement?

In his reply, Paillé gave what was probably one of the most direct answers to any question asked in the House on that day. He was only too happy to take a few shots at the Official Opposition.

Mr. Speaker, the NDP member has given me the opportunity to speak again about the inconsistencies of our Liberal Party colleagues. These members try to say that they can no longer stand the Conservative government, just like Quebeckers and Canadians. We think that Quebeckers can no longer put up with the Liberal Party’s flip-flopping. Last year, they said that they were against the budget and that they would do everything they could to oppose it, but then suddenly, they changed their minds.

I have much more respect for the member for Pontiac, for example. He sat in the Quebec National Assembly as a minister in the government that brought in tax harmonization—that is a little friendly reminder—but at least he stands tall. As the NDP member said, we do not know where the Liberals stand. Unfortunately, they will pay the price come election time, because people will wonder which side they are on. When they keep jumping from right to left, no one knows where they are anymore.

That’s not exactly insightful debate, and it’s not exactly uncommon in the House.

Now, the debate about the gun registry often wasn’t much more helpful or constructive, but the issue itself mattered to people. If the trade agreement with Panama were an important one to voters, as was the case with the gun registry, more people would listen—not because it’s particularly compelling, but because people care about what’s at stake.

Lots of MPs bumbled through speeches that either defended or criticized the gun registry, and their supporters cheered along all the same—just as their detractors booed. Those of us listening to the politicians had no alternative to the debate, so we tuned in to it, anyway.

Imagine, though, if the conversation itself were more relevant to us? Imagine if we knew, when we watched parliamentarians rise in the Commons, that what they said would matter to us? That when they debated a free trade pact with Panama, they tried a little harder to talk about what it meant for us? They owe that to us, don’t they? Isn’t that why we sent them there?

Sometimes, a whole day passes when there’s little worth hearing in the House. We hope that when there’s something worth hearing, people listen. And then write to their MPs. And then write to the Prime Minister. And then, maybe, ignite a national debate. But that’s not every day in the House of Commons. On most days, when the politicians aren’t really speaking to us, and are instead just talking at each other about issues that we don’t hold dear, that big room couldn’t matter any less.

It has its moments, though. When politicians speak to us—not at us, and not at other politicians—we listen. And if we’re listening, that means we’re on the right path. So the more our politicians speak to us from their perches in the House of Commons, and invite us in to their debate, the more that big room matters.

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