The week everyone was worried about Parliament

Will this week be any different?

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

Fifteen minutes before question period on Thursday, Brent Rathgeber stood in his spot and dared suggest that this place was ours. “Mr. Speaker,” the Independent MP said, “all members of Parliament need to take greater ownership regarding the operation of this, the people’s House of Commons.”

Awhile after that, the NDP’s Kennedy Stewart stood and chastized the government for its use of time allocation. “This is a special place that needs to be defended,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, it was time for the main event.

This was the week Paul Calandra blew up. The week that nearly broke poor Paul Dewar. The week that questioned no less than the Speaker. A week that would end in apology.

But will this be a week that changes anything?

By Thursday afternoon, the NDP was making a certain effort to underline the week’s theme of accountability. And so Thomas Mulcair would stand and try to hang a few more questions around the government’s neck.

Why, the NDP leader wondered, had the Prime Minister chosen to announce in the United States, not Canada, that he was in receipt of an official request from the United States for more assistance in Iraq?

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson stood and duly repeated the news of the day before. “We just recently received this request from the United States and, of course, we will review that,” he explained. “I think that is only fair and reasonable in terms of our support for our allies and support for what we are doing in Iraq.”

Mr. Mulcair begged to quibble. “Mr. Speaker, what would be reasonable would be to release the letter so that Canadians can know what the request is from the Americans and exactly when it was made,” the NDP leader ventured.

Release publicly a letter in the possession of the government? Without being forced to do so? Just proactively and freely like that? By modern standards, that seems a wacky idea. Even if it does seem like a fairly reasonable request. At least once a prime minister has blurted out to a foreign audience that he is in receipt of such a letter he might have the good manners to put the letter on the table.

Or perhaps we could merely settle for expecting the government to acknowledge from the outset that the letter it received was in response to a letter it sent.

Mulcair wondered if the defence minister might explain how many soldiers the Americans were looking for. The defence minister demurred. “There is this request from the United States for additional support,” Nicholson explained. “This will be part of the review by the government included within the 30-day period, and we will make a decision on that.”

Mulcair was unimpressed.

“Mr. Speaker, cabinet is one thing, that is one of the branches of government, but Parliament is where elected officials make decisions,” he declared, jabbing his finger at the green velvet floor of this place.

The precise nature of parliamentary decision-making in this specific regard is a matter of some debate, but we might at least agree that the House of Commons, this place that Mulcair was pointing to, should have some pre-eminence. Most particularly when a nation is committing to war.

The NDP leader then requested the government table the status of forces agreement with Iraq, if one has been signed.

“Mr. Speaker,” the defence minister shot back, “I am sure that whatever is released to the leader of the NDP he will not be satisfied, he will be unhappy.”

In fairness to the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, it is basically his obligation to be unsatisfied. Or at least to be hard to satisfy. That’s sort of why we built this fancy room on a hill. So that everyday someone could be ever raising an eyebrow in the direction of the government, on our behalf.

This place should be of immense power. And the government’s obligation to it should be total.

Several questions later, Liberal MP Joyce Murray stood displeased. “Mr. Speaker, Canadians learned about the U.S. request for a larger military role against ISIL from the Prime Minister’s comments in New York,” she recapped, “and not from a statement to Parliament.”

There seemed to be some grumbling at this, though it’s not particularly clear why there would be.

What exactly is this place for if not for the government to explain itself? Why are we bothering to pay for the upkeep if it’s just as well that the Prime Minister can confess his government’s official machinations elsewhere?

Neither the defence minister nor the foreign affairs minister were present two weeks ago when the House had an emergency debate on Iraq (Rob Nicholson was on his trip to CFB Esquimalt, which at least suggests the debate should’ve been rescheduled). And for awhile this week, the government seemed intent on only discussing our mission’s timeline when speaking outside the House. (Somewhat relatedly: In a few weeks we’ll find out whether the finance minister has enough respect or courage to present the economic update in the House or whether he’ll choose a luncheon audience where he might only be quizzed by a friendly member of Parliament.)

Oh, but wherever the government announces something it will eventually have to go before Parliament to get much of anything done, right? In theory, yes. We might be thankful that the government did not present last year’s budget inside the shop of some friendly small business owner. But that Parliament might be (treated like) our pre-eminent forum, or at least entirely besides the point, is sort of the point of the place. It is ours after all—the only forum that truly is. It should thus be something more than somewhere the government must stop by to fill out the necessary paperwork. And anyone who would claim to respect this country and its citizens would seem to need to respect it.

Paul Calandra simply rubbed everyone’s noses in the idea that this place is a joke.

Oh how we fussed at that insult, on radio shows and television panels, in newspaper columns and editorials, from Ottawa to Winnipeg to Calgary. Paul Dewar ended up with his face in his hands and the man who inspired such exasperation ended up feeling terrible about what he’d done.

For all that fussing, the most important sentence delivered last week about the state of our Parliament might’ve been found not on any screen, speaker or widely read page, but on page four of the Parliamentary Budget Office’s quarterly expenditure review: “The government has refused to release data that is necessary for the PBO to determine whether the recent spending cuts are sustainable.”

That much didn’t inspire even a single question last week (though there was one question about a different refusal to provide the PBO with information). Maybe because this is such old news. But minding the collection and expenditure of public funds is arguably the primary reason we have a Parliament: the idea from which our Parliament began to grow in the 13th century. That we have a profound problem in this regard is hardly news. But to dismiss that concern is merely to dismiss 700 years of progress.

So if everyone feels bad, it is not for want of reasons, even if the reason most people feel bad right now, Calandra’s performance on Tuesday, is but the least of them.

And so … what exactly?

Will last week change anything? Will we have a different Paul Calandra from here on? A different kind of question period? A different Parliament? Will Monday be any different than it might’ve been? After that abject apology from the parliamentary secretary on Friday, it is at least hard to imagine the Conservatives mustering much of an argument against the motion for QP reform that the NDP will table tomorrow. (If the standing orders are amended as a result, will that make Paul Calandra one of the most influential parliamentarians of the 21st century or would he have to share credit on this one with his predecessors?)

What about next week? Next month? Next year? What about five or 10 years from now? This was the week that the Reform Act passed at second reading and another proposal for reform was tabled, but will anything be markedly better than it was last week?

Will any of our 308 MPs think or behave any differently? Or is our House of Commons now just a place to do research for another book about how it’s all gone wrong? (That question inspired by a friend who asked me recently whether I thought the current crop of MPs would express the same job confusion that former MPs confessed to Samara.)

How about the next government? Will Justin Trudeau or Thomas Mulcair or Jason Kenney or whoever approach Parliament with a new sense of deference? Will some group of MPs ever force them to?

Could any promise to meaningfully rehabilitate Parliament move a meaningful number of votes at the next election?

That last question is a doozy. Perhaps even the dooziest.

It’s not all bad, of course. It’s never all bad. And feeling bad about it is better than not feeling anything. But lamenting for it isn’t much more than a start. Feeling bad about our own House is a rather crummy way to live.

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