Forget global warming, the robot apocalypse and the fact that Ron Weasley looks 35 years old in the new Harry Potter movie: we’ve got bigger problems. People have noticed the lack of civility in the House of Commons and are actually trying to do something about it. Are they out of their minds? The heckling and seething rage are the best parts. Let’s not even get started on the untold damage that a new spirit of collegiality would do to my office pool on when John Baird’s forehead will explode.
Making noise about making nice is all the rage in Ottawa. Press gallery members are writing deep thoughts about the shallow behaviour of MPs. Politicians are declaring that Something Must Be Done. There’s even a private member’s bill that seeks to return question period to the thoughtful forum it apparently once was, back before the invention of electricity and the middle finger.
This whole movement stems from a terrible misunderstanding. After six years of minority government, many MPs have so often uttered and heard variations on the phrase “making Parliament work” that they’ve done the unthinkable: they’ve started to believe their own words. They’ve decreed it their solemn responsibility to act civilized and work together.
People with starkly opposing views about where to take our country should defend and advance their beliefs with passion, vigour and big-boy words. If they lose their temper, so be it. A little name-calling? Fine. A three-hour marathon of yo-momma insults? So long as it doesn’t feel gratuitous.
Let the eggheads converge on talk shows to debate the end of civil discourse. If Michael Ignatieff purports to have a very different idea of what Canada should be, why would he want to help Stephen Harper accomplish anything? And why strain to be nice about it? Politicians should be fervent enough in their beliefs that they’d climb over a table to confront a minister (Sheila Copps during the Mulroney era) or fight through a ring of RCMP officers to wedgie the prime minister (Bob Rae during the daydream I just had).
Parliament is not a play date—there’s nothing wrong with hating one another’s ideas, plans or guts. What exactly do we think hecklers are interrupting anyway? It’s question period, not something sacred like a church service or a seven-song commercial-free rock block.
Political observers are always gazing wistfully into a soft-focus past where MPs worked in harmony while bluebirds perched upon their fingertips and chipmunks performed intricately choreographed dance numbers about the intoxicating power of co-operation. Did this past actually exist? Possibly in a rejected Disney movie or one of John Diefenbaker’s legendary LSD trips. But people reviled other people back then, too—especially during minority governments. They just didn’t have Twitter with which to share all the latest Gerda Munsinger jokes. (Relax, I was just joking there about the Chief dropping acid. Everyone knows he was a hash man.)
Besides, recent testiness and hostility is not necessarily a sign of a permanent decline in manners. Politics thrives on volatility and change, the introduction of new blood and the settling of old scores. Today’s MPs just have cabin fever from being trapped for years inside the same range of poll numbers.
Meanwhile, technology has amplified both our knowledge and our cynicism. These days, everything is always the worst ever—an impression reinforced by the predictable arc of bellyaching from departing MPs (most recently, Keith Martin). It always goes something like: I came to Ottawa so optimistic, so full of energy, but then the system beat me down. Those bastards got some partisan reality on my precious idealism! I AM FOREVER SULLIED! Invariably, these are the people who stayed in Ottawa for 15 years, and should have left a decade sooner.
Politics is a brutal business. It demands a lot and gives little back. But politics matters deeply. It should be played hard, and played for keeps.
The truth is, our national politics have long been ugly. Maybe it’s not a sign that MPs have stopped caring. Maybe it’s proof they continue to care.