Nathan Cullen wrestles with the existential crisis that is the state of members’ statements.
Partisan shots have always been part of the mix but for the past few years the Conservatives have been systematic in using member’s statements to orchestrate repeated, scripted verbal broadsides against the leader of the Opposition. They did it to Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, despite repeated rebukes by former Speaker Peter Milliken, and now they’re doing it to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
But the NDP is now starting to respond in kind and Nathan Cullen, the party’s House leader, is worried the partisan sniping will only escalate if Scheer doesn’t put a stop to it. “The problem is that when you see it day after day after day, there’s a tendency to want to retaliate and bring the tone of debate even lower than it is now,” Cullen said in an interview. Cullen has told Scheer the NDP would fully support him were he to cut off MPs who abuse members’ statements and he intends to speak to him again this week to say, “I think this is getting worse, not better.” “If the Speaker doesn’t clamp down then it’s hard for me to hold off my attack dogs because they say, ‘They’re punching our party or leader in the nose every day, we need to respond.’”
As CP notes, Speaker Milliken attempted to draw a line and impose a ban on personal attacks. The easy way around that is to attack your rival’s policies. Would the parties ever unanimously agree to a ban on saying anything critical about another party or MP during statements by members? Probably not. Nor, one could argue, should they.
Here is what I wrote and what Speaker Scheer said to me last June.
The 15 minutes that immediately precede QP provide an interesting study in both the state of the House and the challenge of overseeing it. The time reserved for statements by members is nominally set aside for the noting of honourable constituents, cherished causes or issues of concern. In recent years it has become an opportunity to lob partisan bombs at the other side—the Conservatives particularly using the time to attack successive opposition leaders. Three years ago, Speaker Milliken attempted to ban MPs from making personal attacks during this time, but if the swipes are somehow less personal, they still persist, the NDP now opting to fight partisan fire with partisan fire. “The fine balancing line is, is this a legitimate debate about something that was said or a position that was taken or a party policy, or is this crossing the line into attacking character. It’s tough to, as you’re hearing it, parse words, but I think there’s been times where I’ve cut members off who, in my view, were very clearly down a path of just flat out insulting another member rather than a legitimate critique of a position or a statement.” So, for instance, in February, the Speaker cut off Jim Hillyer when the Conservative MP referred to Justin Trudeau as “Pierre Trudeau’s pompous parliamentary prince.” But suggestions that the NDP would impose “dangerous economic experiments” are in bounds.
Herein lies the riddle of civility. Rote partisanship is not against the rules. And even if the House may be somewhat more quiet of late, it is still a place of debate, competition and conflict.
I’m not sure how you could construct a reasonable ban on people being critical of each other without suspending the fundamentals of democratic debate. Unless, I suppose, you want to restyle those 15 minutes as “Say Something Nice About Someone” time. (Even then, a motivated partisan would easily find a way to say something mean about the other side while complimenting his own side: “Unlike the other party’s leader, who longs to destroy this country and impoverish our children, our leader is the greatest human who has ever lived.” So perhaps, “Say Something Nice About Someone Without In Any Possible Way, Implicitly or Explicitly, Referring In A Negative Fashion To Anyone” time.)
If members’ statements are a problem, there are two possible solutions: eliminate those 15 minutes (and let MPs get things off their respective chests on their own time) or move those 15 minutes to a less-prominent part of the day (removing the incentive that makes attacking the other side such an attractive option).