The Commons: Anatomy of an outrage

To what extent should one be allowed to accuse another of evil?

by Aaron Wherry

The Scene. The afternoon culminated in a protracted and passionate debate, the crux of the discussion being perhaps the most profound question facing Western democracy and human discourse as we enter the second decade of this new century: To what extent should one be allowed to stand and publicly accuse another of evil?

In this particular context—within the walls of the House of Commons, members on all sides rising in the moments after Question Period on points of order to vent and plead and attempt reason—it might easily be dismissed as a matter of Parliamentary procedure. But then what happens here is, quite literally, a representation of us—of who we are, and what we become, when taken together. And so here we find ourselves.

Consider the case of Mark Holland, the Liberal member for Ajax—Pickering.

The 15 minutes before Question Period are, each day, allotted for MPs of any rank to stand and say, in the space of 30 seconds or so, whatever it is they wish. This is, in theory, a time to celebrate local bake sales, honour notable constituents or express solidarity with some cause or another. It is, in recent practice, also an open opportunity to freely impugn.

“Mr. Speaker, Liberals have yet again shown that they care more about criminals than about victims or taxpayers,” reported Ed Fast, the Conservative MP for Abbotsford with his few moments this afternoon. “Yesterday, the Liberal MP for Ajax—Pickering shamefully defended prisoners getting taxpayer funded old age security benefits.”

He proceeded to repeat various authorities heaping praise on a government bill that would suspend the payment of old-age benefits to elderly prisoners—a change the government is pursuing now, four years after it was elected, having only just realized that a notorious murderer was receiving a monthly cheque for $1,100.

“The Liberals should stop listening to prisoners and instead listen to Canadians who want this bill to pass,” Mr. Fast concluded.

Question Period commenced shortly thereafter and slightly more than halfway through a government backbencher, Paul Calandra of Oak Ridges—Markham, was sent up with a query. “Mr. Speaker, I was shocked yesterday when I heard the Liberal MP for Ajax—Pickering defend the practice of paying old age security to prisoners,” he proclaimed.

“Shame on him!” heckled Shelly Glover, the Conservative MP for Saint-Boniface. “Shame on him!”

“Even though hardworking taxpayers already foot the bill for prisoners’ room and board, the Liberals actually think that prisoners should receive even more benefits, benefits that are intended only for low income seniors,” Mr. Calandra continued. “Can the minister tell us what she is hearing from Canadians who actually care about victims and taxpayers?”

Over then to Diane Finley, the Minister for Human Resources, to stand and pronounce her outrage. “Mr. Speaker, it is quite evident, once again, the Liberals care more about prisoners than they do about taxpayers or Canadian victims of crime,” she reported. “The honourable member’s comments were offensive to Canadians right across this country, were offensive to victims of crime. I suggest he withdraw them, with shame.”

Not once in all this were Mr. Holland’s comments repeated. The viewer was apparently meant to take Ms. Finley and Mr. Calandra and Mr. Fast’s word for it, to imagine just how heinously Mr. Holland had professed his love for criminals, how explicitly he had dismissed tax-paying citizens and how cruelly he had mocked the concern of crime victims.

A check with Ms. Finley’s office after the fact reveals Mr. Holland’s outrageous words—spoken to reporters yesterday afternoon—to be these.

“You know, clearly we don’t want to make it a situation where somebody who’s in jail and committed a minor offense is suddenly losing their, their pension.”

(He was, for the record, asked for comment on the government proposal. And his full answer, as recorded by the transcription service employed by the press gallery, was as follows. “Well we’re going to have to look at it.  This government has a tendency to try to play games with crime and I think this might be another example. We want to take a look at what exactly the government is going to propose, who it’s going to impact.  You know, clearly we don’t want to make it a situation where somebody who’s in jail and committed a minor offense is suddenly losing their, their pension. But you know, obviously we’re going to have to look at it.”)

Those are the words upon which shame is pronounced. Those are the words upon which Mark Holland is said to be in league with the worst of our society. Those are the words upon which Mark Holland is said to be evil.

This is how this now goes. This is the game—the rules of play now so accepted these allegations of moral contempt passed quite unremarkably, passively accepted by everyone within earshot as fair or unavoidable or predictable or something.

The tempest that followed had nothing specifically to do with the allegations leveled, rightly or wrongly, against Mr. Holland, but with another allegation of evil entirely. For more than a half hour, the House raged, largely without resolution. However hallowed this institution, the matter would seem to exceed even the bonds of practice and procedure that govern these proceedings.

The Stats. Brian Mulroney, five questions each. Israel, the oil industry and foreign affairs, four questions each. The G20, three questions. Securities regulation, medical isotopes, banks, Aboriginal affairs, the economy, visas, two questions each. Crime, firearms, First Nations University and the environment, one question each.

Ted Menzies, six answers. Christian Paradis and Rob Nicholson, five answers each. Peter Kent and Bev Oda, four answers each. John Baird and Chuck Strahl, three answers each. Jason Kenney, two answers. Leona Agulkkaq, Diane Finley, Dave MacKenzie and Mark Warawa, one answer each.




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