Whatever else was discussed within the walls of the House of Commons these last 14 months, the 40th Parliament was about Parliament. From its unprecedented start to its unprecedented end, here was a debate about our democracy—how it works, why it exists and what it means. These were the questions this place wrestled with each day. There are the questions now, implicitly or explicitly, laid before the public.
The events of this day are thus now open to interpretation. By one understanding, a majority of the people’s representatives expressed their lack of confidence in the those representatives who presently form the people’s government, thus compelling the government to resign and the Governor General to call for a general vote of the people. By another understanding, the Liberals conspired with the socialists and separatists to defeat Stephen Harper’s government and force an unnecessary and dangerous election.
Or understand what happened today as a concession. From all sides. An admission of defeat on the part of the 40th Parliament and a plea to the public to sort out what are wildly divergent views on the proper functioning of Parliamentary democracy.
The call went out at approximately 1:48pm this afternoon. Across Parliament Hill, the bells rang, signalling that the presence of each member was required in the House of Commons. Members soon thereafter began to file in from all sides, mixing in the centre aisle to mingle and make small talk.
Shortly after 2pm, the Prime Minister, absent from the last three sessions of Question Period, appeared on the government side. Afterwards he would proclaim his disappointment in all of this, but here he was smiling. He proceeded to the Speaker’s throne to shake Peter Milliken’s hand. After a few words, he proceeded back down the centre aisle, shaking hands, laughing and smiling with various opposition members, to greet Jack Layton. From there to Gilles Duceppe and from there to Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader and the Prime Minister exchanging rather strained-seeming pleasantries.
He then took his seat. The floor of the House was now nearly full, as were the galleries above—all of the Prime Minister’s men (and at least two women) watching from Mr. Harper’s box, the Liberal leader’s wife watching from Mr. Ignatieff’s box. Members continued to exchange friendly words. A New Democrat (Megan Leslie) and a Conservative (James Bezan) even hugged.
At 2:10pm, the great doors of the House of Commons were closed and the whips walked to the Speaker to bow before him before bowing to each other. Then, for a moment, there was silence.
The Speaker disposed of a procedural matter and then read aloud the motion to be voted on: “That the House agrees with the finding of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs that the government is in contempt of Parliament, which is unprecedented in Canadian Parliamentary history, and consequently, the House has lost confidence in the government.”
He asked for those in favour to say “yea” and those opposed to say “nay.” There was a great rush of noise. He asked those in favour to say “yea.” “Yea!” cried the opposition side. He asked those opposed to say “nay.” No!” cried the government side. In the Speaker’s opinion the yeas had it, but a sufficient number of government members rose to trigger a recorded vote.
At 2:12pm, the Speaker called on all those in favour on his left side to rise. Mr. Ignatieff went first, each Liberal member followed suit. Row by row and seat by seat they stood to nod as the clerks called them out by surname. Mr. Ignatieff turned in his seat to watch them. There were catcalls from the government side.
When the Liberal votes had been counted, Gilles Duceppe stood to lead the Bloc votes. There was a smattering of applause from the Liberal members. When the clerks reached the vote of Francine Lalonde, the Bloc MP now battling cancer and set to retire when the next election begins, all sides stood to cheer. Jack Layton, battling cancer himself, stood to lead the New Democrats and after all the votes on the left had been tallied, the clerks counted the half dozen New Democrats on the right.
The Speaker then called for all those opposed to please rise. The Prime Minister stood here to a sustained ovation from his side. “Har! Per! Har! Per!” they chanted. When the pep rally had finished, the clerks counted the nays one-by-one, row-on-row. Conservative members stood and nodded. Rick Dykstra and Dean Del Mastro stood and fist-bumped each other. The votes of the two independents—André Arthur and Helena Guergis—were cast in opposition of the motion.
It was then for the clerk to announce the result. In the moment of anticipation, a few Liberals teased Mr. Milliken. “It’s a tie, Peter!” they joked with the man who, in such a scenario, would be charged with casting the pivotal vote.
The yeas counted 156. The nays counted 145.
There were cheers from the opposition side and papers flung into the air. Then the Prime Minister rose and moved that the House now adjourn. That motion was met with unanimous consent.
And that was that. The 40th Parliament of the people in Canada was thus ended. The 41st general election in the history of this nation will begin tomorrow. May the latter go someway to dealing with all the former has asked us to confront.