The Commons: The House rules

And for this government, that’s a laughing matter

by Aaron Wherry

The Scene. Shortly after 3:30 pm, the Speaker rose and over the next 17 minutes neatly explained how he had come to find that the government had breached the privileges of the House of Commons for the second and third times in 12 months. Charges of contempt may now follow.

So there. And so what now?

Just an hour before Mr. Milliken’s latest decisions, there was a great burst of laughter, seemingly from a member of the government side, when a Liberal dared report one of last night’s votes as an expression of the “Canadian people’s House.” Perhaps his seatmate had, at that precise moment, told him a very funny, but entirely unrelated, joke. Hopefully that’s all it was. But if we’ve come to the point where the very words seem humorous, the very notion ridiculous—and to no less than a member of this place—then we perhaps have a larger problem. One that no ruling of the Speaker will be able to remedy.

The afternoon began with a strongly worded indictment. “Mr. Speaker, one minister in the government is charged with misleading the House, another has turned his department into Conservative Party re-election central, and nine sitting Conservative MPs took money from taxpayers in an election fraud scheme. As if that is not quite enough, the Prime Minister decided to rename the Government of Canada after himself,” Michael Ignatieff reported. “Does the Prime Minister not understand that these actions damage Canadian democracy?”

The Prime Minister seemed to feel otherwise. “Mr. Speaker,” he responded, “I do not agree with any of those things.”

This is the Prime Minister’s way, to shrug either figuratively or physically. He strives to minimize.

The more demonstrative responses of late have been assigned to his parliamentary secretary, the dutiful and enthusiastic Pierre Poilievre. Mr. Poilievre is like a dancing elephant at the circus. The opposition members ask their questions, or at least air their accusations, and Mr. Poilievre jumps up to do his routine, shuffling for the entertainment of the Conservative MPs in the crowd. For the most part this routine involves delighting his audience with some half-accusation of wrongdoing on the part of the members’ opposite. Sometimes this takes the form of a singalong.

The case the dancing elephant seems to make is at least mildly novel. Accused of kicking democracy in the shins, the defence is essentially that everyone else also possesses feet. And the opposition, either functionally unable or simply constrained by the time limits of Question Period, has failed repeatedly to enunciate the incongruity—content, instead, to simply point out that only the Conservative side has been charged, a counter that only bolsters the government’s thinly veiled conspiracy theorizing.

“Come on, Mr. Speaker, that is ridiculous,” the NDP’s Libby Davies pleaded, after Mr. Poilievre had taken her first question as an opportunity to cast aspersions back at her.

The government side laughed.

“What we did was legal,” she protested. “What the Conservatives did was illegal.”

The government side laughed some more.

Shortly thereafter, Liberal Judy Foote stood to report that “last night this House, the Canadian people’s House, voted to have this Conservative government repay money it illegally obtained from election fraud” and there was that audible guffawing. And awhile after that, the Speaker stood and made his calls to seriousness, punctuated with old Latin.

Before this it was Mr. Harper, in opposition, who demanded seriousness of Paul Martin’s government. And before that it was a government famously dubbed the “friendly dictatorship.” And before that it was a prime minister who dismissed opposition MPs as “nobodies.” We can debate whether this is a cycle or a spiral. In either case there would seem to be a demand—either as old as democracy itself or new to our present situation—that somebody do something. The Speaker merely officiates. It is ultimately the House, and its members, and the voters who empower those individuals, who rule.

The Stats. Ethics, 18 questions. The environment and the budget, four questions each. Sports, poverty and veterans, two questions each. Crime, the Toronto Stock Exchange, securities regulation, the economy, Spain and aboriginal affairs, one question each.

Stephen Harper, Pierre Poilievre and Jason Kenney, five answers each. Christian Paradis, Peter Kent, Vic Toews, Peter MacKay, Gary Lunn, Stockwell Day, Diane Finley and Jean-Pierre Blackburn, two answers each. John Baird, Rob Nicholson, Tony Clement, Ted Menzies, Gary Goodyear, Diane Ablonczy and Gerry Ritz, one answer each.




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