The House of Commons is a peaceful place when everyone stops yelling. If you’ve never watched even a couple of hours of debate in the chamber, that might surprise you. I have no idea your conception of the House and the people who fill it, but when the yelling stops, rest assured the proceedings aren’t always as mind-numbing as all the bluster you see on the news. And yesterday, the first day MPs were back after six weeks out of town, was a very normal day.
Certainly, there was plenty of noise during the calendar year’s first Question Period, to the surprise of no one who’s ever watched. What followed, though, was much more subdued, respectful, and even a little calming. By the time I took my seat in the press gallery overlooking the Commons at about 3:45 p.m., parliamentarians were talking tax policy. Their conversation was framed legislatively by Bill C-48, the Technical Tax Amendments Act.
For most of the two hours I sat there, the House looked just like any office—except much more opulent, absent the cubicles and water coolers, and governed by occasionally strict rules about who has the floor and what they can say. Also, everyone nods politely to the Speaker when they enter and exit the room, a gesture rarely afforded your average boss. Oh, and people from the outside world sometimes watch the proceedings from above, a crowd probably missing from your daily routine.
What I observed in that big, formal, public office was just your average day. It went something like this:
John Baird, the foreign affairs minister, sat at his desk and worked his way through a foot-tall pile of folders and papers. He never rose to speak, but couldn’t stop himself from blurting out a couple of light-hearted heckles directed at the Liberals. Several of his caucus colleagues shuffled over, took a seat, and chatted about something or other for a few minutes. Then they’d leave, and he’d go back to his work, rarely raising his head to watch debate.
Across the way, the NDP’s various parliamentarians clustered in groups to share a few words, or sat alone and fiddled with iPhones and iPads and BlackBerries and papers. Carol Hughes, from northern Ontario, chatted away with Murray Rankin, Victoria’s new MP. Who knows what they were talking about, but it looked no more profound than whatever you said during your morning coffee break.
Among the most familiar Liberal voices in the House was Kevin Lamoureux, the Winnipeg MP who speaks more than most of his elected counterparts. On this afternoon, he was back at it, speaking about tax policy and probably saying everything he’d ever learned about the file. He was the only Liberal to speak to the bill while I sat and watched; the rest of the debate’s speakers rose from the NDP benches. Mostly, those on the Conservative side sat out the C-48 chatter, choosing instead to trade banter in the backbenches.
Rathika Sitsabaiesan, the NDP MP from Scarborough-Rouge River, eventually rose to speak. I watched the official timer count down as her allotted 10 minutes ticked away, wondering if she’d pull off a perfectly timed speech. She came within seconds. Her own timer, which was a tick slower than the official clock, buzzed as she finished her final sentence. The speaker, and some colleagues, chuckled.
Throughout, the Green Party’s Elizabeth May sat in the far corner of the House, her desk acting as a de facto office. She’s a well-known staple of the chamber, having given up her larger office space to party volunteers.
As 6 p.m. approached, I took my leave. Just another normal day; the first of many this winter.
Worth watching, if you’re interested in the average day in the House of Commons, is Aaron Wherry’s February 2011 reflection on the state of affairs in the chamber. The video is still relevant today, a testament to the House’s long-standing predictability.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013