Arguing about civility

During his discussion with reporters Wednesday afternoon about decorum, Nathan Cullen was asked which Conservatives he was referring to. And the NDP leader identified two by surname.

Who are they? Well, some of them have been admonished by the Speaker and will continue to be. Some of them get admonished by their whip, twice, three times a week. I think what they get away with is the fact that their constituents don’t know about it, right.  So if you look at Mr. Calandra or Mr. Watson, I’m sure they go home on the weekends and talk to their constituents about how hard they’re working, but never mention the fact that mostly what they do is try to disrupt the House and are offensive, basically offensive. I dare them to do that in any of the school visits they do or any of the church stuffs that they do in their regular touring around the riding. They don’t act that way. Why do they act that way here?  Well, I guess it’s a certain frustration of their actual limitations of influence on the role of this government. So it’s no excuse, so not at all.

I’m not sure how often I’ve ever heard Paul Calandra shout something. There was some kind of exchange on Tuesday between Mr. Calandra, Mr. Cullen and Thomas Mulcair after Mr. Calandra, I believe, said something during Murray Rankin’s first question. Mr. Watson is, to my ear and recollection, a more frequent heckler. He had his own welcome for Mr. Rankin.

I emailed both Mr. Calandra and Mr. Watson to ask if either wished to respond to Mr. Cullen’s comments.

Mr. Calandra responds as follows.

To the best of my knowledge I have never been singled out by the Speaker or by Mr. Cullen nor by my Whip for “bad” behavior.  On occasion I do speak across the aisle in Question Period it is the House of Commons where we debate and where we get passionate and fight for what we believe in.  If Mr. Cullen had an issue with something he could have walked across to me or sent a note or rose on a Point of Order and taken issue. He has never spoken to me or raised an issue with me personally.  I sit 5 seats away from my Whip and he has never spoken to me. It shows the type of person Mr. Cullen is that he would use a medium such as a srum and make comments that I would have no way of responding too and unless you sent me this note I would not know the comments have been made.  Almost every day after Question Period people rise on a Point of Order to complain about a  Members comments or actions.  In the 4 years I have been here not once have I been the subject of such a Point of Order.  You are in the Gallery most days I can’t imagine I stand out to you as a source of problems in the House.  Mr. Cullen frankly is immature and should at least have the decency not to hide behind his position to take shots at me or any other Member.  If he has an issue he should rise in the House and point out an issue if one arises and not slander a Member behind the Members back. If he was an honourable person he would speak to me directly, not insult me behind my back. His accusations speak more of his behavior and the immature nature in which he approaches his job as a Member of Parliament. 

Mr. Watson responds as follows.

First, I’m unaware that Mr. Cullen has any problem with me. The honourable thing is to raise it directly with a member in an attempt to resolve an issue. Years ago, Mr. Cullen and I had an interpersonal issue at Committee. I went to him to sort it out. And he went to the media. So in the end I’m not surprised he cries on your shoulder*.

To the substance, I have never been reprimanded by the current or previous Speaker for my conduct in the House at any time. And since Mr. Cullen isn’t in our caucus let me additionally say I have never had the tap on the shoulder of the Whip during QP (though I’ve seen him visit John Baird a few times :)) nor have I been approached by the Whip – current or previous – about my conduct.

Have I parried verbally across the aisle? Sure, at times. Has Pat Martin or any other NDP MP? You sit in the gallery and see and hear. And by the way I am honest with school and church groups – and every other constituent when I talk about the House of Commons and my place and conduct in it. Some frown, some laugh, some express no opinion whatsoever. And I’m clear with them that 95% of what happens in parliament and its committees is cordial and collegial – for the sake of proper perspective here. QP is the heat of battle by words. After all the “aisle” measurement between government and opposition benches is measured a foot beyond two sword lengths.

On a final note I feel it`s important, for the sake of balance, to point out the NDP have some credibility problems. This is no longer the party of Smiling Jack who struck a bright and cordial and respectful tone as third party and then as newly-minted Official Opposition. New leader, mean tone. Anyone listening to Charlie Angus and the degraded speech that he volleys every day will know Mr. Cullen’s words are empty. I suspect Mr. Angus doesn`t visit elementary schools with video of his QP personal attacks and name-calling? For that matter, anyone sitting in the front row will know how Mr. Cullen parries across the aisle with Cabinet Ministers. Reminds me of a hockey player that irritates, instigates, then cries foul or turtles when an opponent drops the gloves.

And one last thing: what’s with the “cheap seats” comment by Cullen? I’m a blue-collar autoworker raised on a family farm and I’ve spent many years in what he calls the “cheap seats” with good honest main street folks. I’m comfortable there. Cullen sounds elitist.

I then asked Mr. Cullen if he wished to add anything in response to the responses of Mr. Calandra and Mr. Watson.

Well, both of these gentleman heckled our new member from Victoria as he was walked into the House and asked his first question. A long tradition of respect for a new colleague means nothing to them I suppose. When the Conservatives brought their new members in, we stood, applauded as a caucus and listened respectfully to their first intervention. If these two MPs want to deny their actions let them…

As for the banter I have across the aisle, ask Mr. Clement, Mr. Baird or the Prime Minister as to nature and tone of my interventions. If I recall, it wasn’t me that charged across the aisle and threatened anyone. Again, it seems like perhaps my colleagues ‘doth protest too much’. If they want to stop the heckles and reform behaviour I, and the entire parliament will welcome it.

I confess that the civility debate—at least as it is often had—doesn’t excite me much anymore. Too often it is reduced to a complaint that people should only use their quiet voices when dealing with each other. Otherwise, it can become an odd debate about what constitutes good heckling and what is bad heckling. The more specific discussion is structural change: to empower the Speaker, to empower MPs and to empower the legislature. Fixing Question Period, for instance, probably requires a more interventionist Speaker and a new arrangement (see Michael Chong’s reforms) that alters the general dynamic. As well, something as simple as taking the time reserved for statements by members and moving that to a different time of the day would, I’d wager, change the atmosphere in the place markedly.

*To clarify: Mr. Cullen did not cry, neither figuratively nor literally, on my shoulder. His comments were made in a scrum which I was not a party to.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.