The Commons: Your deferential silence is appreciated - Macleans.ca

The Commons: Your deferential silence is appreciated

To shut the f— up, or not to shut the f— up

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The Scene. Bob Rae watched the Speaker for his cue and then, when called upon, checked his tie and stood to face the government side.

“Mr. Speaker, I am going to have to try to find the words to ask this question,” he began. “Yesterday, Senator Ruth gave perhaps the pithiest, sharpest description one can imagine of Conservative political policy that we have all heard in a long time.”

This was perhaps not quite a compliment.

“Her advice to groups that are criticizing the government or that have an issue with the government or might want to raise the issue was, I am not going to quote entirely, quite simply,” he continued, turning to the Speaker with a somewhat apologetic look on his face, “Shut the ‘F’ up.”

You can for yourself imagine what the “F” here represents. We at this demure publication do not make a habit of printing the word, so I can only tell you that it begins with an F and that after that come three letters I can only represent with dashes.

“This is what has come to the current government,” Mr. Rae lamented. “This is a culture of intimidation that has now been established by the Conservative Party: If someone has a disagreement with the government, just shut the F up.”

Here then came the polite and proper and restrained Transport Minister John Baird to respond. “Mr. Speaker,” he reported, “obviously that type of language is completely unacceptable.”

Obviously.

The language in this case is Nancy Ruth’s, the Conservative senator who, yesterday, advised those unhappy with the government’s approach to aiding maternal health worldwide that they best “shut the f— up,” lest they inspire further backlash. Here was fear masquerading as friendly advice. Cynicism passed off as political cunning.

Here, most conveniently, were four words to define this time in Ottawa. Never mind translating it into Latin, it seems fitting to leave it in its crudest form. From sea to shining sea, shut the f— up.

This is, as often lamented, the unofficial mantra under which both cabinet ministers and aspiring government backbenchers are believed to be expected to operate. In professional circumstances, “shut the f— up” is known as “communications.” In paper form, “shut the f— up” is known as “redaction.” And as much as the leading pundits moan about all of this, “shut the f— up” is the one piece of advice they shout at the leader of the opposition whenever he emits a word or two that might be considered passably interesting.

So now we learn that shutting the f— up is the best way to cajole this government. Or at least that shutting the f— up is preferable to not shutting the f— up. The optimal Ottawa would thus seem to be one in which no one says anything in more than a deferential whisper, and even then only rarely and when asked.

This is, granted, not quite a revelation.

It is this Prime Minister, mind you, who is on record as the only in the nation’s history to have launched legal proceedings against Her Majesty’s loyal opposition—a libel suit he loudly threatened and officially pursued, then quietly dropped some months later. Less actionable offenses are met simply with the sort of invective that intends to compel silence—or maybe obliterate. Those who have too insistently pressed the issue of this country’s handling of Afghan detainees have been accused of sympathizing with the enemy. Liberal Mark Holland was once deemed an “agent for the Taliban intelligence agency.” In his time, Stephane Dion was accused of both endangering Canadian soldiers and threatening the unity of the country. Later, when the opposition parties rallied together to form an alternative government they were said to wish to “destroy the country” and denounced as “traitors,” while one government MP warned of something approaching “sedition.”

You see, it is not simply that Mr. Harper’s political opponents are advised to shut the f— up, but that to do otherwise may be considered treasonous. And lest you think that this sort of restriction is isolated to the likes of Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton, remember that the Defence Minister once mused we should all be mindful of what we say in public, lest we embolden the Taliban.

All of which might be less problematic if Mr. Harper’s side hadn’t in fact so successfully scared the opposition—often with charges far less serious than those noted above—that it has seemed for the last few years only periodically willing to state an identifiable position that might be met with anything less than unanimous praise. (And if the press gallery, for that matter, hadn’t accepted furious scorn or fawning celebration as the only acceptable reactions to events here.)

Back though to the particular matter at hand.

“Let me tell members this,” Mr. Baird continued. “Canadians do not want to drag the abortion debate into the maternal and health discussions.”

You see, it is not simply that concerned individuals might best shut the f— up, but that the entire nation, by Mr. Baird’s estimate, would rather everyone shut the f— up about all of this. He might not be far wrong on this.

“This government and the Prime Minister are focused on how to make a positive difference in the lives of mothers and newborn children in the developing world,” Mr. Baird finished. “We want to find ways that unite Canadians, not divide them.”

An honourable pursuit that. But Mr. Rae was unpersuaded and, pressed again, Mr. Baird was compelled to invoke the “culture war” the Liberals are apparently (if so far ineffectively) waging.

Mr. Rae simplified his complaint, wondering aloud what the government’s “problem” was with “democracy itself.” Then Anita Neville stood and listed the groups and individuals alleged to have faced this government’s wrath, quite selflessly leaving her own party off the roll call.

Mr. Baird moaned of the Liberal plan to cleave Canadians “rural from urban,” “east from west,” and even “big city from small farm.” And when that point was exhausted he accused the opposition of impure fundraising practices.

Alas, our foremost voice of reconciliation was unable to bring peace—or at least fearful silence—with such stuff.

The Stats. Abortion, 10 questions. The oil industry, five questions. Firearms and crime, three questions each. Nuclear energy, the Supreme Court, Helena Guergis, economic development, foreign ownership, Omar Khadr and poverty, two questions each. The navy, ethics, forestry and firefighters, one question each.

John Baird, 15 answers. Vic Toews and Rob Nicholson, four answers each. Denis Lebel, three answers. Dave Anderson, James Moore, Deepak Obhrai, Jim Flaherty and Bev Oda, two answers each. Lynne Yelich, Leona Aglukkaq and Peter MacKay, one answer each.