The Commons: In Review

The best, worst and merely laughable of the recently completed Parliamentary session

The Scene. Late last week, at the press conference he’d called to formally reject the Liberal green plan he hadn’t bothered to read, Jason Kenney was asked to account for his government’s tone—the language with which it had chosen to engage the current debate.

“I don’t think that Canadians are so humourless and earnest,” he posited, “that they reject humour in political discourse.”

There are at least two problems with this assessment.

At the outset, it assumes that what Mr. Kenney’s had to say has been particularly funny. This is, by most objective standards, a stretch. His particular line on the Liberal carbon tax relies on the fact that the word “shift” sounds something like a swear. While perhaps uproarious when compared with other discussions around here—so many of them having to do with war and poverty and other sufferings—most of us ceased finding this pun particularly hilarious around the first time we kissed a girl (or boy, as it were).

But, in fairness to Mr. Kenney, let’s pretend his comedic stylings on this front have been the stuff of a night at the Apollo. Even if that were the case, so, er, what?

The ability to tell a joke is an impressive skill in a politician, but hardly a necessary one. Indeed, governments are not generally elected for their collective sense of humour, least of all this one. And if Canadians were desperate to be entertained by their elected leaders, this country has produced more than a few options (Prime Minister Pamela Anderson anyone?).

It is, of course, easy to dismiss Jason Kenney as a harmless goof put out by the government to mock the other side. Just as it easy to dismiss John Baird. And Pierre Poilievre. And Peter Van Loan. And Peter MacKay. And Monte Solberg. And Lawrence Cannon. And Vic Toews. And Steven Fletcher. And James Moore. And Helena Guergis. And the likes of Jeff Watson, Rick Dykstra, Dean Del Mastro, Ed Fast and Mike Wallace.

Unfortunately for this government, you’ve just dismissed a good majority of those members charged with articulating its purpose. And on various days you could probably include no less than the Prime Minister among them.

If there was one abiding lesson this session it was likely this. That as tempting as it is to make light of the men and women who populate this place and the oft-tawdry politics they pursue, there is a certain seriousness with which this business of governing should be approached.

Humour as an aspect of one’s politics is to be lauded. Surely those charged with writing about parliament appreciate it. But we must by now know there are limits to its charms. And when comedy acts as the basis of your government, one seems less a joker than—as Ralph Goodale shouted at one government member last Friday—a “joke.”

New Democrat of the session
There is something endearing about Charlie Angus. And not only because his name reminds me of a particularly lewd Saturday Night Live skit.

He still dresses a bit like the rock star he once almost was. And asks his questions in what amounts to a lilting whine. But he is not entirely without substance. He’s given Chuck Strahl fits and tussled admirably with Jim Prentice. Most of his NDP mates opt for either the sanctimonious or pleading. Angus manages to be both, without annoying anyone but the minister he’s hectoring.

Conservative of the session
It is impossible, or perhaps unjust, to avoid Peter Van Loan in this regard. Love him, or more likely hate him, he has dominated this session. I defer to Ned Franks, the esteemed historian, who considers Van Loan both “fascinating” and one of the reasons Question Period is difficult to watch anymore.

He is surely though not doing anything his boss doesn’t want him to do. Indeed, the Prime Minister seems to trust Van Loan mightily, regularly turning around in his seat to consult with the House leader. Whether or not he’s ruining our democracy then, he offers an important insight into the soul of both Mr. Harper and this government.

Liberal of the session
Michael Ignatieff remains a consistently impressive performer. Bob Rae has had his moments. John McCallum has wrestled entertainingly with the Finance Minister. Ken Dryden swings hard, if wildly. Martha Hall Findlay has some potential. Marlene Jennings is relentless.

But in the middle of it all sits Ralph Goodale, consulting with Mr. Dion, coaching his side, taking copious notes and bellowing at the other side (several ministers were reprimanded this session for admonishing him, by name, to simmer down). For good and bad, he seems the walking definition of a Parliamentarian. There is not an arcane rule of procedure he does not seem to have studied. And when presented with an opportunity in Question Period, he can be a scrupulous interrogator.

Bloquiste of the session
It is perhaps unpatriotic to note that the Bloc boasts a fine group of questioners—their righteous indignation is ready-made for this setting. Best of all is Serge Ménard.

As noted previously, he’s a francophone Jack McCoy—meticulous and measured, but still incredulous and undaunted. Impressive at committee when picking through the messes of Karlheinz Schreiber and Maxime Bernier, he does well with the too-often-neglated yes-or-no question.

Heckler of the session
It is not sufficient here to simply scream slanderous invective across the aisle (sorry Mr. Baird). There is—or rather there should be—a certain art to the shouted put-down. Think here of Dominic LeBlanc’s insistence to the Speaker that Wajid Khan’s hair should be considered a prop.

Think too of Todd Russell, the Liberal wit and backbench heckler without peer at the moment. Blessed with a Labradorian accent and a shrill chirp that could stop or incite a riot, he is a fine needler of government ministers. A genuinely thoughtful man in conversation, his are barbs of some inspiration—from his mocking Maxime Bernier (“Don’t let the bedbugs bite!”) to his questions about the PMO psychic to his attempt at Seussian poetry.

An arbitrary ranking of cabinet ministers
Ministerial performance is always a bit difficult to measure. All the more so when many seem to be placeholders for the Prime Minister’s agenda. What follows then is based primarily on their efforts under Question Period interrogation.

1. Chuck Strahl, Indian Affairs
Rarely outclassed. Tends to rely less on mockery or partisan hackery. Not to say that he’s immune from such stuff. But by comparison with some of his peers, he seems downright classy.

2. Lawrence Cannon, Transport
Hardly graceful or daring. But fairly adept at demeaning the Bloc and shouting triumphantly about transportation policy. Often after returning to his seat, he’ll look over the Liberal side, smile and shrug. And there’s something admirable about a man who can acknowledge his own nonsense.

3. Jim Prentice, Industry
Lands here a bit by default. He’s periodically impressive. But it’s unclear whether his high standing has more to do with his own merits or the lack thereof among those elsewhere in cabinet.

4. David Emerson, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Bit dry maybe. But the government still insists on letting the likes of Deepak Obhrai and Peter MacKay deal with the more scandalous stuff. Might be nice to hear more often from a minister who isn’t obviously ridiculous.

5. Rob Nicholson, Justice
Tends to be a little patronizing. Any answer can be brought back to the fact that some party of another is “soft” on crime. Still, he seems smarter than that.

6. Monte Solberg, Human Resources
Mildly entertaining as a comedic pairing with Chuck Strahl. Not at all sure if he’s any good with the file.

7. Stockwell Day, Public Safety
Has mastered the use of the sotto voce. Very effective at making him seem reasonable.

8. Christian Paradis, Secretary of State for Agriculture
Wild, impassioned speaker. Swings his arms this way and that like a man possessed. Michael Ignatieff always gets a chuckle out of the whole display.

9. Jim Flaherty, Finance
Quite good at getting all angry and outraged and besmirched. Few can make a more fiery case for a shrinking economy.

10. Josée Verner, Heritage
That rarest of Conservative cabinet minister: a woman in a periodically prominent speaking role.

And finally…
Near the end of Question Period on Friday morning—the last before summer recess—the previously absent Jim Prentice came rushing in. The reason for his sudden appearance was unclear until the Speaker called an end to oral questions.

“Mr. Speaker, as the session draws to a close, I rise in response to a point of order raised yesterday by the member for Timmins-James Bay,” Prentice said. “The matter in contention was my use in Question Period yesterday of the initials B and S in too close proximity to one another and in too close proximity to the initials NDP.

“Upon review, the initials B and S, in parliamentary tradition, have been judged as too close to the agricultural vernacular, and I therefore apologize to you, Mr. Speaker, for the farming reference. With respect to my friend from Timmins-James Bay, while he and I will continue to have differing perspectives on the issue, we share a common birthplace in the Porcupine mining camp. In fact, our parents went to school together. I therefore wish him a marvellous northern Ontario summer.”

Charlie Angus, the member for Timmins-James Bay, then rose on the same point.

“Mr. Speaker, I would like to respond to that point of order. I have great respect for the House of Parliament and also great respect for my honourable colleague,” he said. “I love to get up in the morning and know that we are going to clash. As the great Tommy Douglas said, there is nothing like a good fight to make one want to get up in the morning.

“That being said, I think the member has always handled himself in a very classy manner and I am honoured, actually, to be able to cross swords with him. Yes indeed, our families are from the same region. I will not say I was the worst hockey player ever born in Timmins, but in the top 10, I am definitely there. He, on the other hand, comes from a much greater lineage in terms of hockey players. However, we do certainly disagree, and I would like to wish him the best of the summer.”

The House was thoroughly touched by this moment of mutual appreciation. Gushed one voice from the government side: “Let’s all hug.”