Bickering and heckling: The MPs are back
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Bickering and heckling: The MPs are back
September 20, 2010
OTTAWA – The politicians are back at work in the House of Commons, promising to behave better, unless – as they say in the schoolyard – someone else starts it.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, challenged by NDP leader Jack Layton on Monday to raise the bar of behaviour in the chamber, said: “The smooth functioning of Parliament depends on the will of all of its members.”
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff appears to have the same conditions for future civility in Parliament.
“It takes two to tango,” Ignatieff told reporters as his “Liberal Express” bus – on which he toured Canada all summer – pulled up on Parliament Hill to mark the return to work in the Commons.
“We’ll do what we can to raise the tone. I can’t give any guarantees because it depends on what (new Government House Leader) John Baird and that team decides to do.”
So the first Question Period after the three-month summer break was a catch-up session in political bickering – with the usual heckling and partisan jabs, though also some slight restraint on the overt nastiness that has characterized the Commons in recent months and years.
Conservative MP Michael Chong, who has a six-point proposal before the Commons to improve Question Period, said the opening day on Monday was “a fine start” but he thinks more than behaviour needs to change in Parliament.
“The fundamental problem is that members of Parliament have lost the right to ask questions in the House, questions of concern to their constituents, and as a result they have turned from being true participants in Question Period to being mere spectators and to behave as any spectators would, as any Canadian would in any public arena. They cheer and cheer against the opposition or for their team,” Chong told reporters.
One of Chong’s proposals would put more power in the hands of the Commons Speaker – instead of political parties – to choose who gets to ask questions in the House.
It didn’t take long on Monday for all the cheering and booing to start again from the MPs’ benches, but the mood was generally merry, as if the politicians were pleased to be settling back into the old habits of the partisan fray.
There were a few slight shifts – Ignatieff is no longer reading his questions, but asking them off the cuff, as he did with speeches during his summer-long tour of Canada. Harper is also now wearing glasses, and the Commons seating plan has been shuffled a bit to reflect minor changes in the cabinet and Liberal critics’ posts this summer.
But for the most part, the political rhetoric for this fall’s return of Parliament is in large part a replay of many old arguments, including the looming vote on whether to abolish the decade-old, long-gun registry. The debate over that vote, which comes on Wednesday, has galvanized both sides to rev up 10-year-old arguments and old feuds.
Similarly, all the parties in the Commons were treading on familiar territory for their attacks on their rivals when MPs came back to work in Ottawa on Monday.
Liberals were accusing Conservatives of picking fights with bureaucrats and other Canadians on issues outside of the real concerns of citizens. The New Democrats were accusing the government of playing “U.S.-style, wedge politics.” Layton asked for an emergency debate on the Conservatives’ decision to abandon the mandatory long-form census, but the request was denied by the Speaker.
Conservatives, meanwhile, were attacking the opposition parties as the “coalition” and mocking Liberals as the “tax and spend” party – even though, as Deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale attempted to point out, former prime minister Jean Chrétien has an economic legacy of balanced books and fiscal stability.
Goodale’s declaration prompted hoots of derision from the Conservative benches – an audible reminder that the Commons, for better or worse, is back in session, business as usual.