May 12, 2005

So long, decency ...

This entry has been updated several times.

The daily spectacle -- or "farce", as my co-worker put it today -- of our federal Parliament is truly out of control.

A few weeks ago, it looked as though we might be spared some of this. For a fleeting few days, Paul Martin seemed to have pulled a Jean Chrétien. How so? He appeared to have bought himself some time, something Chrétien had done with his "don't worry, I'll retire in 18 months" ploy. Martin's prime-time televised speech, while much-maligned (no surprise there), achieved that critical feat in politics -- he had retaken the momentum. Stephen Harper's protestations notwithstanding, the tide seemed to turn. The Liberal slide in the polls slowed, and Harper's name was -- relatively speaking -- absent from the headlines for the next few days, making room for some Liberal "announceables".

Jack Layton's latest olive branch had been accepted, with the Liberals tacking on some $4.5 billion in NDP-flavoured spending to their budget. Not surprisingly, this incensed Stephen Harper even further. Somewhere between that, continued Gomery testimony, and the cancelling of opposition days, the Conservatives and the Bloc decided not to let up on toppling the government.

And so here we are today, in quite a sad and pathetic state. It's hard to say who looks worst in all this -- the momentum now shifts day to day, and each time I think "wow, these guys have really blown it", the "other guys" go and blow it even worse.

Harper is so eager to be in power that he's practically drooling every time he gets in front of a camera. He sounds petty and petulant and can't shake the zero-charisma mantle. He's also got a catch-22 in terms of his agenda. People still distrust him because they suspect he has a "hidden agenda." But his actual agenda is unlikely to curry favour with the majority of Canadians (as was widely noted around the last election, 70% of voters selected a non-right option, and that was already in the midst of the sponsorship scandal). To win what would in all likelihood be a minority government, he'll have to sustain an election campaign almost entirely on the sponsorship scandal. He'll also have to explain his about-face on the budget. For some inexplicable reason, he heaped praise on the budget before the Budget speech was even over, leaving himself little room to maneuver when he later sought to oppose it, even NDP additions aside.

Martin looks as desperate as Harper looks bloodthirsty. His speech looked desperate, his billions in handouts over the past few weeks look desperate, and his attempts to prolong this entire episode -- whether legitimate or not -- look desperate. And he still can't shake the dithering label. How the mighty have fallen. I can only hope that the Liberals believe they will win the non-confidence vote next week with the support of the three Independents. Otherwise, it seems like astounding folly to prolong this agony just to fall on the budget. I can't imagine anyone will care during an election about the technicality of whether they fell on a non-confidence motion or on a budget vote. Either way the Liberals will say that the opposition refused to make Parliament work and pass a Budget that was good for -- and desired by -- Canadians, and either way the Conservatives will say the Liberals had lost the authority to govern, had lost the confidence of the house, and had a lousy budget to boot, with its extra NDP provisions.

Gilles Duceppe ... well, don't get me started on Gilles Duceppe. Jack Layton may be the only one coming out of this looking even remotely sane. I thought his response to Martin's speech was terrible, but as far as political strategy goes, he's having a good run of things the past couple of weeks as the reasonable peacemaker pursuing the best interests of Canadians in trying to make Parliament work.

The rhetoric inside and outside the House is ludicrous. During Wednesday's shenanigans, Harper gave a speech that includes this precious clip:

Spending taxpayer money without parliamentary approval, cancelling opposition day debates, ignoring majority votes in the House, filibustering its own legislation and ignoring calls for the government to resign is not the behaviour of a democratic government. None of it is consistent with the spirit and the principles of parliamentary democracy.

This is the kind of abuse we hear about periodically, not just in dictatorships but in countries with democracies that are struggling. We have seen it in recent years in countries like Venezuela and Russia where the executive, although elected, is willing to run roughshod over the democratic procedures of their legislatures.

A year ago the Prime Minister was promising to slay the democratic deficit. Today he is threatening to slay democracy itself.

As the Conservatives and Block work to bring the House and its committees to a standstill in protest of the Liberal delays of a confidence vote to next week, one has to wonder what would be left for -- without diminishing the significance of the sponsorship scandal or the arrogance and sins of the Liberal party -- a real crisis of democracy. I can only imagine that Harper is swallowing his pride and calling up ex-NDP leader Alexa McDonough to ask for one of her (in)famous orange suits to launch his own Orange Revolution*. We'll be seeing a tent camp on Parliament Hill in no time.

Meanwhile, in the last couple of days we hit the lowest of the low with the parties fighting over the confidence vote and the attendance of several MPs who are currently receiving treatment for cancer. Two Conservatives and suddenly very popular independent Chuck Cadman are critical to the math of what could end up a tied no-confidence vote, with the tie-break going to Speaker of the House Peter Milliken. The two Conservative MPs were asked to attend the purported non-confidence vote earlier this week, which the Liberals declared to be procedural.

So now the Conservatives accuse the Liberals of waiting for their MPs to fall too ill to attend, while the Liberals are accusing Harper of misleading the MPs in summoning them to Ottawa for a non-confidence vote. Lost in all of this is these are actual human beings being treated for serious disease. For the love of decency, figure something out. There is a common precedent for these types of situations and it is called pairing **. Two Liberals could agree not to vote to allow the two Conservatives, at least -- who will vote predictably -- to not attend. No doubt the parties are doing the math on this 153-153 voting scenario, and it has even been suggested that it may be the Conservatives who do not want the pairing (they currently have at least an element of surprise in when their full contingent is available.) I don't really care. There has to be some reason, and it seems to be unnecessary in this scenario to force cancer patients to travel against the advice of their oncologists. But then, it has been so long since either of these parties has taken the high road that I doubt they would even recognize it now if they came across it.

Don't be fooled. Twice, recently, it looked as though the high road was being taken. On the way back from VE day ceremonies in Europe, the four party leaders put the finishing touches on a veterans bill and sped it through the House -- unanimously! -- upon their return. Happy days are here again? Well, not exactly. Within a day the bill, now in the Senate, was subject for political fodder. The Liberals claimed the Conservatives would kill the bill by bringing down the government, while the Conservatives claimed the Liberals were holding up the bill in Senate so that they could use this argument. And so on.

The other moment of apparent civility came as Ottawa Centre NDP MP Ed Broadbent announced his retirement to take care of his wife, who is ill. Leaders and senior members of all four parties said some kind words. What I found most interesting, however, was what Mr. Broadbent, a longtime figure on the political scene, had to say:

"If members will excuse me, I want to say in this context that I was asked not long ago if during my absence Parliament had changed somewhat, with all the lapses that come with increasing age about accurate memory and the inevitable propensity to romanticize the past.

When I was elected here Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada and Bob Stanfield was the leader of the Conservative Party. I am not going to try to sort out the reasons for today, but it is my impression, having been here since the last election, that the tone and substance of debates have in fact changed, as has question period.

I will not attempt any kind of causal analysis of this, but the structure of our Parliament, depending upon our seating, tempts us into thinking all virtue, wisdom and truth lies on the side one happens to be on and all its opposite qualities happen to be on the other. This does contribute in some way to this kind of institutionalized conflict and causes us to forget many times.

I said in the past that, historically, Quebec is the heart of Canada. I am convinced that Bloc Québécois members, my dear colleagues from la belle province, agree with me that, for 75% of the issues, we are on the same side.

We share as members of the House; for 75% of the issues, we are on the same side or we would not be living in a liberal democracy. So often, because of the structure of this institution and particularly question period, we forget that. We tend to think that the 25% of issues that divide us, and seriously and appropriately divide us, are only what matters. What is more important in many ways as a civilized, democratic, decent country is the 75% of things we have in common.

It is a terrible thing to be both a politician and an academic, two terrible professions for wanting to give advice to others. I conclude with this thought. Those who will remain after the next election, whenever it may be, should give some serious thought to the decline in civility in the debate that has occurred in the House of Commons and which occurs daily in question period. If I were a teacher, I would not want to bring high school students into question period any longer.

There is a difference between personal remarks based on animosity and vigorous debate reflecting big differences of judgment. They should see what can be done in the future to restore to our politics in this nation a civilized tone of debate. A tone of debate, in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, acknowledges the human decency and dignity of all other members of the House who recognize this. However we may differ, we are all human and we all have the right to have our inner dignity respected, especially in debate in the House.

Ah, human decency and dignity. I remember you well.

[*] All those recalling the highly democratic process by which the Alliance gobbled up the former Progressive Conservatives is kindly asked to, um, well, just ignore that.

[**] Update: Reports this Friday morning say that the NDP has offered to pair off with the Conservative candidates. No definitive response yet from the Conservative camp, which is apparently considering the offer.

[***] Another update: I should have been a little more careful in describing "en masse" the tributes to retiring MP Ed Broadbent. As Julie points out, the emphasis should be on "some" in "some kind words" when it came to the Conservative Party's turn. Stephen Harper was absent (the only party leader not to speak), leaving John Reynolds to deliver some appropriate sentiments sadly mixed up with, in the words of Jon Stewart, some "partisan hackery". Read Julie's comment for a couple of the choice quotes from Hansard -- one of them just mean-spirited and the other just plain silly in light of the NDP's current support of the Liberal party.

Posted by anatole at May 12, 2005 11:18 PM

once I got over my panic (Ed's leaving? now who will I vote for???) and then my shame (how could I be so selfish when his wife is so ill?), I decided to read the kind words in the Hansard. Well, as if I wasn't already disappointed enough in the Conservatives. Not the time or place, John, not the time or place. Sigh.

"He made history ... the NDP had 43 members in this chamber... I think I can say, in a bit of a partisan way, that he can retire secure in the knowledge that his record will never be broken, at least not in the next election."

"One would think that a Conservative and a socialist could not agree on anything, but that simply is not true. We were absolutely in total agreement that the Liberals had to be replaced."

Posted by: julie at May 13, 2005 01:21 PM

Nicely written, Anatole. I agree with you that the histrionics in and around the House are nothing short of ridiculous. There are games within games, and headfakes and gabmits galore. I, for one, am not convinced that the Liberals even want this budget to be passed.

I'm also extremely confused by the Conservative tactics. Were I them, I'd go for a political slow-play, taking advantage of every opportunity to snipe within the House and the public eye, and the time to run towards the center on certain issues that the soft supporters of Liberals find contentious with the Tories (ie: ask for a free vote on gay marriage now, while the Liberals are in the house to get that the hell out of the way.)

But, the fact remains that they did take the only avenue available to express non-confidence, and that was completely ignored by the Liberals. That's the real "crisis" we're dealing with: what happens when a seated government ignores not the rule of Parliament, but certainly the spirit and the tradition.

Posted by: Mike Beltzner at May 13, 2005 02:51 PM

This just got really twisted...Belinda Stronach crossed the floor to join the Liberal Cabinet! She was elected for the first time less than a year ago and now she's in cabinet...quite the coup.

Posted by: Mike at May 17, 2005 10:58 AM