Time to watch a little question period

Most people don’t have the time or desire to watch question period and given the way it has been going recently that probably isn’t such a bad thing.  It is largely understood that most Canadians take a dim view of the confrontational nature of parliament, but events this week went far beyond the usual theatre that amounts to barbs and heckling.  I am talking about the ridiculous and absurd answers that were given to questions asked by Thomas Mulcair on the nature and length of the military mission Canada has joined in Iraq.

In the absence of the Prime Minister one would expect another minister to reply to the Leader of the Opposition.  The Minister of National Defence or the Minister of Foreign Affairs are two likely candidates given the subject matter.  Not this time, instead of putting up someone with a little clout around the cabinet table, the government chose to assign the job to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister.  The answers provided by this member were insulting to everyone but the most hardened partisan and I’m sure there were many of those embarrassed by the complete disconnect and absolute disrespect for what is acceptable parliamentary language.

To be clear, this wasn’t the artful dodger stuff that can seem to be the fuel that keeps parliament running.  It was an expletive-filled rant attacking New Democrats for a Facebook posting by a supposed staff member of the party dating back to July. 

When the question was asked again in a very clear tone the rude answer was repeated. As it became clear the Parliamentary Secretary would offer only ridicule, expletives, and opinionated attack in response, the Leader of the Opposition asked the Speaker of the House of Commons to intervene.  The Speaker insisted his hands were tied in the matter and eventually punished the Leader of the Opposition for stating an opinion on his effectiveness in the matter.  In doing so, the Speaker may have signalled that swearing is now acceptable parliamentary language. 

A strong piece was published in the Halifax Chronicle in the days following showing how the Speaker is cherry-picking when his hands are tied or not.  The pattern is repeating itself and the article itself is calling for a new Speaker.  While that may be taking the case a little far, it is difficult to defend the notion that the Speaker is neutral.  Perhaps the nature of the position can never allow for that.  I have heard the role of Speaker explained in simple terms as being like an umpire in baseball, except he also plays for one of the teams.

Whether the solution will come from within parliament or elsewhere, something has to give.  The government cannot merely present ridicule and expletive filled conjecture as explanation for its decisions.  I said at the outset that it might not be such a bad thing if people weren’t watching, but perhaps the solution is for enough people to be engaged so the government is called to account from forces outside parliament.   That would be the most democratic response to a problem that deserves to be stopped in its tracks.