OTTAWA - Opposition parties, and even some Tories, are urging the Speaker to stem the tide of partisan vitriol in the House of Commons before it becomes an all-party war of mutual rhetorical annihilation.
They want Andrew Scheer to clamp down on the trash talk that's turning members' statements — the 15-minute interval preceding question period each day — into little more than a series of nasty partisan attack ads.
Members' statements are intended to give MPs a chance to address the Commons for up to one minute on any matter they choose — tributes to deceased constituents, events in their ridings, causes dear to their hearts.
Partisan shots have always been part of the mix but for the past few years the Conservatives have been systematic in using member's statements to orchestrate repeated, scripted verbal broadsides against the leader of the Opposition. They did it to Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, despite repeated rebukes by former Speaker Peter Milliken, and now they're doing it to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
But the NDP is now starting to respond in kind and Nathan Cullen, the party's House leader, is worried the partisan sniping will only escalate if Scheer doesn't put a stop to it.
"The problem is that when you see it day after day after day, there's a tendency to want to retaliate and bring the tone of debate even lower than it is now," Cullen said in an interview.
Cullen has told Scheer the NDP would fully support him were he to cut off MPs who abuse members' statements and he intends to speak to him again this week to say, "I think this is getting worse, not better."
"If the Speaker doesn't clamp down then it's hard for me to hold off my attack dogs because they say, 'They're punching our party or leader in the nose every day, we need to respond.'"
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae is also urging Scheer to step in.
"He could rule them out of order, very simply," Rae said last week.
"(Members' statements) were not intended to be partisan rants that are written by 25-year-old enthusiasts in the Prime Minister's Office."
Even some Tories want Scheer to put an end to partisan attacks during members' statements. Cullen said some Tory backbenchers have privately told him they're embarrassed by the sophomoric scripts and have refused to read them.
In a fascinating blog post last week, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper described how the tactic was initially to use only the last statement before question period to attack and destabilize the Opposition leader just as he was about to rise to ask the first question of the day. Keith Beardsley bemoaned that it's now become "standard practice" for most members' statements.
"In my opinion, this has been one of the contributing factors to the caustic atmosphere you now see on a daily basis in the House of Commons."
Beardsley said the Speaker should formulate strict, new guidelines for members' statements or "do away with them altogether."
Heather Bradley, spokeswoman for Scheer, said the Speaker "is mindful of the importance of ensuring exchanges in the House are civil and courteous.
"At the same time, all members enjoy freedom of speech, which the Speaker must protect and, unless statements are clearly and undoubtedly out of order or are creating disorder, the Speaker does not intervene."
Bradley added that Scheer is guided by previous rulings by Milliken and listens carefully to statements "to ensure they do not veer into blatant personal attacks."
Milliken vetoed personal attacks during members' statements, noting that the targets have no opportunity to respond, unlike question period or debates in the Commons. He occasionally cut off MPs mid-statement and went so far as to warn one Tory backbencher he'd be suspended from the Commons if he continued using his statements to launch personal attacks on Ignatieff.
The Tories adapted their approach to avoid Milliken's wrath. They took to issuing scathing assessments of an unidentified politician, whom they would identify as Ignatieff only at the very end of their statements — when it was too late for Milliken to cut them off.
More recently, the Tories appear to have finetuned the tactic to avoid anything that Scheer could deem a direct personal attack.
Since Parliament resumed two weeks ago, two to four Tory backbenchers each day have used members' statements to hammer away at Mulcair's alleged plot to impose a "reckless," "sneaky" "job-killing" carbon tax that would "raise the price of everything, including gas, groceries and electricity" — regardless of the fact that Mulcair has actually proposed a cap and trade system similar to that proposed by the Conservatives themselves in 2008.
The statements have focused on the alleged policy, rather than on Mulcair personally, making it harder for Scheer to find grounds to rule them out of order.
And so the NDP has begun to strike back with its own attack statements.
"Conservatives care more about making up a tax on the Opposition than acting on Canadians' priorities," Toronto New Democrat Dan Harris said in one such retaliatory statement.
"Perhaps the next Conservative speaker will throw away his anti-NDP rant and instead tell Canadians exactly what their government is planning to do about rising gas prices."
Cullen said the NDP is allowing itself one statement a day to be "a little more forceful" and is trying to inject a bit of humour into them so as not to be as "spiteful" as the Tories.
However, last Friday, New Democrat MP Jinny Sims appeared to link anti-abortion Tory MPs to white supremacists in a particularly incendiary statement.
"We're not pure on this either," Cullen allowed.
"It's hard if you just don't see anything changes, if all you're getting is slammed constantly. I see the emails, people urging us to fight back, fight fire with fire, and we resist most of those calls. Yeah, decorum, it's easier to say than to do."
Earlier on HuffPost:
NDP MPs Heckle Green Party Leader Into Silence
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/09/20/elizabeth-may-ndp-heckling_n_1901456.html">NDP MPs heckle Elizabeth May</a>.
Trudeau Calls Kent Piece of 'S--t'
Canada's Environment Minister doesn't know what ozone is?
NDP MPs Phone Goes Off In House ... Twice
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/06/20/jack-harris-phone-question-period-rings_n_1613370.html">NDP MP Jack Harris' phone goes off in Parliament</a>.
Rob Anders (Conservative MP) falls asleep in Parliament
Rob Anders, the same MP who called Nelson Mandela a "terrorist," falls asleep in the House of Commons (From Question Period on November 17, 2011)
Tory MP Quotes MLK In Gun Speech
Tory MP <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/04/05/long-gun-registry-mlk-john-williamson_n_1406397.html" target="_hplink">John Williamson quotes Martin Luther King Jr.</a> in speech celebrating death of the long-gun registry.
NDP MP does his hair, appears to fall asleep in Parliament
NDP MP Jonathan Genest-Jourdain (Manicouagan) does his hair and then appears to fall in asleep in the House of Commons on February 6th, 2012. Follow me on twitter: @sleepyrobanders - www.twitter.com
NDP MP does his hair in Parliament again
From February 16th 2012 - only a couple of days after being mocked nationally for having fallen asleep in the House of Commons, NDP MP Jonathan Genest-Jourdain (Manicouagan) makes a joke out of a serious motion on First Nations education by primming his hair before speaking. Follow me on twitter: @sleepyrobanders - www.twitter.com
Conservative MP Jim Hillyer celebrates vote against the gun registry with gunshot gestures
Conservative MP Jim Hillyer (Lethbridge) celebrates vote against the gun registry with gunshot gestures.
Conservative Jim Hillyer "apologizes" for air gun gesture
Vic Toews vs. Vic Toews
NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan thinks Canada has only 9 million people
Sleeping in the House of Lords
House of Lords
NDP MP Does Hair In House
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/13/djaouida-sellah-hair-video_n_1341877.html">NDP MP Djaouida Sellah does her hair in the House of Commons</a>.
How Much Do Our MPs Make?
Here's a rundown of <a href="http://www.parl.gc.ca/ParlInfo/Lists/Salaries.aspx?Menu=HOC-Politic&Section=03d93c58-f843-49b3-9653-84275c23f3fb&Year=2011" target="_hplink">how much our MPs make</a> depending on their position in the House. (Alamy)
MP - $157,731
The base salary for a Member of Parliament is $157,731. Being named to cabinet or other positions nets an MP extra pay. (<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/scazon/" target="_hplink">Flickr: Scazon</a>)
Government and Opposition Whip - $186,151
NDP MP Nycole Turmel is the Official Opposition Whip. (CP)
Leaders of Other Parties - $211,425
Bob Rae is the interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. (CP)
Minister of State - $214,368
Tim Uppal is the Minister of State for Democratic Reform. Ministers of State are essentially junior cabinet ministers. (CP)
Cabinet Minister - $233,247
Jim Flaherty is Minister of Finance. (CP) All ministers also receive a car allowance of $2,122.
Leader of the Opposition - $233,247
As NDP chief, Thomas Mulair is leader of the Official Opposition. He also receives a $2,122 car allowance. (CP)
Speaker of the House - $233,247
Andrew Scheer is currently serving as speaker. On top of his salary, Scheer receives a rent allowance of $3,000 and a car allowance of $1,061. (CP)
Prime Minister - $315,462
As Prime Minister, Stephen Harper also receives a car allowance of $2,112. (AP)