In the first year of law school I remember learning one of the most well-known axioms about the law. "The Law," Aristotle once said, "is reason devoid of passion." That might be the case for the laws of the land once they are codified and in force, but it is certainly not the case for the creation of those laws. Parliament is charged with debating and drafting those laws and this debate should be fuelled by passions on all sides.
Our parliamentary democracy is built upon the central tenet that the government will advance the will of the people and will be held in check by loyal opposition voices that provide criticism, accountability and often amendment to the formation of laws that will govern the country. Our Parliament requires passionate advocacy by all Members of the Parliament to function effectively. We don't want our MPs to be dispassionate observers or the "trained seals" that some derogatory accounts of politics would suggest they are. We should want our representatives to bring their experiences, intellect and passion to Ottawa to advance the issues that matter to their constituents, their community and their country.
If we want to improve our democratic institutions like the House of Commons we should actually require more debate and more coverage of it.
The subject of heckling often comes up in criticisms of Parliament. That is often because most Canadians only see brief clips on the news from Question Period, where almost 98 per cent of the heckling might take place. There is actually very little heckling in the House of Commons and virtually none in the committee work done by all MPs. There are hours of debate in the House of Commons and sadly most of this debate, whether stirring or boring, is ignored by the media and most Canadians.
If a non-answer is given in Question Period, a funny heckle should be expected in my books. Winston Churchill heckled and was still respected enough to save the free world and was voted the Greatest Briton ever. My rule of thumb with regard to heckling is to never be personal, never be incessant and to try and elicit a smile from the person heckled. Heckling is an example of an animated House of Commons where people actually care about what is being said.
If we want to improve our democratic institutions like the House of Commons we should actually require more debate and more coverage of it. Debates in our Parliament are important, but sadly it is rarely watched or covered. I have researched and prepared for several important speeches in my time as an MP. I have been startled the odd time to get an email or a tweet from someone watching my speech on a subject because I get so accustomed to speaking to only a few colleagues in the House of Commons.
In the last two weeks in Ottawa one of the most profound debates facing this Parliament has shown the passions of MPs at their best and this passion at its worst. Bill C-14, the assisted dying legislation, has been front and centre both inside the House of Commons and in media coverage across the country.
Like many MPs, I have taken part in the debate in Ottawa, in discussions with my constituents and in media interviews. Parliamentarians on all sides have brought their own views and experiences to the debate and it has been civil and powerful all at once. In what is likely the most important debate of the 42nd Parliament, MPs on both sides of the issue have shown compassion and respect for contrary views in their speeches. They have also revealed their own personal stories of faith, illness and loss in a way that has made the debate itself a powerful and important exercise in helping this new Parliament understand one another better.
One Liberal MP that I regularly disagree with in the House on almost all subjects shares an experience of loss due to cancer similar to mine. We learned that through debate and it has deepened our respect for one another. We should not fear debating difficult or even controversial issues provided that respect is the touchstone. If all MPs and all Canadians approach these subjects with respect, we can all feel better about the outcome whether you support Bill C-14 or not. I have been part of a few interviews and discussions with MPs on the issue of assisted suicide and got to know my colleagues across the aisle and understand their motivations better. This is passion and Parliament at its best.
Sadly, last week also saw Parliament at its worst when the prime minister of Canada allowed his passion to get the better of him and he stormed across the aisle to yell at, and engaged in a scuffle with opposition MPs. Ironically, after days of respectful debate about Bill C-14, the government was using closure to cut off debate on this important subject and the prime minister got into a physical altercation with other MPs as he tried to speed up the process of voting on the closure of debate.
The writing of our laws should not be devoid of passion, but the process must also not be devoid of reason.
I will not make more of this sad incident than has already been made by commentators and news outlets in the last two days, but I will say this. While I accept the prime minister's apology and genuinely believe that he has deep regret for losing his cool, I am profoundly disappointed in this incident because of the example it sets. The prime minister is not just leader of the government and of the Liberal Party. He is Canada's leader and the country and its institutions look to him for leadership by example. Having served in cabinet myself, I can imagine the tremendous pressure and strains that come with the role of prime minister, but it is also a very special privilege and that requires the office to be held to a higher standard of conduct and deportment.
At a time that federal agencies and institutions like the Canadians Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are trying to improve problems in their workplaces, this episode sends a terrible message. All MPs must be accountable and not justifying mistakes or misconduct on the pressure of a job, or as some voices have done on the provocations of others. Leadership is not blaming others for your actions. Politicians are leaders in their communities and the prime minister must always lead by example.
The writing of our laws should not be devoid of passion, but the process must also not be devoid of reason. Respect for one another, for Parliament and for the roles of both sides of our Parliament is fundamental to our parliamentary democracy and must never be taken for granted.
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