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What Happened to MPs' Pledge to Be More Civil?

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Canadians remember the discussion that Jack Layton initiated on improving decorum and civility in the House. It was a concept that all of the party leaders supported. Here are a few examples:

Jack Layton: "New Democrats have committed to work respectfully, to end heckling and to give this place the decorum that it deserves. Will the government commit today to do the same?" (Hansard, June 6, 2011)

Bob Rae: "I know we are all deeply in favour of decorous behaviour, of behaviour that respects the civility of this place." (From Rae's welcome address to the new Speaker, Hansard, June 2, 2011)

Stephen Harper: "His commitment as leader of the other side to pursue more civil discourse in the House and to seek a constructive approach to opposition won well-deserved praise from all Canadians" (From Harper's tribute to Layton, Hansard, Sept. 19, 2011)

"The civility he brought to debate as Leader of the Opposition and his sincere commitment to proposing constructive solutions set the bar high for us here in the House in terms of the work we do for Canadians." (From Harper's tribute to Layton, Hansard, Sept. 19, 2011)

The question now becomes, how are the honourable members living up to their noble words? While some members are highlighted here, the general practice for Question Period is that it is controlled by the leader and the House leader in each party. They sign off on topics, order and content, although what an MP says when they stand-up can't be controlled. In the case of the Conservatives, approval is given by the prime minister in the ministerial practice session as well as by the House leader and PMO staff. Here are a few examples:

Ms. Megan Leslie (Halifax, NDP): "Mr. Speaker, the prime minister claims that approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project is a complete no-brainer. The problem is that, too often, the Conservatives act without their brains. The government did not use its brain before deciding to support a project that will harm our environment, our economy and our energy security." (Hansard, Sept. 26, 2011)

Mr. David Anderson (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and for the Canadian Wheat Board, CPC): "Mr. Speaker, the NDP members should stop taking the side of the extremists who want to kill Canadian jobs." (Hansard, Sept. 26, 2011)

Mr. Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre, NDP): "Mr. Speaker, the president of the Treasury Board did not invent rum bottle politics or unbridled patronage but he has certainly raised it to a high art. We now know that the member for Parry Sound-Muskoka bought the 2008 election using the public treasury as his personal campaign war chest." (Hansard, Sept. 23, 2011)

Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.): "I think most of the noise was coming from the minister of finance, Mr. Speaker." (Hansard, Sept. 21, 2011)

"I did not know knuckle grazing could cause so much noise, Mr. Speaker." (Hansard, Sept. 21, 2011)

Mr. Rodger Cuzner (Cape Breton--Canso, Lib.): "Mr. Speaker, that is absolutely asinine. The minister says the back-end workers are the only thing that is being changed. Service Canada workers know what she is doing to their back end...Of all the dumb, mean-spirited, ludicrous ideas" (Hansard, Sept. 21, 2011)

Mr. Charlie Angus (Timmins--James Bay, NDP): Mr. Speaker, ... "It was Mr. Muskoka Moneybags himself who bragged to mayors that he could secure money personally from the prime minister for a program that did not exist. His fingerprints are all over this file." (Hansard, Sept. 23, 2011)

And last but not least, let us not forget Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs who has answered questions on the G8 summit even though authority for sign-off at that time was with Infrastructure. Allowing a parliamentary secretary or a minister to get up day after day to regurgitate the same useless answer is a form of disrespect. Such behaviour rightly infuriates opposition members when they have the right under our parliamentary system to ask respectful questions about any issue of their choosing. From Sept. 19 to the 27, Obhrai answered a total of 14 questions in just six days with this one talk point.

"Let me say again that the facts have not changed. This issue has been thoroughly aired. The Auditor General had all the government information. There is nothing more to add." (Hansard, September 26, 2011)

Conservatives should remember a similar defence conducted by the Liberals during the sponsorship scandal when the member for Kings-Hants repeatedly answered with "Let Justice Gomery do his job." It infuriated the Opposition then, just as Obhrai is doing now.

The opposition parties may regret not pursuing Michael Chong's suggested ideas for reforming Question Period. If they had accepted his recommendations they would not have a parliamentary secretary stonewalling them now, nor would PMO be able to dictate who took questions on the G8 spending.

Honourable members still have much work to do to bring civility back to the House.

Keith Beardsley's political blog can be found at www.atory01.com.

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