The condescending, double-speak rebuttal to the question last week in Parliament from the leader of the Opposition on the extent and timeline of the current Canadian Forces mission in Iraq from the prime minister’s principal secretary, Paul Calandra, led to a furor that continues to resonate. That Calandra’s behavior is under scrutiny is a good thing, for he and others like him are denigrating Parliament, and that disrespects all Canadians.
Two days after his ridiculous performance in question period, Calandra, who is known to be the prime minister’s partisan pitbull in the House of Commons, astonished opposition MPs and his own party members alike when he got up in the house to “unconditionally, unreservedly apologize to this House for (his) behaviour.” He was very emotional, almost to the point of tears. The apology included his colleagues, his constituents and the leader of the Opposition. What prompted that extreme turnabout, whether it was feedback from unhappy Conservative party members, a dressing down by Stephen Harper, who had just returned to the country, or perhaps admonitions from his father, who he said later would be unhappy with his performance, something obviously snapped in the man’s mind.
MPs are carefully briefed in advance of question period and their responses are prepared. Calandra must have had assistance in formulating the answers he gave, as well as the strategy of answering important questions with something completely unrelated. After the response, in spite of the fact it was obviously foolish, he was loudly applauded by his fellow Conservatives, complete with desk thumping – typical behaviour by all parties during question period. It is unfortunate that “gong show” and “clown act” are descriptions used by Canadians when they reference Parliament – what should be the most distinguished and respected institution in the land. What goes on during question period in the House of Commons – the public view of Parliament – is not at all distinguished and there is very little respect. Canadians despise it.
Calandra, often the spokesperson for the prime minister, has a history of providing goofy answers to very important questions. This latest incident, when the question is so very important – Canada’s military mission in Iraq – is an indicator that Parliamentary behaviour is getting worse and may become completely out of hand.
The office of the Speaker of the House is supposed to maintain decorum and order. In team sports like hockey where there is a bad referee, things can get out of control quickly and the quality of the game suffers. Scrappy play and cheap shots become the norm, reducing the quality of the game. Fights can even break out if timely interventions by the referee do not put players who take things too far in their place. It is not unusual for mayhem to result. We have all seen that, and nobody likes it. That is where Parliament is now. The Speaker of the House who is supposed to be the referee there is not doing his job well. He has lost control of the game.
There are a number of reasons Canadians should be offended. One is cost. Parliament is extremely expensive to run. It goes without saying that the ruling party has its way, but there must be a collaborative and cooperative element to the give and take between members and parties in order to get the most value from the proceedings. All members of Parliament have positive things to contribute and, if it is run well, those contributions are welcomed and integrated into decision making. That is completely missing now and Parliament is lesser for it.
Partisan divisions within Parliament are mainly to blame. The ruling Conservatives seem to be the worst offenders, but all parties are guilty. It has become the norm to be vehemently polarized. When MPs from another party are undermined by ridicule and taunting solely for partisan reasons, the Canadians who elected those people are also being attacked. Democracy is disrespected.
We have to wonder at the toll it must take on those dedicated representatives of our communities across the country who are subject to that boiler-room atmosphere. Surely few expected brazen disregard and ridicule when they entered political life to serve and improve their country and get important things done. How frustrating it must be. We want our best and brightest to represent us in Parliament, but why would anyone want to subject themselves to such a negative, counter-productive, almost poisonous atmosphere?
The problem is not just Paul Calandra. His behaviour is a symptom of the disease and his apology should not end a matter that is much bigger than he. The Speaker of the House has to take control, end the cat calls and taunting and bring order and respect into the House of Commons. He must also force responses to be on topic with legitimate questions.
We call on Prime Minster Stephen Harper to temper the partisan discord that hangs like a pall over the institution. We also call on House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to step up and do his job properly – enforce the rules of form and decorum in Parliament so it can be the constructive, respectful institution working on behalf of all Canadians that it is supposed to be. Canada’s Parliament needs to be much better than what you are giving us now.