Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Unparliamentary

This afternoon in Ottawa, there was a minor altercation in the House of Commons. Following a contentious debate, including some attempts at minor political maneuvering on behalf of the NDP, Conservative house leader Peter Van Loan reportedly gave NDP leader Thomas Mulclair the finger, and then berated the NDP with a series of expletives. The NDP called his actions "unparliamentary," while the Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner suggested that such an exchange had no place in the House of Commons.

Of course, that kind of depends on who you ask. The idealist view may be that the House of Commons is a place of debate among gentlemen, where mutual respect and the spirit of cooperation transcends party politics. Traditionally, however, this has not been the case at all.

The reality is that the House of Commons has long been a place where grown men gather to yell, threaten, mock, and generally behave like children. Anyone who has ever watched a remotely contentious debate has probably been amazed at the way the MPs all yell over one another, and refuse to respect the system in place to determine who has a right to speak. They chant, intentionally stray off topic, ignore questions, and generally act no better than a group of fifth graders in an assembly if all the teachers left the room. The House of Commons is truly an appropriate name.

This is nothing new, either. In 1971, Pierre Trudeau was accused of saying some inappropriate things to opposing MPs (he claimed what he said was "fuddle duddle" but nobody believed him). The incident was recently brought back up in the media after his son, Justin Trudeau, also used some inappropriate language in parliament.

Many of these incidents are now public record. Transcripts from the debates in the Canadian House of commons are archived at parl.gc.ca, though the majority of the debates are dry as bone. Mixed in with the mind-numbingly dull speeches, however, are nearly one hundred and fifty years of insults.

Even Sir John A. Macdonald, the great man without whom this country might well not exist, was as bad as anyone. While verbal insults flew wildly around parliament in Macdonald's days, there are also stories that he occasionally needed to be restrained to keep from physically assaulting opposition MPs.

The only difference, I might argue, is that at one time these disruptions and poor behaviours were truly crimes of passion by men who cared about serving the country. Today, they seem more contrived to make people believe they care. Also, the insults in Macdonald's days were both more clever and more original. Today's scandals are boring by comparison.

Update: The Star has published a list of some of the more recent incidents. However, the best ones, in my opinion, are those from the earliest days of parliament.

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