The sighs of relief were almost audible in Ottawa last week as members of Parliament prepared for a 10-day break. On the floor of the House of Commons and in committee meeting rooms around Parliament Hill, MPs from all parties had launched savage personal attacks on opponents. Indeed, Canada’s 33rd Parliament had degenerated into a cycle of name-calling and cursing that left veteran members shaking their heads—and Commons Speaker John Fraser struggling to maintain order. Said New Democratic House Leader Nelson Riis, an MP since 1980: “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. It’s never gotten to this kind of gutterstyle politics.”
Among recent examples of acrimony was a Commons debate on Oct. 28 during which B.C. New Democrat James Fulton called Brian Mulroney a “lying scum” after the Prime Minister had accused opposition MPs of not supporting Western Canada. And the next day, as a parliamentary committee began hearings into the U.S.-Canada free trade pact, Conservative MP William Kempling labelled Liberal Sheila Copps a “God damn ignorant bitch.”
MPs offered several reasons for the current testiness. Most cited the intensity of the debate on free trade and the prospect of a federal election in the next year. But the dark circles under many eyes suggested another cause: exhaustion. When the House rose last June 30 for its summer recess after an arduous winter session, MPs were told that they would not return until mid-
September. Many decided to work in their constituencies during July and take a vacation in the latter half of August. But the government recalled the House for an emergency session on Aug. 11 to deal with refugee and drug patent legislation, and it has sat ever since. Toronto Tory John Bosley, a former Commons speaker, said that the strain is too great. Said Bosley: “This is not a job where you can work nine to five, 50 weeks a year. When you’re on, you’re on 16 hours a day.”
For his part, Riis laid part of the blame at the feet of Mulroney and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark. Riis said that the two men, particularly Clark, have set the tone with merciless heckling of opposition members during Question Period. That combativeness, he said, contrasts markedly with the reserved style of Finance Minister Michael Wilson. Said Riis: “If they followed Wilson’s lead, the place would be much more civil.”
Even the prospect of quick passage of the drug patent legislation dissolved late last week. For six months the Liberal-dominated Senate had delayed a government bill that would increase market protection for drug manufacturers from four to 10 years. Last week Consumer Affairs Minister Harvie Andre said that he was optimistic the Senate would soon pass a slightly revised version of the bill. But before that could happen, the senators began their own vacation.
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