NAME-CALLING IS OUT AS LIBERALS PLEDGE TO GIVE MPs A BIGGER ROLE IN PARLIAMENT
OTTAWA'S NEW OIVILITY
NAME-CALLING IS OUT AS LIBERALS PLEDGE TO GIVE MPs A BIGGER ROLE IN PARLIAMENT
Many things were different, but many were just the same as a new Parliament opened last week, 84 days after voters passed harsh judgment on the preceding one. Along with the pomp and the speech from the throne outlining the intentions of the Liberal government came hand-over-heart promises from MPs of all stripes of a new civility, some tough words on national unity and frequent declarations that the country’s muchabused political class has learned its lessons. One of the biggest changes was that Parliament itself seems destined to play a larger role in governing the country.
The government will introduce rule changes, probably this week, designed to give MPs much more clout to influence government policy. “These reforms are designed to create greater confidence in the House of Commons as the central institution of the Canadian government,” Government House Leader Herb Gray said in an interview.
The new determination to expand MPs’ power, a sharp break from the practice of the Mulroney and Trudeau years, may owe as much to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s view of politics as to the push by Reform Leader Preston Manning for a makeover in the way Ottawa works. Chrétien told MPs last week that Canadians voted to make Parliament relevant— and he shares that goal. The Liberals’ desire to address the public perception that Ottawa is corrupt and out of touch was prominently expressed in the throne speech, coming even before promises to promote economic growth. Echoing familiar themes of the party’s election campaign, the government promised to appoint an ethics counsellor to advise ministers and officials, reform the much-criticized lobbying industry and overhaul MPs’ generous pension plan. But it is the government’s new approach to the Commons that may be most quickly apparent—as early as this week—when the House debates Canadian peacekeeping commitments and cruise missile testing. Next week, in another departure, MPs will debate what could be in Finance Minister Paul Martin’s budget, which is scheduled to be introduced in the last half of February. The new approach is an attempt, Gray said, to let them influence budgetary decisions well before they are made. “One of the changes we want to make,” he added, “is to make the House of Commons, more than it has been under the previous government, the centre of discussion of major issues.”
If the Commons is going to become what Chrétien calls “the living room of the nation,” the centre of political life, it will have to become a place where politicians can be heard without raising their voice above the jeers and the catcalls. “We’re trying to keep the heckling down,”
said Gray. Gray has also instructed cabinet ministers to respond in Question Period with concise and informative answers. Even Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, who cut her political teeth as a member of the Liberals’ aggressive “rat pack” of opposition MPs in the mid-1980s, joined the chorus. Rhetoric is out and substance is in, she said, pointing to the 17-minute throne speech itself as the prime example.
Not only the government was vowing to raise the tone of political debate. Gilbert Parent, elected as the new Commons Speaker, said he would work with all MPs “to restore dignity and respect in the House.” Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard said political debate should never “degenerate into personal confrontation.” Bloc MP Louis Plamondon said that is a lesson voters across the country hammered home last fall, and one that Bouchard makes sure his caucus understands. Said Plamondon: “He says you have to be correct, no shouting.” The civility that marked the new Commons’ first Question Period on Wednesday was encouraging, Plamondon said. “It was more interesting,” he noted. “The questioner had the time to ask the question, the minister had the time to answer.” Reform MPs found some good things to say about the throne speech and even refrained from taking all the time allotted to them in Question Period. “I don’t think we will ask questions just to use up our time,” said Calgary MP Stephen Harper. Deborah Grey, the only Reform MP in the previous Parliament, said her party will back government measures when they deserve support. “We won’t just say that because we’re the opposition, we’re going to oppose everything,” she declared.
In his first-ever question as an MP, Manning experimented in direct democracy, posing a query that had come from an interested citizen through the party’s fax-machine hotline. Dean Eyre, an Ottawa psychoanalyst and Reform supporter, wanted to know if the government knew how many jobs it could have created if it cut taxes by $2 billion instead of spending that amount on its infrastructure program. In reply, Chrétien noted that total spending was $6 billion because the provinces and municipalities are putting in equal shares, and he insisted that the program is a “big success”—and even mayors in Reform-held ridings support it. Eyre was not impressed, telling a reporter later that it was the “usual political drivel.”
The temper of the Commons and the desire for a higher standard of decorum was tested early. The issue was Quebec, as Bouchard used his maiden speech as Leader of the Opposition to tell Canadians that they are living a lie, that English Canada has ignored the crisis of the federation. “No one can trivialize the shift represented by the decision some two million voters have made to send 54 members here to pave the way for Quebec’s sovereignty,” he declared. But moments after promising a debate that was “courteous though intense,” Bouchard pointedly went after Chrétien, calling the Prime Minister “the very man who led the assault against Quebec in 1981,” when Ottawa patriated the Constitution without Quebec’s consent. Chrétien later told the Commons that he did not want to get into a “sterile” constitutional debate, preferring instead to deal with economic matters, and left it to Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet to take on Bouchard. Ouellet’s role in the debate was a clear indication that while Hull MP Marcel Massé is minister of intergovernmental affairs, Ouellet will be Chrétiens
point man on national unity. Ouellet’s tone in the debate was as tough as Bouchard’s, but Peter Donoio, Chrétien’s communications adviser, was unapologetic. “It’s important not to let demagoguery go unchecked,” he said.
Gray’s proposed rule changes are in line with the government’s throne speech promise to enhance parliamentary credibility. The main effect of the changes, he said, will be to give MPs more say. For the first time, the government will allow parliamentary committees to prepare government bills and give them more latitude to change bills drafted by the government. Commons committees would continue to examine government spending plans but would be given the added power to suggest spending priorities for the following year. MPs will also get a larger role in shaping the budget. The government intends to give the Commons finance committee the task each autumn of asking Canadians their advice on budget measures. The proposals, which have already been discussed with the opposition, will not, however, deal with two critical areas. Rules for the daily 45-minute Question Period will not be touched because Gray does not want to tread on what he believes is key opposition turf without more consultation. And the rule changes will say nothing about free votes and votes of confidence in the government. But Gray said the government intends to define votes of confidence more narrowly. That will mean more votes in which MPs can vote according to their conscience or the wishes of their constituents, rather than being forced to follow the party line.
The attempts at civility were not the only new feature of the new Parliament. The Commons, with 205 rookie MPs, looked different as well as sounded different—with a record number of women and visible minorities. “I look around this House. I see these members of different colors, religions and languages,” said Chrétien, who chose two black MPs— Pierrette Ringuette Maltais from New Brunswick and Ovid Jackson from Ontario— for the ceremonial task of moving and seconding the throne speech. Jean Augustine, the Toronto MP who is Chrétien’s parliamentary secretary, is also black. Janko Peric, from Cambridge, Ont., told the Commons that he is the first Croatian-born MP, and Gurbax Malhi of Bramalea, Ont., one of two Sikhs in the new Commons, made a short speech marking the birthday of the 10th guru of the Sikh religion.
The political goodwill of the first week will almost certainly evaporate soon. “It’s a bit excessively civil now because people are a bit tense,” said Reformer Harper. “The government is in its new role and we’re asking questions for the first time.” But at the same time, MPs are adamant that they do not want the Commons to drift back to the sterile confrontations that marred the last Parliament, and almost all agree that less shouting will not make for tepid debate. “A better sense of decorum and more civility doesn’t mean that people should not be able to express their ideas strongly and forcefully,” maintained Gray. “That’s what Canadians expect”
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