CANADA

IN THE HOT SEAT

The pressure is on House Speaker Gilbert Parent

E. KAYE FULTON February 19 1996
CANADA

IN THE HOT SEAT

The pressure is on House Speaker Gilbert Parent

E. KAYE FULTON February 19 1996

IN THE HOT SEAT

The pressure is on House Speaker Gilbert Parent

CANADA

E. KAYE FULTON

The portable billboard read “Boot the Bloc”—a notso-subtle message to Welland, Ont.’s favorite former jock and longtime member of Parliament, Gilbert Parent. For maximum effect during the first two weekends of February, local Reform party activists wheeled the 4-by-8-foot sign into the empty downtown lot beside the Knights of Columbus hall and, more to the point, directly across from Parent’s constituency office. Preston Manning’s Reformers did not expect to puncture the popularity of Gibby Parent, MP: his nearest competitor in the 1993 federal election, Reform’s Don Johnstone, was a distant 13,000 votes behind. Their message was directed at the Hon. Gilbert Parent, Speaker of the House of Commons—a person, perhaps the only one, with the power to dethrone the separatist Bloc Québécois, and to install Reform in its place as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Even then, the Reformers knew that the billboard was a futile gesture. “Gib’s not going to be influenced by a sign,” sighed Johnstone. “He’s going to make the decision as he feels it should be made, quite properly and within precedent.”

Whether or not he decides at all, Parent will be scrutinized by more than his southern Ontario political rivals when the 36th Parliament opens on Feb. 27. In his 18thcentury, black sheriff’s jacket and bleached-white tabbed shirt, Parent is the genial referee of Question Period, the two-hour daily dose of political puffery and eloquence, pettiness and grandeur that has become Canada’s leastadmired public forum. During what is likely to be the last Parliament before a federal election, the scene from the 33rd Speaker’s green velvet seat at the north end of the Commons does not promise to be any prettier. The outcome of six federal byelections called last week for March 25 could make the question of Parent’s ruling on the Reform-Bloc issue academic—by breaking the tie between the two parties, now with 52 seats apiece. But the bitter argument over whether a party dedicated to dismantling Canada is a suitable Opposition remains a disquieting focus of the frustration that spills from MPs’ benches into the nation’s debate about its future. “My predecessors came through wars, depressions, scandals,” Parent told Maclean's. “When they locked up, the country was still together. This is my watch. When I leave, I want it to be together, too.”

As Parent himself describes it, that may take the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of David and the patience of Job. Never before has a federal Speaker been faced with the unpleasant task of choosing an official Opposition. While the Bloc is all but guaranteed to maintain former party leader Lucien Bouchard’s Lac-St-Jean riding, an upset by Reform in one of the three Ontario or Newfoundland ridings would maintain the tie between the two parties and could place Parent in the awkward

position of having to rule on a point of order, filed by Reform last December.

That objection in part demands that the issue be settled by a vote of all opposition politicians, including the nine New Democrats, two Tories and two Independents—a vote Reform knows it would likely win. Known for his refusal to make on-the-spot decisions, Parent and his officials have scoured provincial and international precedents for options. “This is a question that has to be settled by the law that we have agreed on,” said Parent.

“Change the rules, and I will follow the rules. Am I going to rule on emotion or pressure? No.”

Elected by his fellow MPs in 1994 after a seven-hour contest that he won by only two votes, the former highschool vice-principal has presided with mixed reviews over one of the most rau-

cous parliamentary sessions in recent history. Sixteen years as a Liberal backbencher prepared Parent for the often awkward attempts by 295 MPs, all but 90 of them rookies, to either jostle for attention or avoid an issue. “I know what the hell they’re doing, the tricks they pull,” says Parent, who has expelled four MPs since 1994 and intervened in more than 80 disputes. Controlling a volatile atmosphere is another matter, a delicate balance of flexibility and strict adherence to rules of procedure. As Parent cheerily admits: “You have to set a tone. If you bumble, it’s better than coming out with a closed fist. But when you do move, it has to be decisive:

I’m gonna shoot you, bang.”

Many of the impressions that disillusioned Canadians will form of the politicians they elected depend on how well, or poorly, the 60-year-old former football coach does his job in the next two years. An affable if uninspiring backbencher with few ties to the Liberal elite—a combination of qualities that appealed to fellow MPs—

Parent has earned a certain notoriety as Speaker. Last September, Liberal colleagues were furious over what they regarded as Parent’s generosity in rulings concerning the Bloc. Reform MPs, meanwhile, used a stopwatch to measure the time that Parent allotted to former Bloc leader Lucien Bouchard. Cut off in mid-flight by Parent on several occasions, Alberta Reform MP Deborah Grey, for one, carries no grudge. “We may think at times that he’s not given us 10 seconds long enough,” said Grey. “But through all the emotion of the last year, Gib never lost it in the chair.”

Federalists may not like some of the words they hear in the Commons, but Parent is unapologetic about an elected MP’s right to utter them. While he vehemently disagrees with Bouchard’s separatist arguments, Parent considers the Quebec premier “the best parliamentarian I have ever seen. With his words, his incisive questions, he raised your emotions. He pushes you against the wall.” As for charges of favoritism,

Parent notes that he also overlooked

Ottawa Liberal MP Marlene Catterall’s rambling but impassioned speech in defence of Canadian unity during last October’s referendum campaign when he noticed that the entire House was listening spellbound. “Do I say, ‘It’s time to move on, you’re out of order?’ ” asked Parent. “She had to get it out. The House wanted to hear her.”

To the horror of the parliamentary security staff he oversees, Parent has also opened up the inner sanctum. Once settled into the sumptuous Speaker’s quarters, which includes two private dining rooms as well as a 5,000-square-foot country estate in Kingsmere, Que., Parent ordered that the floor of the House of Commons be opened to tourists when the House is not in session. Recalled Parent: “Someone said, They’ll wear out the carpet.’ I said, WeTl buy a new one.’ ” The House did just that last summer, at a cost of $25,000. “They said, They’ll scratch the desks,’ ” Parent continued. “I said, We’ll paint them.’ ‘Oh yes,’ they said, ‘but see here by the chair and the desk, the handicapped can’t get through.’ I said, Take the desk out.’ ” Still not satisfied, he demanded that the historic mace, usually only seen at the opening of Parliament, be prominently displayed. “It’s true, it’s covered in plastic,” said Parent. “But it’s there.”

While he clearly revels in the perks of his $132,000-a-year job, Parent has taken unusual measures to protect his enrolment in the

THE BATTLES AHEAD

The outcome of six federal byelections called for March 25 may decide which party forms the official Opposition in the House of Commons. The outlook:

ETOBICOKE NORTH: Former trade minister Roy MacLaren beat the second-place Reform party challenger by almost 19,000 votes in 1993. This time, Reform hopes to make a breakthrough in southern Ontario.

LAG-ST-JEAN No surprises expected here—located deep in Quebec’s sovereigntist heartland, Lucien Bouchard’s former federal riding will almost certainly be kept by the Bloc Québécois.

PAPINEAU/ST-MICHEL: New International Cooperation Minister Pierre Pettigrew faces a challenge in this central Montreal riding. The former stronghold of former foreign affairs minister André Ouellet is 75-per-cent francophone, and the Bloc lost by fewer than 5,000 votes in 1993.

ST-LAURENT/CARTIERVILLE; New Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion is considered a shoo-in in this mainly non-francophone Montreal riding.

HUMBER/ST. BARBE/BAIE VERTE: How safe is safe? In this case, pretty well locked up for the Liberals: former federal fisheries minister and now Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin held this riding for 16 years, winning by a landslide in 1993.

LABRADOR: Apart from one four-year blip, Labrador has voted Liberal since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. Among those seeking the Liberal nomination are former fishermens’ union heavyweight Richard Cashin and Gladys March, a sister of former premier Clyde Wells.

mildly chauvinistic just-one-of-the-boys club of MPs. Recalling that he entered the Speaker’s chambers only twice as a backbencher, he often invites groups of MPs to lunch, once chiding a Reform member over soup about his low esteem for the political profession. A devout Roman Catholic who urges MPs and Senators to seek their “inner voices” at weekly parliamentary prayer meetings, Parent often shocks visitors and friends alike with his locker-room vocabulary. Declaring that he wants to bring good manners back to politics, he still defends politicians’ natural combativeness. The voters’ desire that their representatives behave well in Ottawa, Parent says, conflicts with their desire that MPs fight for their interests, and, he adds, “As the guy said, fighting for peace is like screwing for chastity.”

And he pines openly for a camaraderie that his position does not allow. Once, passing northern Ontario Liberal MP Bob Wood in the corridor, Parent hailed his former roommate with a familiar “Hey, Bobby, how’s your ass?” Responded Wood: “Mr. Speaker, beautiful day.” As Parent tells the story, he peered into Wood’s face. “Mr. Speaker?” he said. “It’s me, Gib. I mean, we walked around in our shorts. What the hell is this?” Added Parent: “Only in dire circumstances do I think of myself as Mr. Speaker.” At a crucial time in the nation’s history, though, dire circumstances are the order of the day—making the option of being just plain Gib a luxury that Parent cannot afford. □