Commons to rise: A House united, a House divided
Spring sitting of Parliament has been acrimonious beyond measure
MPs are expected to rise today or Friday for a long summer break after a sitting that at one point saw members come together almost as a family over an untimely death. Yet, it's been a time many view as one of the most bitter in memory.
Any collegiality among parties cleaved apart, and the so-called spring sitting from January until now has been marked by events that were never imagined when the parliamentary calendar was drawn up.
In March, then finance minister Jim Flaherty resigned, an unusual enough event. A month later he was dead, the news permeating the House of Commons just as MPs were about to begin question period.
A tale of opposites
That, combined with a fracas that occurred just 24 hours earlier, became a tale of opposites that summed up what kind of a sitting it was, according to Independent MP Brent Rathgeber.
Reached by phone in his Edmonton riding, Rathgeber, who quit the Conservative caucus last summer over what he called the government's lack of transparency, described what happened.
"The day before you might recall there was a near fist fight between [Minister of International Trade] Ed Fast and Dan Harris from the NDP," Rathgeber said.
"There was an allegation — it has to do with [NDP MP] Niki Ashton — she had said something and Ed Fast had allegedly done a gun-shooting pointing motion at her."
Harris raised a point of order about the incident, and then Conservative MP Ron Cannan entered the fray.
"I sit very close to Dan Harris – he [Cannan] came charging around the back and asked him to step outside."
It could have meant, "I want to punch your lights out," Rathgeber said, although it didn't come to that.
It was "a complete and total fiasco," he recalled. The next day, a Thursday in April, the news of Flaherty's death shocked the House of Commons.
That day, he said, showed the best of the House with a lot of hugging, commiserating and even praying, and ending with MPs of all stripes visiting Irish pubs that evening to raise a glass of Guinness in Flaherty's memory.
Otherwise, Rathgeber said, the atmosphere has been "fighting like cats and dogs, and getting worse not better, as we get closer and closer to the next election."
A rare breakdown
The sitting has seen a rare breakdown within the clubby atmosphere of the Board of Internal Economy, the secretive all-party committee of MPs that oversees members' expenses. The board has recommended the NDP repay what could come to a little over a million dollars for inappropriate mailings.
Some MPs think because of this unusual gang-up on the NDP from a board that usually settles disputes in secret, any collegiality among parties has evaporated.
"That goodwill, I'll call it, isn't there, so we're looking at each other in the House of Commons waiting for the other side to blink," Conservative MP John Williamson said in an interview.
It was a sitting of game-changing bills being introduced: on how elections are run, on prostitution, on internet privacy and on victims' rights.
Rathgeber thinks that the proposed fair elections act, in particular, should have seen more consensus-building debate. A piece of legislation that fundamentally changes the way governments are elected required some "sort of meeting of the minds, some sort of consensus," he said.
Instead, he continued, the bill was "rammed though," although he concedes some last-minute amendments "made a bad bill palatable," even though he voted against it.
More than 70 closure motions
Both Rathgeber and Liberal MP Wayne Easter point out this sitting saw more than 70 motions of closures limiting debate time on various bills.
Easter said in a phone interview he was also frustrated many of the new Conservative MPs don't know how committees used to work.
"Members on the government side used to move motions against government policy," he said. He now thinks many of the Conservative members are "just a cheering body for executive council."
Some NDP MPs, including NDP House leader Peter Julian, think the government is behaving as if it's actually in opposition. Its opponents, he says, are institutions such as the Supreme Court, Elections Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Office, and even icons such as former auditor general Sheila Fraser.
The government has alleged bias against most of those agencies. It accused Fraser of tailoring her views because she was paid a stipend by Elections Canada.
It claimed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin behaved inappropriately when she tried raise the alarm about appointing a Federal Court judge to represent Quebec on the Supreme Court.
However, the government doesn't think the sitting went badly. Government House leader Peter Van Loan said it was "less partisan" and "more productive" and "very, very pleasant for the government."
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said since her portfolio means she's usually dealing with safety issues, it's been a "good session. There's not a lot of 'gotcha' politics in my files."
In contrast, Easter described the sitting as "the worst that I've seen in my time."
Williamson did point out how different this time next year will be. Next year, it will be "lots of Vitamin C and little sleep" because, "We'll go from the summer into the election."
Under the federal fixed-date election law, Canadian voters will go to the polls Oct. 19, 2015. But the writ will be dropped at least five weeks before, in September, meaning once the House rises next summer, MPs won't be back until there's a new government, and some won't be back at all.