After Nathalie Normandeau arrest, decorum meltdown at National Assembly

Since applause was banned last year, Quebec's National Assembly often sounds like a university debating society. But decorum among MNAs has been strained of late. It went into full-on meltdown mode after Nathalie Normandeau's arrest.

Party leaders, MNAs at centre of heated debates, shouting matches

Decorum has been strained lately at the Quebec National Assembly. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Since applause was banned last year, Quebec's National Assembly often sounds more like a university debating society than a tavern full of drunken sailors, to which some other legislatures have been compared.

But decorum among MNAs has been strained of late. Earlier this month, Premier Philippe Couillard compared Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault to Donald Trump and the Front National, France's far-right political party. 

Legault didn't take the comparisons as a compliment. 

Decorum meltdown 

The recent arrest of former Liberal deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau on fraud and corruption charges, however, has torn asunder whatever ties remained to civil discourse. 

Attempts last week by Speaker Jacques Chagnon to rein in debate on the Normandeau affair were met by howls of protest, accusations he was a government stooge and suggestions he seek legal advice. 

Chagnon, a Liberal, repeatedly blocked the opposition from asking questions about Normandeau, citing rules that prevent members from discussing matters that are before the courts. 

That didn't go over well with the three parties that sit across from the Liberals, who felt Chagnon was being overly partisan in his interpretation of the rules. 

Former Quebec deputy premier Nathalie Normandeau was arrested by UPAC in March. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

"Mr. Speaker, we're witnessing several interventions on your part that are putting us in a situation where what corresponds to facts and truth becomes lies and unacceptable," Québec Solidaire's Amir Khadir said. 

After question period, Khadir wondered if Chagnon was "under pressure from the party in power" and called on him to seek an independent legal opinion about the rules he was citing to prevent questions about Normandeau. 

Legault also hinted Chagnon was doing the Liberals' bidding.

"I don't know what kind of discussions Mr. Chagnon and the Liberals are having," Legault told reporters. "You'll have to ask them."

A seething Legault went on to add: "There is dirty money in the Liberal party. We can say that the party is rotten."

When the Liberals objected to Legault's comment, he defended himself by saying he was simply quoting Shakespeare's line about the state of Denmark. 

Not to be outdone, Health Minister Gaétan Barrette accused of Legault of "petty partisan politics that I'd call pathetic."

Couillard appealed for calm. He stood the next day in the National Assembly and delivered an impassioned plea for principled debate.

He then said he would let Legault "bathe by himself in the gutter."

A round of insults

The National Assembly's speaker has struggled in recent weeks to maintain decorum in the blue room. 

Last month, Chagnon suspended proceedings for a half-hour after Liberal MNAs erupted in applause. That's been a no-no since last fall, when the legislature unanimously agreed to ban clapping during question period in order to improve the quality of debate. 

Government House Leader Jean-Marc Fournier emerged chastened after the time-out and apologized. 

And Barrette himself was forced to apologize earlier this month.

He had accused the Parti Québécois's health critic, Diane Lamarre, of backing a plan by pharmacists to overcharge private insurers in 2010 when she was president of the Quebec Order of Pharmacists. He told reporters that Lamarre was in "a permanent conflict of interests" when it came to prescription drug issues. 

Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette eventually apologized for his comments. (Canadian Press/Jacques Boissinot)

"Virulence is the trademark of parliamentary life," Barette initially replied when asked if he would retract his comments. 

He eventually apologized, but not before the situation escalated in the National Assembly. 

Parti Québécois Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau went so far as to pen a letter addressed to Couillard, asking him to rein in Barrette's behaviour.

In a bout of anger, Péladeau also called Barrette a "Tartuffe" — a wink to a Molière character known as a hypocrite.

With files from Radio-Canada and la Presse Canadienne


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