Politics·Analysis

An unruly Parliament shows signs of nuanced life: Aaron Wherry

There was a certain, and perhaps blessed, unruliness to the end of Parliament's spring. And set against the discipline that defines modern politics, that which has made an art form of the talking point, such behaviour can seem like welcomed signs of life.

'We are seeing ... discussions in this place that quite frankly I've not seen in 11 years'

There was a mild unruliness in Parliament this spring, which included some MPs voting independently on occasion. (Canadian Press)

There was a certain, and perhaps blessed, unruliness to the end of Parliament's spring. Something like signs of life.

On the eve of its adjournment this week, the Senate sent a second bill back to the House of Commons. Less than a week after the Senate suggested the House reconsider C-14, the government's legislation on medically assisted death, the newly detached Senate returned an amended version of C-7, the government's bill on RCMP unionization.

"We are seeing governance and discussions in this place that quite frankly I've not seen in 11 years," said Liberal Senator Larry Campbell, who both sponsored C-7 in the upper chamber and supported the amendments.

The House had adjourned by then, having experienced its own moments of messiness.

On Tuesday last week, four Liberals split with their party on the rather serious question of whether ISIS was guilty of genocide (two days later, the government agreed that it was), and eight Liberals and three New Democrats broke away on a private member's bill to increase the charitable tax deduction.

Last Thursday, there was the novelty of a Liberal MP, Robert-Falcon Ouellette, filibustering the finance committee. And then Liberals and Conservatives once again divided over C-14, a bill that had been prominently opposed by Rob Oliphant, the Liberal MP appointed by the government to co-chair a study on medically assisted death.

Then, during question period the next day, Liberal MP Bill Casey hounded his own side about the case of a military veteran in need of a bed.

Liveliness in Parliament

Set against the discipline that defines modern politics, that which has made an art form of the talking point, such stuff seems vaguely chaotic. Or at least lively.

As if we might be living in a complex democracy that does not strictly adhere to straightforward progress and simple distinctions.

Liveliness here is not to be confused with dysfunction or nastiness or unnecessary discord. Noise can be a sign of life, but politicians need not necessarily scream at each other to show that Parliament is working as it should.

Liveliness might simply be defined as the opposite of the regimented and rote.

The Stephen Harper era was taken to be synonymous with a certain degree of control: of the message, the narrative, the caucus, Parliament, official communication, public servants and so forth.
Stephen Harper's Conservative government valued discipline for the sake of limiting unflattering distractions. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives first came to power with a minority in the House; the government's existence was precarious. And in the preceding years, they had come to prize discipline for the sake of limiting unflattering distractions.

All of which made sense strategically, even if it also helped prevent the national debate from being particularly robust. But then it was the pursuit of control that got the government stuck in the soul-crushing Duffy affair.

Still not quite free-spirited

It's not quite that the Liberals have ushered in a wholly different era of free-spirited democracy.

Justin Trudeau's ministers aren't as often seen in question period reading carefully from printed scripts, but members of the Liberal cabinet can still be heard relaying anodyne and non-specific platitudes. (They at least have the decency to memorize those talking points.)

The government has imposed time allocation on several bills. And there was that business of the semi-infamous Motion No. 6.

But in the wake of the prime minister's attempt to impose physical control over the proceedings of the House — the semi-infamous elbow — his government decided to abandon that bid for procedural control. And then it agreed to surrender the balance of power on the committee that will study electoral reform.

"We heard the opposition's concerns that we were perhaps behaving in a way that was resembling more the previous government," the prime minister explained.

Trudeau's foray into a group of opposition MPs on the floor of the House of Commons led to apologies and, ultimately, a change of course. (Handout/House of Commons/Canadian Press)

Giving democracy room to breathe

Ideally, that epiphany might inspire the government to give democracy even more room to breathe.

Casey's question last Friday could be a case in point. Typically, the questions lobbed by backbench members of the governing party serve as nothing more than setups for ministers to highlight news of the government's latest good deed. Backbenchers asking something more like actual questions — not necessarily scathing, but at least not seemingly scripted softballs — might be more befitting a mature democracy.

Wholesale reform of the Access to Information system — perhaps as recently recommended by a House committee — could open government and broaden the debate around it.

Having the House elect committee chairs and members would give those committees even greater independence.

Adding a mechanism whereby e-petitions could trigger debates in the House would put more of the House's time beyond the power of the whips.

Of course, the incentives and motivations that keep partisans in line will remain. And, out of view, there might be myriad ways to keep everyone in line, though no doubt the Liberals have some incentive to demonstrate "real change" in their behaviour.

It would also be overly simplistic to decide that an MP's value should be solely determined by his or her willingness to go rogue. And however much thoughtfulness should be appreciated and valued, the legislature is still justifiably a place for blunt conflict.

But Parliament isn't merely a widget factory for passing legislation, nor is it an arena for opposing monolithic hordes. Nuance is periodically welcome.

A looser Parliament might be a better Parliament.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.