Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
MPs of all stripes need to tone down their language
Pat Martin one of Commons' bad boys
OTTAWA -- Every couple of months, someone on Parliament Hill throws out another call for MPs to be nicer to one another.
Everyone nods their heads in agreement, "Oh yes, we must be nicer to each other," while secretly thinking "darn, we're pretty nice people. It's the other side that's not so nice. So yes, I agree, they should be nicer to me."
Which in and of itself is the problem.
Everyone seems to agree decorum should be better, but nobody seems willing to admit they are part of the problem. It's always the other person's fault.
Last week it was newly minted NDP House leader Nathan Cullen making the call for better behaviour. He suggested Speaker Andrew Scheer should pull the parliamentary equivalent of sending badly-behaved MPs to bed without supper.
If an MP ignores Scheer's warning to stop shouting or insulting or performing other such unacceptable antics, Cullen wants Scheer to cut off those MPs -- or their parties entirely -- from asking questions during question period.
Cullen's idea might work if the punishment wasn't just for the MP but for the entire party. One would think party leaders would be pretty quick to whip their caucuses into line if they risked not having a chance to ask questions in the House for an entire day, or even an entire week. If an MP who gets cut out for bad behaviour can simply have their question asked by a caucus colleague, what's the real punishment?
Of course, decorum must begin at home. So one of the first questions Cullen was asked at his news conference April 30 was whether he would have a word with the NDP's reigning loudmouth, Winnipeg's own Pat Martin.
Cullen said he would be "suggesting" to Martin that "we do seek a higher standard, we do seek a higher order of civility."
Martin is the first to admit he flies off the handle a lot, and last year he even came out of the federal election with a campaign to improve civility in the House of Commons.
He had buttons made up with "I choose civility" written in Latin -- he even colour-coded them for the parties -- but the gimmick didn't catch on. Rumour has it those distributed to at least one other party ended up not-so-civilly tossed into the trash.
Martin thinks he has improved his behaviour and that things are actually better in the House.
"Our caucus isn't allowed to heckle anymore," he said.
However, Cullen and Martin both were pretty focused on behaviour in the House of Commons itself.
But that's just where the problem begins, not where it ends. Yes, the House of Commons is an honourable place and worthy of respect. But MPs don't stop being MPs when they walk out the chamber doors.
The back and forth on Twitter and Facebook or on afternoon political talk shows often borders on the abusive. High rhetoric and passionate debate have given way to not so thinly veiled insults that rouse the attention of the media and public alike but do little to advance a discussion or issue.
Social media are not a forum for dignified discussion but for cursing and racism. Three MPs -- including Martin, Treasury Board Minister Tony Clement and Liberal MP Justin Trudeau -- have all had to apologize in the last six months for cursing in public. Martin and Clement did it on Twitter. Trudeau did it in the House.
Cullen's call will likely do little to change the hyper-partisan nature of Parliament Hill. The animosity between parties and individual MPs grows stronger by the day and there is no sign anyone is willing to yell uncle.
"It's like we're one step short of physical violence the way people yell at each other," Martin admitted.
There are many people who don't take Martin seriously anymore because of the political hyperbole inherent in many of his comments. Some think the cursing or passion are refreshing. Most do not.
But while Martin is among the most, shall we say, colourful MPs, he is not the only one who needs to clean up his act. There are more MPs than not who need to take a look in the mirror and admit they are part of the problem.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2012 A7
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