I was wrong, I thought House civility would last at least two weeks, it lasted two days

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If last Wednesday’s Question Period is any indication, Conservatives are raring to go, and an election couldn’t happen soon enough.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 23, 2023.

OTTAWA—I was wrong.

In a previous column, I predicted civility in the House of Commons would last two weeks.

That prediction was predicated on a break week in the parliamentary calendar.

I figured the Members of Parliament could last at least five sitting days without allowing the place to run amok.

Instead, newly-minted speaker Greg Fergus spent two days in a civil chair.

On the third, the place erupted.

It all started out rather calmly. On Oct .18, Fergus was rising from his place to announce a new series of “reflective guidelines” that he would be using in his attempt to replace chaos with order.

He chose to introduce the guidelines just before the most-watched Question Period of the week.

On Wednesdays, all questions are devoted to the prime minister, which makes him a prime target on multiple issues and pretty much guarantees that the opposition will succeed in getting their messages on the news.

Normally, the House Speaker delivers orders, decisions, reflections, introductions, and announcements in the moments following Question Period.

This time, Fergus decided to break with convention, and deliver a lengthy reflection on protocol before questions began. He was obviously trying to make the point that everyone needs to know there is a new level of decorum that has arrived with the election of a new Speaker.

That desire ran smack into the wishes of Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre to lead off with his own questions.

When Poilievre refused to cede his spot to the Speaker, all hell broke loose.

Poilievre claimed, “The Speaker has a plethora of occasions to stand on his feet and make any point he wants or any declaration he likes. He does not need to do it in the middle of the sacred period during which we hold the government to account.” Poilievre went on to accuse Fergus of breaking the rules, and then former House Speaker Andrew Scheer backed up his leader’s right to proceed immediately with questions.

Fergus continued with his message about excessive heckling, which fell on deaf ears as Conservative MPs continued to interrupt with heckling.

While Fergus pleaded that “excessive, disruptive and loud heckling must be toned down,” his message simply engendered more disruption in the Chamber.

In the end, Poilievre got to deliver his question after a 20-minute speech from the House Speaker.

People quickly forgot the contents of the question. What came out of Wednesday’s Question Period is that, again, the call for parliamentary civility has simply fallen on deaf ears.

That may surprise the general public, as there was much focus on a kinder, gentler place when Government House Leader Karina Gould took over at the helm back in September.

But it was no surprise to those of us who have been involved in parliamentary matters for decades.

After all, the instrument that gives voice to Parliament is a mace. Ceremonial, of course, it was initially designed to kill people by clubbing them to death. When armour was introduced, it became less useful as a military weapon, but continued in ceremonial form.

Canada’s current mace was fashioned in after the original one was destroyed in the 1916 parliamentary fire that killed seven people.

Its design includes the Arms of Canada, the rose of England, the harp of Ireland and the thistle of Scotland. The staff incorporates the rose, shamrock, thistle, and the fleur-de-lys.

No words can be spoken without the presence of the mace, reminding us that Parliament is a verbal battlefield, and it isn’t always pretty.

The temperature tends to go up toward the end of a Parliament, particularly when there is election fever in the air.

With the Conservatives running so high in the polls, they have the wind in their sails, and it shows in their Question Period vigour.

Vigour includes testosterone, and the closer political parties get to voting day, the more emotions can run wild.

In a minority Parliament, the tension can be even more evident as at any moment the place could be shut down.

The New Democrats are facing some internal pressure from their supply-and-confidence agreement with the Liberals.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh felt the sting of that pressure in a reduced confidence motion at the party’s national convention in Hamilton last weekend.

However, he has his heart set on completing pharmacare, part of the triad of the supply agreement policy initiatives along with childcare and dental care. Without that, he won’t pull the plug.

If last Wednesday’s Question Period is any indication, Conservatives are raring to go.

From where they sit, an election couldn’t happen soon enough.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.