Parties will walk on political eggshells in the new year

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After the 30-hour vote marathon by the Conservatives, the temperature in Parliament continued to rise. Public opinion polls showed that most observers were not impressed with the parliamentary chaos.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on December 18, 2023.

OTTAWA—Andrew Scheer is looking a little more ruddy than usual. And it isn’t because of a cheeky response to Christmas cheer.

Instead, the former Speaker is ruby red because he got caught doing exactly what he was excoriating House Speaker Greg Fergus for. He used his parliamentary office for a partisan video, and was quietly fined $500 earlier this year because of the infraction.

Speaker Fergus will face a similar fine, following a report from the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on his ill-advised decision to film a retirement video for a former Liberal colleague in his speaker’s robes. PROC members voted to fine Fergus and seek a second apology, but they stopped short of making his transgression a sackable offence.

That decision was opposed by the minority Conservative and Bloc Québécois committee members, but the main opponent of the ill-fated Speaker’s video was forced into silence himself when it was revealed that Scheer had made a similar mistake earlier this year.

The former Speaker and erstwhile Conservative leader has been vociferous in his calls for Fergus’ head, but he was muted on Dec. 14 when it was revealed that he paid a fine earlier this year for an eerily similar breach.

Scheer wrongfully filmed a political video in his office. Unlike Fergus’ retirement message, Scheer shot a campaign pitch in support of a parachute candidate in a southwestern Ontario byelection last June.

The fine was levied quietly, as are all decisions from the Commons Board of Internal Economy, but was leaked to the media last week when Fergus received the PROC decision. Tories and the Bloc continued to call for Fergus’ resignation, but the majority of parliamentarians felt he had committed a non-fireable error.

Fergus definitely dodged a bullet, but so did Parliament. The idea of dumping a new Speaker just months after the resignation of his predecessor in the face global scorn would have fomented the already precarious climate in Canada’s House of Commons.

After the 30-hour vote marathon by the Conservatives, the temperature in Parliament continued to rise. Public opinion polls showed that most observers were not impressed with the parliamentary chaos.

The Conservatives, still well ahead in the polls, suffered a precipitous five-point drop in the days following the filibuster. The drop may take a little wind out of their sails. A huge lead tends to fuel arrogance in any political party, while a tight race forces parties to behave in a manner that the public would expect.

Scheer claimed his attacks were largely based on his experience and knowledge of rules, stemming from the time he served as Speaker. But now that everyone knows he has broken the same rules that he claims to know so well, he won’t be as sanctimonious in his assessment of Fergus’ mistake.

No doubt, Fergus will have to work hard to rebuild the confidence that he lost because of his lapse of judgement. But turning the Speaker’s office into a revolving door would have done nothing to restore the confidence of Members of Parliament.

As his survival is dependent on support from Liberals and New Democrats, Fergus will be closely watched for bias in favour of those two parties. Liberals have privately expressed that they are worried he will be overly tough on them in an effort to prove his impartiality.

All in all, the parties will be walking on political eggshells in the new year.

Time with loved ones over Christmas will give all members a chance to enjoy some well-needed rest and family time. That should mean a happier perspective when they return to work in January.

But next year everyone will be moving into pre-election mode, which could stoke the negative vibes that were experienced before the Christmas break.

The Tories obviously want an election as soon as possible, so any way that they can provoke a crisis plays into their disruptor agenda. The Bloc is moving up in the polls, so the survival of Parliament depends more on the viewpoint of the New Democratic Party.

They continue to check off their list of accomplishments in working with the Liberals. Last week’s dental care announcement was another example of how the partnership has been helpful for Canadians. Whether the New Democrats translate that work into future seats remains to be seen. But they have certainly held up their end of parliamentary work.

The Liberals are going to work hard to keep Parliament happy, because they need time and space to rebuild their popularity.

Meanwhile, to all Parliamentarians and Canadians: HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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