The first showdown between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and newly minted Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre is set to take place this week. But while political fireworks are expected, some MPs hope to lower the temperature on Parliament Hill this fall.
In Summer, TSWT Radios The House spoke to several MPs during their home drives. A common theme that emerged from many of the conversations was the intense level of partisanship and division that sometimes grips Ottawa.
That high intensity of the partisanship can sometimes erupt as high debate during question period.
“As politicians, we need to do a better job of exposing that bad behavior; we wouldn’t let a five-year-old say what they want while someone else is speaking, so why let one adult harass another adult?” said Laila Goodridge, Conservative MP for Fort McMurray-Cold Lake.
‘It’s a vicious circle’
Liberal House Leader Mark Holland called on all MPs to adopt a more respectful tone earlier this week.
“I don’t think this is a time for games. This is not a time to try to be smart or use rhetorical tricks or pretend things or solutions aren’t. I think Canadians will see through that,” he said. at a press conference setting out the government’s priorities this fall.
As a deputy speaker, Conservative MP Chris d’Entremont is often tasked with moderating when things get particularly fiery.
LISTENING | Conservative MP Chris d’Entremont talks to The House:
“We have an opposition that is very aggressive. We have a government that doesn’t like to answer questions. So of course people will get frustrated,” he said. The House during a tour of his West Nova drive earlier this summer.
“It’s a vicious circle that we as adults, as parliamentarians really have to come to terms with. We can’t keep doing the same thing.”
D’Entremont calls speaker Anthony Rota – a liberal – a sort of mentor in the tricky work. Much of it, he said, comes down to fostering the simplest of connections: getting to know each other better.
“I think between Anthony and me, what we really need to do is bring these…governments together, [to] get to know each other,” he says.
“The more they know them personally — what the names of their wives or husbands are, what the names of their children are, what they’re interested in — it will make a difference no matter what happens in the House of Commons.”
Voters’ opinion on the tone mixed
Bloc Quebec MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné said anyone sitting in the Speaker’s chair should do more to stop screaming matches that sometimes erupt. But she said she believes some MPs feel compelled to get rowdy, so to speak, because their party’s most ardent supporters like to see it.
“In the long run, it would be for the public to stop giving credit to that kind of behavior,” she said.
Green MP Mike Morrice, meanwhile, has heard voters’ dismay at the rhetoric they regularly see in the House. But he also worries that some other Canadians have chosen to use the same combative language they see hanging out in Ottawa.
“When I hear certain words used in the House of Commons – dictator, for example; [or] calling [Bill] C-11 censorship — those are the same words I see popping up in emails then,” he said.
Morrice has been candid about “battles” between politicians, not only during the televised question period, but also within his own party.
According to Sinclair-Desgagné, the tone in committee meetings is more collegial. “Of course we disagree on some issues, fundamental issues, but we mostly work together,” said Sinclair-Desgagnes, vice-chair of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts.
She notes, however, that it is much easier to maintain decency among a dozen MPs compared to clashes in the House that may involve hundreds of Members.
LISTENING | Bloc Québécois MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné speaks to The House:
TSWT News: The House14:05Backbenchers’ backyards: Bloc MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné
Has the pandemic made things worse?
Bonita Zarrillo, NDP MP for Port Moody-Coquitlam, says tensions may have increased during the pandemic, as virtual sessions have necessarily eliminated many of the face-to-face interactions between members in Ottawa.
However, she says that doesn’t give everyone involved a pass.
“I have a hard time with that because some of it I think is totally unacceptable,” she said.
She did note that having more women in politics can make a difference. “We’re not that tolerant of that jesting, kind of dressing room-style flattery,” she said.
Michael Coteau, Liberal MP for Don Valley East Riding in Toronto, recalls once having a discussion at a local restaurant with two Conservative members from Alberta. Their opinions and political values, he said, felt “night and day” compared to his.
“For me, it’s like we’re almost speaking in two different languages,” he said. “I just don’t understand where that’s coming from…but this is their point of view.”
LISTENING | Liberal MP Michael Coteau speaks to the House:
TSWT News: The House15:10Backbenchers’ Backyards: LPC MP Michael Coteau
He argues that, as Canadians, MPs likely share certain “universal” beliefs that cross party or geographic boundaries — for example, that access to education and health care are universal rights. He says he sees part of his job as maintaining a conversation between different points of view and acting as a ‘table builder’.
But he is concerned that it is becoming increasingly difficult to agree on many important issues – and that the problem is not just limited to Parliament Hill.
“I see that being eroded every day in politics, not just here in Canada, but around the world. You know, it’s to our detriment as a country.”