Silencing debate: A government in a hurry

It was beginning to look as though I would not be able to deliver on a promise I made in the election.  If you (dear reader) made it to any of the all candidate meetings, or came to any smaller “house parties” to meet your Green Party candidate, you likely heard my plan for how (even as one MP) I could contribute to greater decorum in the House of Commons.  I had spoken with others, from Preston Manning to Carolyn Bennett who began their time in the House, pledging to never heckle, only to abandon the high road when they tired of being heckled themselves. It struck me as a new approach worth trying that improving decorum would take both refusing to heckle, and also refusing to continue speaking over the noise.

The principle seemed straightforward: since interrupting and speaking in offensive terms toward a Member of Parliament both violate Standing Orders of the House, perhaps if I refused to continue over the interruptions and rudeness and simply sat down – even mid-question, the Speaker would call for order and then I could continue without the distracting abuse.  And if the Speaker did not rise and call for order, I would miss my question.  And, my reasoning was, if I kept to my plan and missed many questions, the media would have to start covering my efforts and public support could push other MPs to change as well.

Since June, with a question a week in Question Period, and with over one hundred interventions in debates and speeches, I have been waiting for the first moment when I would be heckled.  Yet, and this was a nice surprise, I was not being yelled at or interrupted. As the days and weeks went by, I began to assume that respect when I was on my feet in the House would merely continue.  But then on November 3rd, I asked this question:

“Mr. Speaker, from 1913 to 1956, a period of over 40 years, time limits on debates were used 10 times. In the last 40 days, it has been used 7 times, making a new historical record.

What used to be the exception to the rule appears to now be the rule.”

At this point I became aware of a great deal of yelling.  Conservative members were shouting out “TIME!” The CBC’s Kady OMalley noticed it and tweeted “Do the CPC MPs really have to heckle ElizabethMay…?”

My plan suddenly took hold and I simply sat down.  MPs around me looked confused, so I said (not realizing my mic was still on):

“I am only sitting because I cannot be heard.”

The Speaker called for order and gave me back the floor.  It was quiet, and I resumed:

“Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I would like to ask the government House leader if we can again restore a parliamentary tradition that limits on debates occur when matters are urgent or otherwise justified and do not become routine?”

To my surprise again, the Opposition benches broke into applause.

Not responsive to the question came the answer:

Hon. Peter Van Loan (Leader of the Government in the House of Commons, CPC): “Mr. Speaker, in the last election Canadians gave us a strong mandate to deliver on jobs for Canadians….”

It is good news to find refusing to continue to speak over the noise has had one successful test.  However, the main reason I wanted to share this exchange is that it isolates a spot so sensitive to the government that heckling is immediate.  I have spoken out on asbestos, climate change, tax fairness, our fisheries, the threat of oil tankers, trade union issues, human rights, the Wheat Board, pharmaceuticals,Libya, and on and on.  But this, the highlighting of a government shutting down debate, provoked immediate abuse.

Since we resumed Parliament in mid-September, the government has moved to shut down debate and rush bills through Second Reading. From killing the Wheat Board, ending the Gun Registry, pushing through the Omnibus Crime Bill, the so-called Human Smuggling Act (which calls for the jailing of all refugees arriving by ship for a year), the budget implementation act, the redistribution of seats, over and again, debate has been cut-short.  It is a new historical record  — and not one of which the Prime Minister should be proud.

This is not the only development in this fall’s session that points to increasing control by the centre to shut down democratic debate.  Parliamentary committees, the least partisan aspect of the House of Commons, had already been politicized in the Minority Parliament. Conservative Committee chairs were instructed to avoid any testimony embarrassing to their party, even if it meant throwing down a pen and storming from the room to bring proceedings to a halt.  Now, with their majority, the Conservative government has found a new way to avoid evidence it does not want to hear.

More and more of the business of committees is being conducted in secret.  In camera committee meetings used to cover private discussions such as which witnesses should be called.  Now the hearings can take place in secret when witnesses are testifying, or when a vote is held on motions of importance.  After an in camera session, it is not possible to know who said what or how anyone voted.

The increasing limitations of debate and reduced daylight on House proceedings is not healthy. Many of us are wondering, with a majority of the seats and no election until 2015, why are the Conservatives in such a hurry? Is democratic debate really such a threat?