Some days, it's more like Porky's than Parliament

Worst offenders are Liberal and Tory backbenchers with little to do

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The Gazette, Monday, October 30, 2006

Amid the uproar over whether Peter MacKay called Belinda Stronach a dog - and technically, he didn't - the underlying issue is parliamentary decorum. There's a prevailing frat house atmosphere, more like Porky's than Parliament, that's degrading to public life, and makes it particularly hard for women to thrive there, unless they're prepared to mix it up with the boys.

The worst offenders are Liberal and Conservative backbenchers who, with nothing better to do during question period, hurl catcalls and shouted insults across the floor. Most of them are still kids in their 20s and 30s. From the rat back to the brat pack.

The worst offenders on the Liberal side are Pablo Rodriguez, Denis Coderre and David McGuinty, Dalton's brother. McGuinty has been baiting MacKay for weeks by constantly shouting across, "where's your dog, Peter?" Finally, MacKay snapped and replied "you've got her." At least, that's what seems to be on the video tape, though it doesn't appear in Hansard.

Rodriguez has lost none of the bad habits of youth politics, and is transparently phony in affecting outrage. Coderre is actually a strong parliamentarian in tactical terms, but his constantly shouted insults are a thorn in everyone's side. Speaker Peter Milliken can no longer be bothered to conceal his annoyance at Coderre, and has sternly warned him to behave himself.

On the Conservative side of the House, the most unruly members are Pierre Poilievre and John Baird, both Ottawa-area members. Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to the president of the Treasury Board is only following the bad example of his minister, Baird.

Poilievre is annoying because his insults are so juvenile, inappropriate in a schoolyard, let alone the central forum of Canadian democracy.

Baird, alone among his colleagues on the Conservative front bench, specializes in feigned indignation and outrage, especially when recalling the ethical behaviour of the corrupt Liberals. Did he really call Ralph Goodale, one of the most respected members of the House, "the blabbermouth member for Wascana" the other day? That's not just insulting, it's demeaning and undignified. Baird's slashing style is way too hot for television, and way over the top. This is how he learned to play the game in provincial politics. Evidently, no one has told him he's not at Queen's Park anymore, but in the majors.

There's such a thing as elegant parry and thrust, and Baird could do worse than emulate his seatmate, Maxime Bernier. Although still a parliamentary rookie, the industry minister is finding his feet in this session, and is clearly the rising star of the Conservative front bench.

Not only has he not put a foot wrong in the House, he is engaging the Bloc Quebecois members in a way that's driving them crazy, reminding them that they are doomed to be perpetually in opposition, while the Conservatives are in government, doing things for Quebecers. More than elegant and entirely in bounds, it's bang on message, a concept the Conservatives have been struggling with in this session.

It's a minority House, and it's bound to get fractious at times. But there's a difference between parliamentary banter and mean-spiritedness. And Milliken needs to put some of the loudmouths on a shorter leash.

As for MacKay's comment and gesture toward Stronach's vacant seat in the House, the last person to be offended by it at the beginning was Stronach herself. Out for dinner that night with a journalist and another MP, she quipped: "Let's let sleeping dogs lie."

By the next morning, the Liberals decided to torque up the story by rolling Stronach out before the microphone in the lobby of House, demanding an apology on her own behalf and on behalf of all women. Furthermore, she alleged the incident was indicative of the Harper government's contempt for women.

Having previously ruled it never happened, Milliken has at the insistence of the Liberals agreed to review the tape. That puts MacKay at risk, especially if he is deemed in his denial to have lied to the House. Then he would have to resign. His best assurance against such an outcome is to rise in the House on a quiet morning, and offer his regrets for any offence he might have been given by word or gesture. End of story.

Undoubtedly mortified by the entire episode, MacKay has been reminded that a politician is never more than a sentence away from oblivion.

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