The politics of personal destruction have taken over

The antics of opposition smear agents during question period are disgusting

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Sunday, March 14, 2010

You have only to attend the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoons to wonder why it bothers to sit at all. Every party caucus meets Wednesday mornings and by the time the House resumes after lunch, MPs generally behave like unruly kids in a schoolyard. Correction - schoolyards have adult supervision, the House has only the speaker, Peter Milliken, who has often noted but been unable to curb the bad behaviour of his parliamentary children.

It isn't that the House lacks rules steeped in Westminster tradition, but especially on Wednesdays they are noted more in the breach than the observance. Last Wednesday's parliamentary performance was among the most revolting in recent times.

Question period is always preceded by 15 minutes of statements by members (known as SO21s) under Standing Order 21, which allows them to say whatever they want for 60 seconds. MPs usually pay tribute to a Pee-Wee hockey team or some prominent person, recently deceased, in their riding. But all parties are equally guilty of unleashing attack dogs who taunt their opponents with childish, churlish tantrums.

One of the most vicious ankle-biters in the House is Montreal Liberal MP Marlene Jennings, who decided last Wednesday to point out the dichotomy between the Conservative crackdown crime agenda and the light $500 fine handed out to former Tory member Rahim Jaffer for speeding, while DUI and drug possession charges were dropped.

"Conservative MPs are now maintaining stunning silence," she yelled, "when one of their own, a dangerous driver who failed a breathalyzer test and was caught in possession of illicit drugs, was released with no criminal record and just a slap on the wrist. Even the judge in this case called the outcome 'a break' for the former Conservative MP."

There's no doubt that Jaffer got off easy, probably because the evidence was somehow tainted. But it wasn't a plea bargain. The speeding charge was the only one brought by the crown, on the recommendation of the provincial director of prosecutions to the attorney-general of Ontario.

So in the law, we don't know whether Jaffer "failed a breathalyser" or was "caught in possession of legal drugs," because the crown, for reasons of its own, did not bring the case. But the judge having ruled, that should have been be the end of the matter. People can say what they want down at Tim Horton's, that's vox populi. But the people who make laws should show respect, not contempt, for outcomes.

The NDP's deputy leader, Tom Mulcair, also specializes in sanctimonious indignation.

Here was his take, in question period, on the Jaffer case: "Why not take away judicial discretion in cases of serious offences, like cocaine possession, except of course when the offender is a former Conservative MP, in which case why not give him a break?"

This is breathtaking, essentially an attack on the independence and integrity of the judiciary. Mulcair is a lawyer, and if he'd said this outside the immunity of the House, he'd be in contempt of court, and could even be disbarred for such contemptuous comments.

There's no doubt that Jaffer and his wife, Helena Guergis, once a glamourous Conservative poster couple, both need to grow up. Her tantrum at airport security in Charlottetown is probably grounds for dismissal from cabinet. And there is no doubt that if she had thrown such a hissy-fit at a U.S. airport, they'd have put cuffs on her.

But neither is there any justification for the outrage of Prince Edward Island Liberal Wayne Easter, who yields to no other member when it comes to rhetorical excess and phony outrage. Exceptionally, Easter was allowed two questions out of sequence, both of which he used to attack Guergis and call for her resignation for calling P.E.I. "a hellhole, or worse." Except that, as Transport Minister John Baird pointed out, she has "sincerely apologized", and in the traditions of the House, the matter ends there.

The behaviour of Jennings, Easter, and Mulcair is consistently over the top and across the line. Fortunately, they are not admired by younger members of their caucuses who cringe in embarrassment at their grandstanding.

There are promising members of the Liberal and NDP caucus sitting in the fourth and fifth rows of the House, heads down, doing their work, learning their trade, waiting for their moment.

Actually, it can't come soon enough. The only game their elders know is the politics of personal destruction. It's worse than disheartening. It's disgraceful.

 
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