The first face-to-face showdown between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the newly-minted Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is set to happen this week. But while political fireworks are expected, some MPs are hoping to lower the temperature on Parliament Hill this fall.
Over the summer, CBC Radio’s The House spoke to several MPs in their home ridings. One 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-pitched debate during Question Period.
“We need to do a better job as politicians at calling out that bad behaviour; we wouldn’t let a five-year-old say whatever they want while someone else is speaking, so why are we going to let an adult heckle 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 clever or use rhetorical tricks or try to pretend things or solutions that aren’t. I think Canadians are going to see through that,” he said during a news conference setting out the government’s priorities this fall.
As deputy speaker, Conservative MP Chris d’Entremont is often tasked with moderating when things get especially fiery.
LISTEN | Conservative MP Chris d’Entremont talks to The House:
CBC News: The House14:20Backbenchers’ backyards: CPC MP Chris d’Entremont
“We have an opposition that is very aggressive. We have a government that doesn’t like to answer questions. So of course people are going to get frustrated,” he told The House during a tour of his West Nova riding earlier this summer.
“It’s a vicious circle that we really, as adults, as parliamentarians, need to come to terms with. We can’t keep doing the same thing.”
D’Entremont credits Speaker Anthony Rota — a Liberal — as a mentor of sorts on the tricky job. A lot of it, he said, comes down to fostering the most simple of connections: getting to know each other better.
“I think between Anthony and I, what we really need to do is sort of bring these … government members together, [to] get to know each other,” he said.
“The more they know them personally — what their wives’ or husbands’ names are, what their kids’ names are, what they’re interested in — it’ll make a difference what happens in the House of Commons as well.”
Voters’ opinion on tone mixed
Bloc Quebecois MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné said whoever sits in the Speaker’s chair should do more to shut down shouting matches that sometimes erupt. But she said she believes that some MPs may feel compelled to get rowdy, so to speak, because their party’s most ardent supporters love to see it.
“In the long term, it would be for the public to stop giving credit to that kind of behaviour,” she said.
Green MP Mike Morrice, meanwhile, has heard constituents’ displeasure at the level of 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 slung around 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 then see showing up in emails,” he said.
Morrice has been outspoken on “infighting” between politicians not only on televised Question Period, but within his own party as well.
According to Sinclair-Desgagné, the tone is more collegial in committee meetings. “Of course we disagree on some issues, fundamental issues, but we tend to work together,” said Sinclair-Desgagnes, who among other roles is vice-chair on the Standing Committee on Public Accounts.
She notes, however, that it’s much easier to maintain decorum among a dozen or so MPs compared to the House’s clashes involving potentially hundreds of members.
LISTEN | Bloc Quebecois MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné speaks to The House:
CBC 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 it’s possible tensions have grown during the pandemic, as virtual sessions have necessarily eliminated much of the in-person interactions common between members in Ottawa.
She says that doesn’t give everyone involved a pass, though.
“I’m struggling with that because some of it, I feel, is totally unacceptable,” she said.
She did note that having more women in politics could make a difference. “We’re not as tolerant of that jokey, locker-room type-cajoling,” she said.
Michael Coteau, Liberal MP for Toronto’s Don Valley East riding, recalled 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 own.
“To me, it’s like we speak in two different languages, almost,” he said. “I just can’t understand where that’s coming from … but this is their position.”
LISTEN | Liberal MP Michael Coteau speaks to The House:
CBC News: The House15:10Backbenchers’ backyards: LPC MP Michael Coteau
He asserts that, as Canadians, MPs likely share certain “universal” beliefs that cut across party or geographical lines — that access to education and health-care are universal rights, for example. He says he sees part of his job as maintaining a conversation between different viewpoints and acting as a “table builder.”
But he does worry that it’s become increasingly difficult to find common ground on many important issues — and that the problem isn’t merely limited to Parliament Hill.
“I see that being eroded every single day in politics, not only here in Canada, but around the world. You know, it’s to our disadvantage as a country.”