If you think Newfoundland’s House of Assembly is a zoo, you haven’t looked in on the British parliament lately.
British House of Commons sessions can resemble feeding time in the monkey cage, minus the fecal projectiles.
British MPs are a little more scrunched together in their chamber. The leaders, ministers and shadow ministers sit at a table in the middle. The rest are on benches. It makes for a much more cosy and, inevitably, volatile atmosphere.
The house often erupts in laughter or jeers, and members lob taunts like fans at a soccer game.
And it’s not only the parliament of the Motherland that gets raucous. Some of the exchanges in Australia’s parliament can get downright primal. To wit: Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s withering takedown last fall of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
Mind you, Abbott deserved it. Known for his own sexist attitudes, he was ill-equipped to moralize about sexual abuse charges laid against the Speaker (charges that were eventually dropped).
If you think St. John’s MHA Gerry Rogers showed poor judgment by being linked to a Facebook page she didn’t know she was linked to, consider Abbott’s actions Down Under. At least Rogers didn’t join an angry street protest, take to the microphone and fan the flames while standing in front of a “Ditch the witch” sign.
Mind you, Abbott did qualify: “I see some signs. Some signs I agree with. Some signs I don’t agree with.” See? You can be right there in the thick of it and still distance yourself from the riffraff.
At any rate, these are the well-behaved parliaments. In Ukraine, things can get, well, just a little out of hand — if you consider fistfights and chair-throwing to be out of hand.
If you find footage of it on YouTube, look for the Speaker and an aide cowering under umbrellas. In Ukraine, parliamentary outbursts are otherwise known as Tuesdays, and occasionally Fridays.
By contrast, legislatures in
Canada are typically tame, largely because the parties exercise greater control over the goings-on.
In Ottawa, Speaker Andrew Scheer is pondering a ruling that may open up speaking rights for backbenchers.
It follows a point of privilege tendered by Conservative MP Mark Warawa, who’s trying to introduce a motion that would precipitate renewed debate about abortion. He’s one of a handful of socially conservative MPs who want to get the topic back on the table, against the prime minister’s will.
Warawa says his right as a backbencher to address parliament is being squelched by his own party. On that point, he’s right.
Meanwhile, in Newfoundland, the problem isn’t so much allowing backbenchers the right to speak as getting the front bench to shut up. It’s the utterings of Kathy Dunderdale and her senior ministers that seem to be doing the most harm.
If you’ve read some of the Hansard excerpts published in The Telegram recently, you know the quantity of confrontation is not as much a concern as quality. The witty repartée we see in the British and even Canadian federal legislatures is rarely anywhere to be seen.
When Gerry Rogers tossed out some job loss numbers last week, the best Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy could muster was to shout “Liar!” — for which he unconvincingly apologized. Heaven forbid he should offer some clever retort about the unusual rate of inflation.
Don’t get me wrong. The last thing we need is more volume, let alone fisticuffs or other violence. That went out of fashion with Billy Smallwood.
But we could certainly use a little more honest engagement. It’s OK to spar a little and joke around, but the acrimony and childish name-
calling we’re witnessing in the House these days signals a total loss of democratic spirit.
It’s no wonder the Newfoundland government — like its federal counterpart — has devolved into more of an autocracy, ruled by an ever-growing executive council.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email: email@example.com.