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Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

Tory 'rag-the-puck' tactics frustrate opposition amid worsening decorum Add to ...

Deepak Obhrai is one of the worst offenders, according to the opposition.

Frustrated MPs say the parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister throws in a few “Mr. Speakers” and other set phrases to eat up his allotted 35-second answers to purposely avoid saying anything substantial in Question Period.

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It’s a ploy, they say, that shows a lack of respect for the opposition parties and Parliament as a whole. Most times ministers tell more to reporters in scrums outside the House than in the Commons itself.

“I guess everybody uses their rag-the-puck tactics,” MP Rodger Cuzner said. The Nova Scotia Liberal took to Twitter on Monday to suggest Mr. Obhrai set a record for saying “Mr. Speaker” six times in a 30 second answer.

A slight exaggeration but an indication, nonetheless, of how acrimonious Question Period is – and MPs have only been back for a month since their summer break.

“Conservatives work off tightly-scripted, centrally-written texts which are only intended to buy time, plus the occasional foray into attempted character assassination,” Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae told The Globe.

More than that, Mr. Rae said his prediction last June that heckling would soon return to the Commons have quickly come true.

New Democrats also believe heckling is worse and they are planning to do something about it. Joe Comartin, the newly appointed Opposition House Leader, will raise the lack of decorum with his Tory and Liberal colleagues at their meeting Tuesday afternoon.

In addition, Mr. Comartin told The Globe his party is considering a hands-on approach to addressing the civility issue. A private members bill is in the works and the NDP will propose that the procedures and House affairs committee study the issue and make recommendations to improve Commons decorum.

Before he died, late NDP leader Jack Layton had stressed the need to bring respect and civility back to the Commons. Mr. Comartin blames both Liberals and Conservatives for ignoring those wish and escalating their rhetoric of late. He noted that the Speaker is up on his feet more often, admonishing the troops.

For the most part, however, he said the NDP has been respectful. He conceded that there was an incident last week in which some of his MPs booed Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, which is not allowed.

“Of course John played off it,” Mr. Comartin said, “which is another reason for not doing it. It gave him a boost in his response – a double reason for not doing it.”

As for the lack of answers from ministers and parliamentary secretaries, Mr. Comartin said it reveals a lack of confidence “in the ability of a minister to handle their portfolio.”

He pointed to the British Parliament, where the Speaker has the power to tell a minister to actually answer the question if it’s believed he or she is obfuscating or using delay tactics. As a result, Mr. Comartin said, a culture of “reasonably meaningful responses” has developed.

The Opposition House Leader was especially frustrated by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who did not answer questions Monday about military bases being closed when asked by a series of NDP MPs whose communities could be affected.

What really “irritates” Mr. Comartin is that Mr. MacKay then went out to scrum with reporters where he appeared to be more expansive in his answers. Other ministers do the same and the NDP House Leader said he finds it “offensive to the role of the stature of Parliament.”

And Mr. Obhrai? Mr. Cuzner explains the Conservative MP’s strategy: “Deepak likes to use, ‘the facts haven’t changed,’ and most times thanks the Speaker, which eats another three seconds. Now if he uses the standard ‘I’d like to thank my colleague for the question’ and injects the Tory political infomercial for the month, it leaves about six seconds for an actual answer.”

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