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NDP, Tories find common ground in quest to tame a thuggish House

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Opposition Leader Jack Layton share a moment in the House of Commons as it resumes on June 2, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Before they square off for the first time as Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, Stephen Harper and Jack Layton sat down for a private chat about playing nice.

In the past, the NDP Leader would often give reporters a play-by-play of his conversations with Mr. Harper, peppered with criticisms.

This time, when pressed for details Thursday morning by a CBC radio reporter, Mr. Layton said he'd rather keep his Wednesday-afternoon chat with Mr. Harper " entre-nous."

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Later, after meeting with his caucus, he offered a bit more information. He said the discussions focused on the need to improve the tone in the House of Commons.

"We talked about all sorts of issues that are before us, especially decorum in Parliament and that we need to change the tone of the debate. That was a preoccupation. And for us, it will change," he said, referring to the NDP.

Ditto, says the Prime Minister's Office.

"We were distressed by the erosion of decorum in the last Parliament," the Prime Minister's director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, said in an e-mail. "Our hope is that the new Parliament can turn a page, and the PM has certainly expressed this hope and expectation to his caucus, which is firmly united on this point. There will always be give-and-take on issues, but it can be, and should be, respectful both of individual Members and of the dignity of the House."

Mr. Layton is promising his MPs won't heckle during Question Period.

A string of Tory MPs campaigning for Speaker Thursday promised to help improve the tone in the House, which is largely known for the shouting and name-calling during Question Period.

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan said he and the other parties are currently talking behind the scenes about adopting some proposals to improve Question Period - a list of suggestions first put forward by Conservative MP Michael Chong.

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"I think there are some things we can do in the short term that would result in more substantive questions in question period, more substantive answers that would improve again the level of the policy debate in the House," he said.

It all sounds nice, but Canadians have heard this before.

Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning once candidly recalled his party's attempt to shelve the name-calling in favour of policy-based questions.

It only lasted a few months.

"Soon, our own supporters, especially in Western Canada, were also accusing us of ineffectiveness, saying 'We never see you on television,'" he said.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae has seen many of these promises come and go. First elected to the House of Commons as a New Democrat in 1978, he also has years of parliamentary experience at Queen's Park.

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"I'm waiting to see what happens," he said Thursday. "I'd like to be civil, and then [when]somebody starts heckling me when I stand up and speak and starts going after me personally for whatever imperfections I may have - there are more than one or two - you say, 'Okay, this is the way the game is played.'"

Mr. Rae, who is leading the party on an interim basis, suggested much will depend on how the Conservatives behave in the new Parliament.

"This is a government that throws the ball at your head every time - every single time," he said. "If you're standing up there as a batter, you've got to be prepared for a bean ball directed at your brain every time, and if you're not prepared for that, you're going to get killed by these guys. So I go into this a little wiser."

With a report from Jane Taber

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