Ed Broadbent has been around the House of Commons for long enough that when he says the past week in Parliament "is the worst I've ever seen," it means something. The former NDP leader, who retired from politics in 1989 but returned in last year's election as MP for Ottawa Centre, was head of his party in 1979 when the Liberals and NDP defeated prime minister Joe Clark's minority government. The language in the runup to that vote, he told CTV's Canada AM yesterday, was "forceful, direct, passionate even," but "we didn't have vituperative personal animosity. We didn't compare ethics to toilet bowls," or compare political rivals to members of the Ku Klux Klan.
As Mr. Broadbent prepares to retire once again, to spend time with his ailing wife, he has struck a particularly gracious note. Last week, the Conservatives continued to accuse the Liberals of scheduling the confidence vote for May 19 in the hope that two Conservative MPs with cancer would be too sick to attend, and the Liberals responded to this offensive suggestion with accusations of their own. It was left to the NDP to cut through the nasty fog by offering to have its MPs pair off with Conservative MPs whose health prevented them from being present in the House for the crucial vote. If an anti-government Conservative couldn't be there, a pro-government New Democrat would be absent as well.
It's not a new concept, but the plan'scivility was so out of keeping with the latest raucous, mean-spirited sparring in the Commons that it might as well have arrived from Mars. Mr. Broadbent, who has volunteered to pair off as needed, said it was a simple matter of his caucus's deciding not to take advantage of someone with a serious illness. The offer was, "frankly, the kind of thing that 99 per cent of Canadians would do for their neighbour across the street," whatever their political stripe.
The other parties seem to be licking their wounds after last week and suggesting, just maybe, that they went too far. Conservative House Leader Jay Hill said Sunday that if the government survives Thursday's vote on the budget, the Opposition will let the House get back to business and probably won't push for another confidence motion before the summer recess begins in June. Prime Minister Paul Martin spoke in Halifax yesterday of listening to those Canadians who have expressed disgust with the sandbox politics of late. "I think that anyone who watches Question Period would walk away shaking their heads," he said. "I believe it is turning Canadians off. . . . There prevails today a culture in Parliament in which reputations are casually smeared, and anger and personal insult are the rhetorical devices of choice. . . . We have got to find our way back to the high road."
But even then, Mr. Martin's remarks -- made while signing his latest federal-provincial deal on child-care funding -- seemed more of a pre-campaign shot across Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's bow than a genuine non-partisan overture. He began listing Mr. Harper's undoubted sins: "In the course of the past week, he has accused the Liberals of playing politics with the lives of cancer patients, he called the Liberals 'monsters,' and over the weekend he told an audience in Quebec that anyone who supports the Liberals will 'wreck Canada.' " Well, yes; and Liberal MP Tony Valeri, the Government House Leader, accused an Opposition MP of having "no concern for the people of Alberta and Saskatchewan" (in a dispute over the timing of the Queen's visit and a no-confidence vote) and talked of "another example of some hysteria coming from the members opposite."
In short, the vituperation was far from one-sided. The NDP's offer of pairing was a welcome gesture to remind everyone that Parliament deserves better from its MPs than it has been getting. Mr. Broadbent expressed the hope yesterday that all the House leaders, as a result of their discussions, would manage "to produce a more civilized week." That would be a good start.