Paul Calandra's apology in the House of Commons on Friday may have been heartfelt, but it was also a little off. The MP was openly emotional; he fought off tears as he repeatedly said sorry for turning a valid question from the Leader of the Opposition into a low-rent sideshow a few days earlier. Apology accepted. There was a weird moment in the middle, though, when Mr. Calandra tried to make a joke about how the incident he was apologizing for won't be "the last time I get up in the House and answer a question that doesn't effectively respond."
As Freud said, there are no jokes. Mr. Calandra, or another government MP, or an MP from the opposition benches, or the government itself, will before Christmas demean the House in some novel fashion, because that is what the place has been allowed to become.
Mr. Calandra, in short, is a symptom of the decline of Parliament. We've recently, and over the past two years, listed other symptoms: an NDP MP offering to mention people's names in the House if they donated $50 to her re-election campaign (she apologized immediately); Prime Minister Stephen Harper making an important announcement in New York City, rather than in the House, about Canada's participation in the fight against the Islamic State; a backbench Conservative MP suggesting that opposition MPs are wasting taxpayers' money by asking too many written questions; omnibus budget bills that contain unrelated stealth legislation; inconsistent budget accounting systems that make it difficult for MPs to understand the expenditures they are approving; a confrontational attitude toward parliamentary officers, such as the Auditor-General, the Privacy Commissioner and the Budget Officer; overwhipped caucuses that vote on command; serial prorogation. We could go on.
The symptoms are chronic and the prognosis bleak, because this is a top-down problem. Successive prime ministers have hoarded power in their office and reduced cabinet members and government MPs to carbon-based rubber stamps. This is not a development that is specific to Mr. Harper – Jean Chrétien was no great decentralizer of prime ministerial power either – but Mr. Harper has taken it further than his predecessors. He is at risk of becoming more well known for the contempt of Parliament that has flourished under him than he is for his accomplishments as one of the country's longest-serving prime ministers.
When Mr. Calandra was obfuscating so obscenely in Parliament last week, his fellow government MPs cheered him on enthusiastically. Maybe it's because they don't have a better example to follow.