Like members opposite, of course, we on this side are influenced and perhaps at times oppressed by human prejudices and other emotions. -- Lester B. Pearson
The acrimony and outrage in the House of Commons last week because of Foreign Minister Peter MacKay's insinuation that Liberal MP Belinda Stronach was a dog is not the first time the Green Chamber has stooped to a vulgar level.
In just the previous Parliament, prime minister Paul Martin's career was going "down the toilet," the Lord's name was invoked in vain (Stephen Harper shouted "For God's sake it's time to go!"), and the government was accused of everything from exploiting cancer victims to being Osama bin Laden.
Those with longer memories, however, will know that Mr. MacKay's canine comment is only the latest in a long line of infamy emanating from the Dominion's national Parliament.
Nine years ago, then Liberal defence minister Doug Young yelled in the House: "There is more than a slab of bacon talking there," in reference to Deborah Grey of the Reform Party.
In the 1980s, Liberal Sheila Copps, a member of the infamous Rat Pack, once referred to prime minister Brian Mulroney as a "slime bag," while Tory cabinet minister John Crosbie said to Ms. Copps in the House: "Just quiet down, baby." Ms. Copps later titled her memoirs Nobody's Baby.
Ms. Copps was on the receiving end more than once: In 1991, she was called a "slut" by Reform MP William Kempling and a "bitch" (canine references, again!) by the Reform's Ian McClelland in 1997.
Perhaps most famously, in 1971, Pierre Trudeau told Conservative MP John Lundrigan to "fuck off." Afterward, the prime minister shrugged, smirked and offered that what he had actually said was "fuddle duddle."
But parliamentary insults are not what they used to be. In the 1950s, when Liberal cabinet minister J. W. Pickersgill was constantly heckling Conservative leader George Drew, the latter tried to reprimand him for his interruptions. But Mr. Pickersgill replied: "I submit sir, that it has never been a rule of the House that honourable members have to submit quietly to being bored."
The notorious pipeline debate of 1956 was one of the most vitriolic periods in Canadian parliamentary history. The Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent wanted its pipeline bill to pass quickly and introduced closure, a measure that puts time limits on debate. In those days, it was rarely used, so it caused considerable concern when C. D. Howe, the minister in charge, invoked it at the first stages of debate.
As Peter C. Newman vividly recounted in Renegade in Power, "Parliament became a bedlam."
Toronto MP Donald Fleming was "named" for refusing to sit down. This meant he was expelled from the House. Then, a series of horrendous decisions by the Speaker, René Beaudoin, culminated in Conservative MPs storming the floor of the House shaking their fists at the Speaker. The House of Commons was out of control.
Things didn't get much better during the Lester Pearson/John Diefenbaker years when the House was as partisan as ever, reflecting the intense rivalry of the two men.
"They were locked in distrust, contempt, and hatred, and that mutual obsession infected their followers and embittered the atmosphere of the House of Commons," wrote Denis Smith in Rogue Tory, his biography of Mr. Diefenbaker.
Today, especially, politicians tend to rely on faux emotion, crass interjections, wild gesticulations and bulging eyes to get attention, eschewing the quick wit that marked the better parliamentarians of the past. It is hard to see the "Disraelian" qualities -- as Rex Murphy put it in this paper on Saturday -- in the Foreign Minister's recent cur slur.
Will Stephen Harper and his new Liberal adversary lock horns in the Pearson-Diefenbaker manner, turning the House into a chorus of barking dogs? Or reject the schoolyard antics of the past and begin to build an atmosphere worthy of their surroundings and the voters who sent them?
As they consider this, they ought to keep in mind the wise words of one of the House's most respected members, Ed Broadbent, who said in 2005: "There is a difference between personal remarks based on animosity and vigorous debate reflecting big differences of judgment. . . . However we may differ, we are all human and we all have the right to have our inner dignity respected, especially in debate in the House."
J. D. M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.