In the early evening hours of an otherwise unremarkable Thursday in December, as a crowd gathered on Parliament Hill for the official opening of the annual Christmas light show, Jim Maloway was lecturing a nearly empty House of Commons on the history of suicide as a technique of military assault. “We had Dutch soldiers fighting for control of Taiwan in 1661, who used gunpowder to blow themselves and their opponents up rather than being taken prisoner,” he explained.
Maloway, a New Democrat backbencher, is either the last man truly dedicated to Parliament or the greatest symbol of its current neglect. In 2010, he spoke more than three times as many words in the House—309,647 in total—as any other member of Parliament, nine times more than the Prime Minister. In the month of December alone, Maloway contributed to debates on vehicle imports from Mexico, autism, white-collar crime, free trade with the European Union, RCMP reform, the parole system, Canada Post, human rights, a proposed national Holocaust monument, railway safety, the prosecution and registration of sex offenders, immigration reform, the military justice system, the census, oil tanker traffic off the coast of British Columbia and prison farms. All the same, you’ve probably never heard of him.
On that Thursday night in December, the House was debating a Senate bill that sought to add suicide bombing to the Criminal Code. A small cluster of four Conservative MPs, chatting with each other in the southwest corner of the room, waited impatiently for Maloway to finish. Irwin Cotler, the Liberal MP, sat listening on the opposition side. The teenage pages assigned to deliver notes and fetch glasses of water for MPs had already begun to clean up. In addition to the 300 or so empty seats around Maloway, the galleries above were empty as well, save for a few police officers.
After he had finished, a series of perfunctory oral votes confirmed that the bill had the unanimous support of the House. And thus did Canada apparently become the first country in the world to explicitly outlaw suicide bombing as a crime unto itself. Save for a short item on the National Post‘s website a week later, not a single major newspaper would carry word of this apparent landmark in international law.
To witness such a moment is to see the House of Commons at both its most serious and least relevant, to understand the gravity of the institution and the sense of neglect that hangs over its proceedings. Indeed, of all the questions the House of Commons must consider on a daily basis, there is one that underlies everything: does this place still matter?
On a basic level, the answer to that question must be yes. “This assembly is the most important ever held in any part of British America,” declared Robert Alexander Harrison, the former MP for Toronto West, upon making his maiden speech in the House shortly after it first convened in November 1867. “In its hands it holds the destinies of half a continent.” This is still essentially true. The House of Commons contains the 308 elected representatives of the population. It authorizes the collection and expenditure of tax dollars. It passes and amends the laws that govern our society. It holds the government of the day to account. Its purview is immense, up to and including—as set out by Speaker Peter Milliken’s ruling last year on access to Afghan detainee documents—the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.
But then there is what you see when you linger around the chamber that Harrison and those first parliamentarians passed on to us, and the questions of purpose and meaning that follow. Except for perhaps a dozen MPs and the odd tourist group, the vast room sits empty for almost the entire day. Thousands and thousands of words are spoken to little obvious notice or consequence—the press gallery mostly ignoring the proceedings and almost all votes of any importance destined to break along party lines. Power has coalesced around the offices of party leaders. Decisions are made elsewhere and then imposed on this place, debate seemingly rendered moot. For all its hallowed tradition and sombre ritual, the floor of the House of Commons cannot now be said, except on a purely geographic level, to be at the centre of political life. But for all the modern laments about the emptiness of our politics, here would seem to be the yawning gap at the heart of it all.
As the clock turned 10 on a Thursday morning this month, the mace, an enduring symbol of royal authority and the parliamentary system, was laid upon the clerk’s table and the Speaker took his chair. After a moment for prayers, Peter Milliken paused to address the two dozen MPs in attendance. “I invite the House to take note of today’s use of the wooden mace,” he said. “The wooden mace is traditionally used when the House sits on Feb. 3 to mark the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the original Parliament Buildings on this day in 1916.”
The occasion thus noted, the House moved to the tabling of a report from the standing committee on procedure and House affairs and the introduction of a private member’s bill from New Democrat Olivia Chow that would establish a national transit strategy. Petitions—which can be tabled before the House so long as they contain at least 25 signatures—were presented on behalf of citizens concerned, respectively, about the war in Afghanistan and the import and export of horses for slaughter and human consumption.
After the Speaker had ruled on an outstanding point of order concerning another private member’s bill, the House resumed debate of Bill C-42, an act to amend the Aeronautics Act. The NDP’s Libby Davies picked up where she had left off the day before. A few pairs of MPs chatted with each other as she spoke. Most of the others in attendance sat with their heads down, their attention directed at paperwork or BlackBerries. Those MPs assigned to the House each day generally do likewise, using the time to catch up on correspondence, reading or, as the season may dictate, the signing of Christmas cards. Except when there is a grunt of derision or amusement, it is generally difficult to say who is paying attention to what is being said. “As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to examine this kind of legislation in great detail to establish whether or not it is warranted and whether or not the legislation goes too far toward invading the privacy of Canadians,” Davies ventured. “I would say for us in the NDP, we have come to the conclusion that this legislation does go too far.”