If I had a dollar for every time an MLA in the Manitoba legislature complained about being harassed or bullied in the chamber and called on their colleagues to create a more respectful environment, I’d be rich.
MLAs of all political stripe regularly insult, heckle and belittle each other in the legislature. Opposition members do it to government members and government members do it to opposition MLAs. It’s rude and it’s crude and it happens routinely.
House speakers, the referees in all this, try to bring their colleagues in line with stern lectures and lengthy speeches about creating a more respectful environment in the chamber. However, despite the sharp rebukes – not to mention the constant reminders that school kids are often witnessing the proceedings from the public gallery – the taunting and the cat calling always resumes, almost immediately.
Politics is a rough game, a blood sport that’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a far different work environment than most are used to. But no matter how often politicians and house speakers complain about the toxic environment or how committed they appear to be to cleanse the institution of the nastiness, it doesn’t change. Maybe it can’t change.
And most, if not all, MLAs are guilty of contributing to it.
So it was spurious to say the least this week when opposition MLAs Judy Klassen and Nahanni Fontaine claimed Premier Brian Pallister was “bullying” them.
MLAs like Fontaine, in fact, contribute to the very toxic environment they claim to want to change. They regularly taunt, insult and mislead with the best of them.
Despite that, Fontaine claimed Tuesday that she’s “filled with anxiety” every day that she comes to the legislature just to do her job.
“I am suggesting to you that in this house we are not safe,” Fontaine said. “Some of us in this house are not safe from harassment and bullying, and in particular from the first minister.”
This is the same MLA who tried to cover up for her own male colleagues who shouted down female Tory MLAs in 2016 as they stood to vote on an opposition bill designed to combat sexual harassment in post-secondary institutions. The hypocrisy is thick.
The reality is, the level of toxicity in the chamber has been far worse at times in the past. Former premier Gary Filmon once threatened then-NDP MLA Tim Sale with physical violence, urging him to step outside the chamber so “I can kick your lights outs.” He apologized for the outburst the next day.
Former opposition NDP MLA Gord Mackintosh once crossed the floor in the chamber and stood nose to nose with Filmon, yelling at him and accusing him of hiding behind the skirt of the speaker. The sargeant-at-arms had to intervene.
Acrimony in the chamber once rose to such a fierce level that MLAs refused to put their partisanship aside to participate in the customary singing of Christmas carols on the grand staircase.
And former Liberal MLA Kevin Lamoureux was once thrown out of the chamber because he refused to apologize for using unparliamentary language.
Bad behaviour, bullying, hurling insults – all off the record and not recorded in the official Hansard – are part of the normal course of doing business in the legislature. It’s not ideal. But it’s been around for centuries. And the nature of politics and the human condition is such that it may not be easily changed.
House Speaker Myrna Driedger offered some sage observations on that Tuesday:
“This is a very passionate place and the one thing I’ve learned, I think, being in politics, is that in politics we fight with words,” Driedger said in the house. “I’ve been to other countries where they fight with their fists or with guns or with other, you know, other tools and fistfights in the chamber.”
That’s not to say Driedger was condoning the behaviour. She’s been trying to change it since she became speaker two years ago. But she admits it’s not an easy thing to do.
“Everybody comes in here with something that’s important to them and they want to fight for what’s important to them,” she said. “And we don’t want to see that passion diminish, because that’s why a lot of us are here, is because we have a passion for what we’re doing…but I think we have to be careful in how far we take our passion and our words and our behaviours in this house.”
Sage observation and sage advice.