The author is a former conservative strategist. He was a political adviser in the Harper government as well as in the opposition.
In Quebec or Ottawa, it is often said that question period is the best show in the city. It can be attended in person for free or accessed on all digital platforms. The session offers a review of hot topics that will have made the headlines in the morning or will be in the news the next day. The media report excerpts from the heated exchanges, but for political aficionados, watching the oratorical contest is a must. We can detect the strengths and weaknesses of non-verbal language and the dynamics between political actors.
We see, for example, a change in attitude on the part of Justin Trudeau since the arrival of Pierre Poilievre as Leader of the Opposition in Ottawa. We see him more combative, more on the lookout. We will wait to see the new dynamic in Quebec with the arrival of Paul St-Pierre Plamondon at the Blue Room and Marc Tanguay as interim leader of the opposition before making a statement.
The sessions sometimes give rise to oratorical flights which have failed, often caused by the frustration of not obtaining answers to one’s questions. Because if this democratic exercise is an opportunity to ask questions of the government and to hold it to account, behind the scenes, it is nicknamed the response period.
Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, once said in a press conference: “Does anyone have any questions for my answers? This is somewhat the essence of the political game: the questions are assertions and the answers provided are rarely informative. It is an exchange of media “punching” lines, with the opposition parties hoping to make the news and the government hoping to downplay, neutralize or counterattack.
A deputy cannot be sued for defamation for remarks made in the National Assembly, because of the complete immunity enjoyed by all elected officials. This does not mean that they can say everything, because there are rules, formulations to respect and a list of forbidden words, regularly updated.
More than 400 words or expressions
As Article 35 of the Standing Orders of the National Assembly indicates, certain words are prohibited because “considered offensive or inappropriate to the decency that befits parliamentary deliberations”. Deputies may not refer to their colleagues by name or address them directly: they must address the Chair, speaking of their colleagues in the third person, by their title or constituency name. They may not impute improper motives to another Member or use violent, abusive, coarse or hurtful language. They are prohibited from making seditious remarks that would incite “concerted revolt against public authority”.
Question Period exchanges are adjudicated by the Chair, who determines what constitutes unparliamentary language. There are no hard and fast criteria, but MPs who formulate them must withdraw them. There is, however, a lexicon of non-parliamentary remarks in Quebec, to which more than 400 words or expressions have been added since its creation in 1984. This is how the oratorical contest is built, because one must constantly use wit and being inventive in making his point without breaking the rules.
A small analysis of the lexicon shows that 14 words or expressions are added on average each year. There are good years: 2006 saw 39 words added to the list and 2010 and 2016, 31 words. The first year, five words were added, including “scream”, then came the fact of accusing a colleague “of not telling the truth”, in the same register as of “lying” or of being a “patronage politician “. The year ended with the addition of the word “shabby”.
All the forms of the word “to lie” are declined in the lexicon, with its synonyms, its expressions and fictitious or theatrical characters, like Tartuffe or Shylock. With more than 120 occurrences in Quebec for 38 years, demonstrating that the government has something to hide is recurrent. Lying for a minister is customary grounds for resignation.
We cannot accuse a parliamentarian of hiding information or of being secretive, or qualifying the information provided by a colleague as false or false. Nor can he be accused of being a hypocrite or a demagogue. And, since 2008, no deputy has been lazy or incompetent.
It is not only words in French that are banned in Quebec, where the debates are nevertheless held in this language: cheap, cover-up, yes man, loserdirty job, for example, are among the prohibited terms. There is also an Italian word, omertàsince 2010.
In Ottawa, there was a lexicon of unparliamentary language. He was abandoned. A review concluded that codifying this statement was not possible and not recommended. We have chosen to leave it to the Chair to decide that an expression or a word may be appropriate one day, but unparliamentary another, depending on the tone and the intention of the person who uses it.
And the quality of the debates?
In Ottawa, Conservative MP Jacques Gourde is known for his flights of fancy over the variations of the word “scandal”. If he were a member for Quebec, he would have to find another strategy to be invited to Infoman.
With a list that grows with each parliamentary session, should Quebec come to the same conclusion as Ottawa? It is not the words, but their use that should be judged, case by case, according to the context. Does a stretching lexicon indicate that it is coming to the end of its usefulness? Does the objective, although noble, harm the quality of the debates?
It is true that certain remarks are “abject”, that it occurs on the occasion of “scandals”, that the Assembly “wastes its time”, that sometimes the parties do not “negotiate in good faith”, that there is always a risk of “collusion” and that MPs may be in “conflict of interest”. We have seen recent examples of “childishness” on the part of all parties, and it often happens that there is a “total absence of candor” and that ministers or the Prime Minister behave in a “haughty” way. . Certain situations in emergency rooms and residences for the elderly are “indecent”.
It is the role of the opposition to ask questions if there has been “brazen political interference” in an issue. And, yes, there is a lot of political speech in the chamber that is “meaningless.” It is important to “speak intelligently” from time to time.
Yet, according to the lexicon of unparliamentary speech, these words cannot be spoken. Admittedly, we all remember the inclusion of the famous word “weathervane” uttered by Jean Charest to Mario Dumont, but beyond the anecdote, it deserves reflection.
Quebec has abolished applause at the Blue Room. Ottawa should follow this measure. For its part, Quebec could come to the conclusion, as did Ottawa, that codifying everything is a false good idea, the proof being this lexicon which is unduly stretched. A sort of exchange of best practices in federal-provincial parliamentary relations.