The Parliament of Fouls


Why ‘Contempt of Parliament’ is a serious offence …

Not long before St. Valentine’s Day in 1380, or thereabouts, Geoffrey Chaucer, himself the Member of Parliament for Kent, wrote The Parliament of Fowls. The poet dreams of a great assembly of birds, convened by the goddess Nature to discuss which of three amorous tercel eagles would wed the favourite of the goddess. The debate quickly grows rancorous and the birds chirp insults at one another until the goddess calls a halt: “Peace! I have heard the opinions of all and yet we are no nearer our goal.” Nature dissolves the Parliament and declares her eagle shall decide for herself.

Not long after St Valentine’s Day in 2011, the Parliament of Fouls fell, all atwitter, on a vote of non-confidence and the air is once again filled with the tweets of amorous politicians seeking your vote.

Whether you think they are tercels or twits, or whether you yourself are a tweep, the fact remains that Parliament is Canada under one roof. All the Members of Parliamentarian are elected to represent all Canadians. True, the representation is not perfect (and neither are the MPs), and Canadians may be forgiven for thinking Parliament Hill has gone to the birds. But the fact remains, as Pogo once said, “They is us.”

So when some cuckoo shows contempt for Parliament, he is showing contempt for us too.

Contempt is a poisonous thing, as Samuel Johnson knew: “Contempt is a kind of gangrene, which if it seizes one part of a character, it corrupts all the rest by degrees.” It has meaning in law as well as the Collins English dictionary reminds us. “Contempt is the wilful disregard of or disrespect for the authority of a court of law or legislative body.” Even saying it sounds like a sneer.

The Glossary of Parliamentary Procedure brings it to closer to home. Contempt is, “any offence against the authority or dignity of Parliament, including disobedience to its commands or libel against it or its Members. Punishment for such an offence may take a variety of forms, up to and including imprisonment.”

In a Parliamentary system, the battle between governed and government is fought on the floor of the House of Commons. Any battle needs rules of engagement – articles of war, if you like. Parliamentary procedures and practices have developed over some 800 years now. Some are codified and some not, as in: thou must grow a thick skin.

So a finding of contempt of Parliament is extremely rare. It’s been used only a few times in Canada and only against individuals. It is anything but an administrative slap on the wrist.

If you are found to be in contempt of Parliament, it’s a serious matter. It means the evidence has persuaded the elected representatives of most Canadians that you have frustrated the ability of the country to work democratically. Things like altering a government document and then misleading the House about it, or not making the details of your proposals available to the House of Commons are liable to land you in contempt.

In order to properly assess the Harper Government’s proposals, MPs asked for details of its cost estimates for its crime legislation, its F-35 fighter jets and its corporate tax cuts – all things they had a right, and a need, to know. When Mr Harper’s ministers refused, over a long period of time and in the face of many requests, the Speaker had little choice but to refer the government’s “breach of Parliamentary privilege” to the Commons Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for investigation.

The Committee found the government to be in contempt of Parliament and the House of Commons agreed. It’s kind of hard to work with someone who holds you in contempt – we’ve all had to suffer through poisonous work environments. But when it gets to the point where you can’t do your job, something has to give. And in this case it was confidence in Mr Harper’s government to govern.

The government fell, not because Parliamentarians’ rejected its budget, but on the government’s own abuse of Canada’s democratic system. Just so we’re clear.

It’s not as if it was an isolated case. Lawrence Martin, in his book, Harperland, counts up some 70 instances of things that go against the democratic grain, including dismissing watchdogs who refused to be lap dogs and smearing the reputations of critics such as Richard Colvin who blew the whistle on Afghan detainees. Then there are all those suspected violations of the Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest Act and the Federal Accountability Act and the Public Servants Disclosure and Protection Act that Harper’s own appointed watchdogs have refused to disclose publicly or investigate properly.

And it’s not just the contempt, it’s the evasion. Harper twice dodged the heat by proroguing Parliament. Adjourning Parliament just to escape an impending motion of censure, as the Harper Government did in 2008, is a serious breach of government privilege if not outright contempt.

That’s not just my opinion. Eugene Forsey, Canada’s late, great constitutional expert, said the same thing about the Liberal government when it pulled the same sort of stunt in 1926.

Harper did it again about a year later to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny on the Afghan detainee affair. To paraphrase Mr Forsey, that’s like an accused man adjourning his own trial because he doesn’t like the way the cross-examination is going.

Parliamentary battles between government and governed have been going on for a long time. A few years before Chaucer penned his Parliament of Fowls, there sat the ‘Good Parliament.’ The House of Commons demanded an accounting of royal expenditures and criticized King Edward III’s management of the military. When they didn’t get answers, the Commons impeached the king’s ministers. Edward’s response was to imprison the outspoken Speaker of the House.

The nature of contempt hasn’t changed much, but thank goodness our governments have made some progress on how they deal with a troublesome opposition. Now they just send everyone home, turn out the lights and lock the doors.

April 8, 2011
© David McLaren

David McLaren is a writer living at Neyaashiinigamiing, on the shore of Georgian Bay. He has worked in government, the private sector and with NGOs and First Nations.

Hear what Peter Russel (Professor Emeritus, Univeristy of Toronto), Canada’s leading Constitutional expert has to say on Parliamentary democracy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEsXSb_JJSU&feature=share (posted April 24, 2011).

Plus: 200 bonus points for remembering the whole of Pogo’s quote. Reply below to collect your points.

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About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at david.mclaren@utoronto.ca. In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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3 Responses to The Parliament of Fouls

  1. Penney Kome says:

    Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  2. Rick Wallace says:

    Hey David,
    yes, Stephen Harper and the governing Conservative Party are systematically deconstructing hundreds of years of democratic work. His secrecy, disrespect and intolerance towards democractic process is almost beyond words…except that it all appears so banal. I think the Harper government’s approach is a dangerous cancer that is both representative and a catalyst for undermining democracy in Canada. And yes, as Pogo said in the previous blog post above, the enemy is us, too.

    Here’s my question: How and when can we determine that a parliamentary system had become so sick with cancer that it can no longer be saved? In Canada, over several decades, I feel like I’m watching someone in a palliative care unit who is dying and we want to give them a feeding tube. Democracy is an ongoing project. It has numerous sites. Yes, governance at the State level is the pivotal prize. Continuing to vote for parties (ABC–Anybody but Conservatives) that we don’t really believe in, well,….I’m looking for other projects of democratization other than this notion of voting every few years. I want participatory governance. The Canadian parliamentary system with its exclusion, corruption and superficiality is terminally broken. I won’t feed it by voting. Cheers.

  3. Yes Rick, I feel the same way. But I think, for democracy to work properly, you have to work both ends of it: the voting end and the grass-roots end. Working with First Nations for the past 20 years and seeing how easy it was for governments of all stripes to strip a people of their constitutionally recognized rights, and then walking the streets during the G20 in June 2010, and then seeing the young people on the streets of the Middle East is proof enough that achieving democracy is hard work. Keeping it is hard work. And applying it is hard work. The Harper Government (the name says it all) has already altered how we rule ourselves (check out http://www.rabble.ca/features/series/harpers-assault-on-democracy). The representational system we have now does not properly reflect the people’s will. So we work to fix it. In the meantime we should do everything we can to remove stumbling blocks and if that means voting, I’m gonna hold my nose and vote.

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