The Hamilton Spectator

Ugly side of our politics on full display


Contempt of Parliament is a serious thing. Contempt by Parliament is what emerged last week as federal politician­s decided that thorny controvers­ies over Islamophob­ia and government contractin­g were best tackled by character assault.

This is, as they say, why we can’t have nice things — such as reasonable, civil debate over our difference­s.

Two prominent, respectabl­e people landed in the crosshairs of this often toxic Parliament last week, and let’s face it, they didn’t stand a chance.

Amira Elghawaby, the new government representa­tive to combat Islamophob­ia, is facing calls for her ouster by the Quebec government and the Bloc Québécois because she opposes the province’s ban on the wearing of religious symbols.

Dominic Barton, Canada’s former ambassador to China and ex-director of the McKinsey consulting firm, was hauled up before a Commons committee to face allegation­s ranging from being too cosy with Justin Trudeau to causing the opiate crisis in North America.

Neither of these developmen­ts were shining moments in the corridors of democracy on Parliament Hill. They are also a marked contrast from the kinds of questions and answers we saw late last year in the public hearings into the so-called “Freedom Convoy” demonstrat­ions, which in many ways were a model of transparen­cy.

A couple of weeks ago, in an interview with the prime minister, I asked Trudeau why we didn’t see him interact with the media the way he and other ministers did at the convoy inquiry. “I guess that’s a question for the media and the opportunit­ies that I get to answer questions,” he said. “I talk to the media four or five times a week, probably on average, in various formats. The me who was answering questions in that convoy (inquiry) was very much the me who shows up at work every day to talk with cabinet, with advisers, to work through policy things.”

What happens, Trudeau said, is that long answers get turned into short, headline-grabbing clips. (I’d argue that many ministers try to speak in that language, too.)

For a brief moment or two on Wednesday, it looked like the Elghawaby controvers­y might be headed toward something resembling politics conducted in full sentences. Trudeau did a very long scrum with reporters, mostly in French, on the ancient history of secularism and language in Quebec.

Then Elghawaby and the Bloc leader held a meeting to talk over their difference­s — which included an apology right off the top from Elghawaby over how her past remarks about Quebec’s secularism bill might have been seen as an insult to the province.

But by Thursday, Blanchet had abandoned full sentences for full sentencing of Elghawaby. In a scrum laden with condescens­ion toward Elghawaby — and also Toronto, inexplicab­ly — the Bloc leader pronounced the government’s new representa­tive inadequate to keeping up with his and the rest of Quebec’s superior knowledge of tolerance and diversity.

Barton, meanwhile, didn’t even get the benefit of 24 hours for MPs to pronounce their hostility toward him. Within minutes of his arrival at the Commons’ Government Operations Committee, it became clear Barton was only there to supply clips for Conservati­ve attacks on elites, the consulting industry and the Trudeau government.

Barton tried a couple of times to do his own talking in full sentences, suggesting that some serious questions do need to be asked about why the public service has become increasing­ly reliant on consulting contracts, and how it spoke to the humanresou­rces gaps in the government. No one on the committee wanted to pursue this subject much further and the goal was to make him a poster boy for anti-government populism.

This sneering face of politics feels unnecessar­y, even unserious. It’s almost as if the political class has decided that if they are going to be on the receiving end of contempt — as they often are — they might as well dish it out, too. But in the end, absolutely nothing in these encounters tackled Islamophob­ia or the complex web of government contractin­g. Clearly that was beside the point.

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