Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Rules, and the Knuckleheads Who Break Them

Well, the Grit has certainly hit the fan...

Edmonton-Ellerslie MLA Bharat Agnihotri was turfed by Speaker Ken Kowalski for refusing to apologize for impugning the integrity of the premier and leadership contenders in his cabinet.

Nation, I don't need to tell you that impugning the integrity of politicians is a national past-time. However, there are rules about what you can and can't say (ON the record, at least) in one of the Provincial Assemblies, Ontario's Provincial Parliament, the National Assembly of Quebec, and in the House of Commons.

We all have rules to follow at our job, or we risk disciplinary action. You can't photocopy your buttocks. You can't send off-colour jokes around the office. You can't answer the phone with a yelled "Leave Me Alone!!!" and hang-up. Likewise, politicians have a line they can't cross, and it is made CRYSTAL CLEAR to them where that line is, on their very first day on the job. They are sat down in a classroom and Parliamentary Procedure and Decorum is explained in precise detail by the Speaker or one of his staffer's. "You must address the Speaker, never the other members directly." Or, "You must use parliamentary language" (no calling other members "Douchebags").

We recently saw how fine the line is with a federal flap over allegations that Prime Minister Harper made in the House of Commons that the Federal Liberals were trying to protect the father of one of their MP's from having to testify about the Air India bombing.

Note: Harper's statement was VERY carefully worded. He did NOT say the man was a terrorist. He did not say the Liberals were trying to protect terrorists, or were terrorist sympathizers. Because he knew he would be held to task and more or less EMBARRASSED by the Speaker for unparliamentary behaviour. So, he left the insinuation at just that... an insinuation. Dirty? Absolutely. Allowed, under the rules of his workplace? Yes.

Back to Bharat Agnihotri and his statement. What, EXACTLY, did Agnihotri say? Because suggesting that something untoward is going on within the government is nothing new, and hardly rounds for punishment - it happens every Question Period. As with so many things, the Devil is in the Details... According to Hansard, the exchange went like this:

Mr. Agnihotri: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The community initiatives program, CIP, application guideline states very clearly that if a group cannot raise matching funds up to $ 10,000, it will be considered on a nonmatching basis. However, documents tabled in this Assembly show that this government is breaking its own rules. To the Minister of Tourism, Parks, Recreation and Culture: why has this government in three years awarded not one, not 10, not 20, but 43 nonmatching CIP grants over $ 10,000, totalling over $ 2 million? Why?

The Speaker: The hon. minister.

The Enlightened Savage: So far, so good. A legitimate question that, clearly, the Speaker has no issue with, as he forwarded it right on to this Minister to whom it was posed.

Mr. Goudreau: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. Certainly, with CIP we try as much as possible to provide equitable funding to all towns and all villages and rural areas, including the urban centres across Alberta. We recognize that at times there are some organizations out there that are providing a great service that are having some financial difficulties. CIP has been built to respond to our volunteers to provide a one-time, nonmatchable funding of up to $ 10,000 if the need is there, and that need comes across through our staff.
The Enlightened Savage (aside): Reading the question, and then reading the Minister's response, makes it perfectly clear why people lose confidence in our politicians. The answer had virtually NOTHING to do with the question, and yet if you write a letter to the Minister asking the same question, you'll get a response letter with the same answer. "Question about CIP, what should I do?" "Send 'em the form letter marked "CIP Inquiry". "That just tells them what it is, and how to apply!" "So what? You actually expect the MINISTER to read a letter from a voter, and respond directly to an inquiry? You must be new here..."

The Speaker: The hon. member.

Mr. Agnihotri: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Premier, Minister of Finance, Minister of Health, Minister of Sustainable Resource Development all have secret donors to their leadership campaign. Can this minister assure this House that groups receiving this special treatment are not secret friends of top Tories?

The Speaker: We have a point of order that we’ll deal with at the conclusion of the Routine.

The Enlightened Savage: Oh-oh. That's the equivalent of YOUR boss telling you "see me in my office at the end of the day."

This bit of fun and frivolity comes from later in Hansard, when dealing with the Point of Order.

The Speaker: Well, you know, hon. members, we were actually making pretty good progress till today. The question from the hon. Member for Edmonton-Ellerslie, the first one, which wasn’t dealt with, basically says, “ If a group cannot raise matching funds up to $ 10,000, it will be considered on a nonmatching basis. However, documents tabled in this Assembly show that this government is breaking its own rules.” Well, that wasn’t even contested. There were no rules that were broken. This chair is very familiar with the rules of the community initiatives program and was an author of some of them in years gone by. It very clearly states that if a group does not have the matching portion, the $ 10,000 can be allocated, so that’s just a bunch of nonsense, hon. member.
Okay, so the Speaker has answered the question in clearer terms than the Minister. AND called the Minister on it, too. "The first one, which wasn't dealt with...". How's THAT taste, Hec? A little concerning, not all that shocking - but you know you're in for a rough ride when your supervisor tells you your point is "just a bunch of nonsense".

The Speaker: Secondly, we come to the brunt of the whole business. “ The . . . Minister of Finance” named, “ minister of health” named, “ Minister of Sustainable Resource Development” named, not part of a group as far as one can read this, named individually, “ all have secret donors to their leadership campaign.” Well, the chair has already pointed out that what that has to do with government business, the chair does not understand. Beauchesne clearly points out that political party matters are not the subject of the question period. Then the question: “ Can this minister assure this House that groups receiving this special treatment” – now, the question is: what special treatment? – “ are not secret friends of top Tories?” Boy, if that isn’t innuendo, you know, I must have just arrived. I’ve been here 28 years, and this is blatant innuendo. This is a point of order. This is not dealing with the integrity of members of this Assembly. The hon. Member for Edmonton-Ellerslie can do better, and I expect him to do better, and I ask him to withdraw his words, please.

The Enlightened Savage: Doesn't get much clearer than that. "We're not discussion political parties, you can't smear individual members, take it back."

Mr. Agnihotri: Sorry, Mr. Speaker. I don’t want to apologize.

The Enlightened Savage: Oh-oh.

The Speaker: Well, hon. member, I’m going to point out the consequences of you not abiding by my request, and the consequences are not very nice. So I’m going to do this three times just so there’s no misunderstanding, and the third time the hon. member will be named. Now, this has happened before in the history of this Assembly when people have tried to make a point. Once they’re named, they lose salary and everything else. Please remember that. People have done that to showboat in the past. This has happened. I was here once with one hon. member. So I’m going to ask the hon. member to accept the ruling of the chair and withdraw his comments. That’s my first request. I’m going to ask the hon. member to accept the ruling of the chair and withdraw his comments. First time.

Mr. Agnihotri: Mr. Speaker, as you said, the rules were not broken. If you read the guidelines . . .

The Enlightened Savage: OH boy. Big mistake.

The Speaker: Hon. member, please sit down. I asked a few minutes ago if any other hon. member wanted to participate. I looked around. I waited. The hon. member did not move. The member was given a chance to participate. We’ve had under our process a submission provided by one, a submission provided by another. A ruling is then given. The chair has given the ruling. Now, for the second time the chair is going to ask the hon. member to withdraw his comments. The hon. member can either withdraw his comments or not. If he would just put on the record that he doesn’t want to, that’s fine.

Mr. Agnihotri: I didn’t do anything wrong, Mr. Speaker. I don’t want to withdraw my comments.

The Speaker: Fine. The hon. member was given an opportunity to participate; the hon. member chose not to take an opportunity to participate. For the third time: will the hon. member withdraw his comments?

Mr. Agnihotri: Mr. Speaker, no.

The Speaker: That’s perfectly fine, hon. member. I will now name you. This is the first time in nine years that I’ve actually done this. This is not a good day. It’s not a good day for the member. I’m sorry, hon. member. Please leave. Hon. members, the hon. member cannot return to the House until approval is given by the House.
So, there we have it. The MLA in question was booted from the House until he formally apologizes for 2 things: Firstly, for wasting the Legislature's time in very OBVIOUSLY discussing political party matters, rather than government or opposition matters. Secondly, for naming members and suggesting that they had "secret donors" who were funnelled money through the CIP. Whether they had leadership donors who didn't come forward or whose names we don't know is irrelevant to the issue - you can't go there on the dime of the People of Alberta. The Legislature is there, all those people are getting paid, to run the machine of government, not to bicker in an obvious way about partisan issues with no relevance to the government's operation, and CERTAINLY not outside the established rules of decorum. You can suggest a minister is incompetent. You can NOT suggest he's stealing. Agnihotri knew this, and chose to go forward anyway. He had 3 chances to apologize, and he didn't. And he's been suspended from the House.

Look at it this way: If you waste your supervisor's time complaining to him in the Monday morning meeting with all the staff that you think the guy in cubicle 4-C is running a swinger's club in his basement, and photocopying the fliers on the office copier, you probably aren't going to get 3 chances to apologize.

Now, if only our elected members could be held to this kind of code of civility for their OFF the record remarks, shouted across the chamber during other member's statements... hard to tell your kids not to interrupt when they watch the elected leaders of our nation, the BEST that we have to offer, behaving like impertinent 3 year-olds in a sandbox.

- ES


Anonymous said...


Great post. The member practically jumped over the line, he did not just cross it. And yet, when given the opportunity to withdraw his comments - Kowalski practically begged him to do so - he refused. Three times! He could easily have given a lame apology, e.g. "Mr. Speaker, in my passion for the truth [or whatever, insert commercial here], I impugned the personal integrity of members of this House. That was not my intent. I withdraw my prior statements". There. Done.

Ken Kowalski may not be everyone's favourite MLA, but he has clearly served as a more than competent Speaker. His experience as Speaker, and his "institutional memory" in the House is unparalled. I don't recall any public disparagements of his performance as Speaker by a member of any party in the House, so he has presumably been fair in application of rules of order. I hope the media picks up on the particulars of this exchange, like you have, and doesn't try and "dumb it down" to fit in a small column in tomorrow's paper.

People say they want more civility in government. Let's hope this is a catalyst for it.

Anonymous said...

"I refuse to apologize".

"I apologize".

kenchapman said...

HI ES. I have been out of the country for a bit and came back to this Brew Ha! Ha! The Grit partisans see this as their guy getting a boot for asking a question on why there appears to be CIP grants given outside the program provisions.

Had he left it at that he should be applauded as a good politician doing his job. To go to innuendo on campaign contributions with no evidence...under the protection of the legislature is scuzzy.

This post of yours should be required reading for poli sci and maybe even law students.

Very well done and thank you for a thorough review and a most enjoyable read.

Anonymous said...

You've hit the nail on the head once again, Enlightened Savage

Glen said...

Your analogy needs a little bit of work. It's more like running the swingers club and then one of your members comes to you at work asking for a special favour...

Enlightened Savage said...

Glen: Proof?

Without it, allegations like this only come up in the Legislature because you could get your butt sued off for making baseless, unprovable claims of theft by government officials outside of the Legislature's "no-sue zone". An accusation of "secret donors getting their donations laundered" without any proof holds as much credibility as the blogger who claimed that "Stephen Harper LIKES it when Canadian soldiers die in Afghanistan".

Having a microphone in your face, much like having a page on the web on which to blog, doesn't give you the right to make spurious claims without proof - it's irresponsible and doesn't contribute to the common good, it's just partisan for the sake of being partisan.

Partisansip exists. Sadly. But if everyone just assumes that all right-wingers are automatically as crooked as Nixon, or all lefties are swindlers like the AdScam crew, we're all doomed.

You can accuse people of WHATEVER you can prove they did... but if you can't prove it, you can't make the accusation.