In the Commons today, Transport Minister John Baird repeatedly said that if people had accusations to make, they should make them outside the chamber, where they would not be protected by parliamentary privilege.
As we've seen today, not everyone in the chamber is privileged, and this should be cause for some reflection here, along the lines of Aaron Wherry's very clever observation: "Unsophisticated debate will not be tolerated in this place."
I've been around Ottawa a long time. I get the rules, even the arcane ones. You can't make references to someone's absence in the chamber. You can't talk to someone directly -- it all has to be done through the Speaker. You can't call someone a liar. You can't address someone by name; you have to refer to his or her representation. But all those rules are founded on a principle of respect between adversaries. The idea is that they are not individuals, but part of an institution.
And I was initially taken aback by the demonstration today -- thinking "you can't do that" in the Commons. But I'm thinking that they've done us a favour.
There is no more respect among rivals in the Commons. There is no advantage for any politician to demonstrate respect or show civility or act as part of the institution. It's a whole other discussion, but there isn't much incentive for political reporters to do the same. Judging by the tenor of some comments to this blog, too, civility doesn't seem to be front of mind in any political discussion online either.
So why wouldn't members of the public, in the public galleries, decide to join in the mayhem? The point of parliamentary privilege is that it has to be earned. Rather than punish the protesters, I think I'd argue that all the participants in the Commons have lost their privileges, because the foundation of respect is gone.
Here's a thought: take away the privilege for all MPs in the Commons. Don't have John Baird tempting people to take their accusations outside, because that basically says the outside world is better than the Commons at civil discussion. Out here, where most people live, you're punished for nasty, gratuitous, personal attacks. If you're going to punish people who scream and demonize political opponents, don't start doing that in the public galleries. Start with the people sitting there in the MPs' seats.