The taunting of the seals

The seals are barking mad, or at least barking.

After the resignation from the Conservative party caucus by Brent Rathgeber, in protest of the command and control by staff “half my age” in the prime minister’s office, loyalists in caucus assured everyone that there is plenty of independence and autonomy in the Conservative caucus. It’s the kind of thing one might expect an MP to say if he was in the habit of substituting PMO talking points for his own thinking.


Deepak Obhrai made it explicit, taking to social media to insist that he was not a “trained seal.” Yes, the image — long around Parliament Hill — was made explicit by Mr. Rathgeber in his post-resignation press conference. A “trained seal” is how the PMO regards the backbench MPs who simply do what they are told, standing erect on command, clapping furiously with their flippers, barking as directed, all in the hope of being tossed a fish. Mr. Rathgeber said he did not want to be a trained seal any longer, and so was leaving the Conservative circus — rather, caucus. Mr. Obhrai hopped up on his stool, balanced the big ball on his whiskers, and said no trained seal was he.


The complaint is hardly new in Canada which, inheriting the grandeur of the Westminster parliamentary system, has grafted on to that beautiful flower the toxic weed of the party discipline perfected by the Chinese Communist Party in plenary session. It goes back generations. In the 1970s, Pierre Trudeau famously said MPs were “nobodies” — not even trained seals. Former prime minister John Diefenbaker spent the 1970s railing that he wanted to “see Parliament live!” He was not calling for the backbenchers to learn new tricks, but to stop acceding to their ringmasters. Trudeau was rather more successful at grasping and holding power than Diefenbaker, and appropriate lessons were learned.


After graduating from high school in 1989, I spent a summer as an intern in my local MP’s parliamentary office. He had served in the PMO in the first Mulroney term, and then was elected to the House of Commons himself in 1988. In his office was a small statue of a trained seal. Not familiar with what I assumed what the heraldic significance of same, I inquired after it, and was told that it was a gift to the new MP from his former colleagues in the PMO. The ringmasters in the Langevin block were welcoming a new seal to the circus.


The resignation of Mr. Rathgeber was considered by many pundits as destabilizing for the Harper government. It surely was, but outside of Conservative partisans, destabilization is to be welcomed, if the much-vaunted stability of the system is the problem in first place. Mr. Obhrai protested being characterized a trained seal because it is demeaning, and it is difficult to achieve the respect that ought to be commensurate with serving in Parliament if your colleagues liken you to a circus animal. Mr. Obhrai and his colleagues would generate greater respect for Parliament — Dief would see Parliament live again! — if they did not protest being called trained seals, and simply stopped acting like them.


Mr. Rathgeber’s exit from the caucus was coincidental with the return of Peter Goldring, the Edmonton MP who recused himself from caucus after being charged late last year with refusing to submit himself to a roadside breathalyzer test. No obedient seal was he when the police demanded control of his breath! Would that MPs were so resistant to the PMO demanding control of their voices.


The trial concluded last week with an acquittal, and Mr. Goldring was back in caucus. Will the return of Mr. Goldring — defender of civil liberties and fearless in the face of the police state — herald a new spirit of independence on the back benches?


Not likely. In the judgement issued last Thursday, L.G. Anderson, assistant chief judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta, had this to say about Mr. Goldring:


“Without intending any insult, my impression is that Mr. Goldring intuitively tended to answer questions like a person trained to stick to key messages regardless of the question. When pressed on the stand, Mr. Goldring appeared to attempt to answer truthfully as best he could.”


That’s a judicial finding, in courteous legal language, that Mr. Goldring is, in fact, a trained seal. One expects that that endorsement eased his return to caucus. The judicial branch does not give out seal statues like the executive branch does, but the opinion is the epistolary equivalent. Should Mr. Obhrai protest to the judge?