Mr. Speaker, a week ago in the House I traced the series of events which led to this controversy over displaying the flag in the Chamber. It is not my intent to rehearse those events again today.
I argued, however, that the fundamental issue at stake was one of freedom of expression, including the right to display the flag, the right to sing the anthem and the right to freedom of speech by members of this Parliament. The challenge to the Chair and to the House was to find the right balance between all three.
The Speaker's ruling yesterday focused on what was required to maintain decorum in the House, which is fine. The Speaker implied that the rules of the House did not give him the authority to recognize the displaying of the Canadian flag on the desks of members.
The motion before the House is designed to change the rules and simply give that authority.
Like you, Mr. Speaker, we have taken into account rules, practices and precedents affecting this House, but our position on this issue also takes into account what we believe to be the wishes of the Canadian people to whom this House ultimately belongs.
Since the government spin doctors have been hard at work putting their interpretation on this matter, let me first say what this motion is not. It is not a motion of censure of the Speaker or the way in which the Speaker handled this issue.
This caucus is composed of blunt plain speaking westerners who tend to say what we mean and mean what we say. We prefer to argue and to agree and disagree out in the open and not behind closed doors. But this penchant for plain speaking should not be interpreted as any disrespect for the House or for the Chair.
Second, this motion is not intended as a putdown of any members of this House, including members of the Bloc Quebecois. It is a simple positive affirmation of Canadian nationalism.
The members of the Bloc never tire of exhibiting their feelings of nationalism in words, symbols and actions and their efforts to separate Quebec from Canada.
We, however, simply want to remind the Bloc that there is also such a thing as Canadian nationalism. Some people wear their nationalism on their sleeves and its slogans are always on their lips. Other people are less vocal and carry their feelings for their country deep in their hearts. It would be a huge miscalculation on the part of the Bloc to believe that those feelings do not exist in the hearts of Canadians or that they can be ignored or insulted with impunity.
I am reminded of Burke's famous quotation that just because a few grasshoppers under a leaf make the field ring with their importunate chirping whilst thousands of great cattle repose beneath the trees, chew the cud, and are silent, pray do not believe that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.
My third point is that one member of this House chose to see in our simple request to put a Canadian flag on our desks an example of extreme nationalism like that which led to World War II. How anyone could characterize our simple request in that fashion is beyond comprehension. I choose to believe the member misspoke himself or was perhaps misquoted.
I address the remainder of my remarks to government members. One of the disturbing characteristics of this government is that it seems unable or unwilling to finish what it starts, a sign of a government and a party in decline. For example, the government started to get the federal fiscal house in order but after eliminating the deficit, which is only the first step, it appears to be giving up on the other steps of reducing the debt, reducing the taxes and controlling the spending. It cannot finish the job it started.
Now we see the same thing on this flag issue. On February 26 it was a Liberal member, the member for Oshawa, who provided the Canadian flags for MPs' desks with a little note requesting us to wave them when a certain Bloc MP rose in question period. It was Liberal members, not Reformers, who brought the large flag into that part of the House and draped it over their desks, the same one they displayed during the budget speech without rebuke from the Speaker.
It was the government House leader responding to the Bloc's point of order who said: “For someone like myself who believes strongly in the unity of this country, flag waving is not a provocation but an act of pride”. The unbiased observer sitting in the gallery on that day would have been convinced it was the Liberal MPs who were foremost in promoting the displaying of the flag and the singing of the anthem subject only to certain limits perhaps yet to be determined.
Since that date what have we seen? We have seen a weak-kneed government beating an unseemly retreat. By this last weekend the government House leader, so bold on February 26, had resorted to proposing the whole issue be sent for burial in a committee. Only in a Liberal government of Canada would it be suggested that the simple issue of whether a Canadian flag could be flown on the desks of Canadian members of Parliament should be shunted off to endless review and discussion by experts in committee.
The government has been backpedalling on its affirmation of the right to display the flag and sing the anthem since the day this issue was raised. If government members now fail to back this simple motion, their retreat will be complete. It reminds me of the New Testament parable about the foolish builder of a tower who neglected to count the cost before he began and became the laughing stock of his community because he began to build and was unable to finish.
Likewise the public, observing this unseemly retreat of government members, is left shaking its head and saying “these Liberals began something on February 26 but were not able to finish”.
The government's behaviour on this issue raises a more fundamental question. That is how can the government be trusted to stand up for Canada on the big things if it will not stand up for Canada on the little things? How can the government be trusted to stand up for Canada in its larger dealings with the separatists if it will not even stand up for the Canadian flag in the Canadian House of Commons?
The government is supposed to be the watchdog of the Canadian national interest, particularly in its dealings with those who would lower the Canadian flag from every flagpole in Quebec. This flag incident, small in one sense but ominous and large in what it portends, is revealing that watchdog for what many fear it has become: a tired and toothless old watchdog which would prefer to lie in the sun scratching itself rather than defending the interests of its masters, the people of Canada.
I therefore challenge the government members opposite and the members of the NDP and Progressive Conservatives. If such members really stand on guard for Canada, support the motion. If such members join with the separatists in opposing the motion, they should explain to the House and to their constituents how they can possibly be trusted to stand on guard for the Canadian national interest in larger and more substantive matters.