OTTAWA – Canada’s 42nd Parliament began with the requisite nods to history and tradition that happen on the first day, but also offered plenty of signs that the class of 2015 has its own fresh chemistry and look.
That new energy seemed to be encapsulated in the moment Nova Scotia Liberal MP Geoff Regan was brought up to his seat as the new Speaker of the House of Commons, elected by his peers. Regan, 56, who represents the riding of Halifax West, was first elected in 1993, defeated in 1997 and then re-elected in 2000, and has served as MP ever since.
The custom is for the new Speaker to pretend they don’t want the job, and so the party leaders drag him up. This year’s pantomime was particularly light-hearted, Regan’s face contorted in feigned horror, Conservative interim Leader Rona Ambrose yanking one of his arms over her head as she marched forward, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pulling on the other.
Once in the seat, Regan echoed the hopeful sentiment that has been on the lips of so many MPs of all stripes over the years: that the Commons should commit to a new, more collegial culture.
“You have given me a very important responsibility and I will need your support,” Regan said, having beat out Liberal colleagues Yasmin Ratansi and Denis Paradis and Conservative Bruce Stanton for the job.
“I think we need to raise the tone in this chamber and reconstitute goodwill. We have to have respect for one another, despite our differences.”
Trudeau said Canadians want to see constructive debates on issues that matter to them. Also on Thursday, the Liberal government announced a new, theoretically non-partisan process for selecting senators.
“We will work hard to promote more openness across government, we will give Canadians a voice in Ottawa and in this chamber,” Trudeau said.
“This also means greater independence of committees, reforming question period and more free votes.”
Regan’s election precedes the first throne speech by the new Liberal government, to be delivered Friday by Gov. Gen. David Johnston.
Insiders say the speech will be little more than a list of the government’s immediate priorities, with minimal rhetorical flourishes and no surprises.
It’s expected to be a brief recitation of the urgent promises Trudeau intends to move on over the coming year – those aimed at improving the lot of struggling middle-class Canadians foremost among them.
Ambrose, who has repeatedly said that she is committed to bringing a more respectful tone to the Commons, said one day Canadians would come to know this period as the “Great Parliament.”
She promised she would support the government when it’s in the best interest of Canadians. When it’s not, “Just watch me,” she said with a smile, quoting her Liberal adversary’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
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The new configuration of the House of Commons has a number of new characteristics. For one, there are 30 more seats, with a total of 338 members of Parliament sardined into the room.
The are more visible minorities in the Chamber, up 54 per cent from the last Parliament. And as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair pointed out in his welcome to Regan, a record number of indigenous Canadians – 10 MPs in all.
On the front benches on either side of the House there were also notable changes in the gender makeup. Ambrose will be frequently supported during question period by finance critic Lisa Raitt, the two women taking prime seats across from Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
On the government side, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Heritage Minister Melanie Joly and Public Works Minister Judy Foote also took prominent seats.
Off in a far corner, NDP MP Christine Moore bounced her three-month old baby Daphnee, born during the election campaign. MPs passed a get-well card around from desk to desk, and across the aisle, for convalescing Commons clerk Audrey O’Brien.
“Think when you see the remembrances here of the 116,000 Canadians who are buried overseas who fought so that we could hear, speak freely and express our different opinions,” Regan said.
“Let us here resolve to conduct ourselves in this place, that we might be worthy of the sacrifices they made.”