Did this Liberal MP flip the bird in Parliament? A cursory investigation

He might just have a temple that gets really itchy during carbon tax votes

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It was a heated Monday vote over exempting the carbon tax on home heating. And during one of the most contentious single votes to defeat it, a middle finger was seen to extend towards the ceiling of the House of Commons chamber.

“Oh, oh!” records the official House of Commons transcript – the usual annotation for a generalized hubbub.

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And the Conservatives swiftly ran with the gesture, alleging that they (and all of Canada) had been the target of a Parliamentary bird-flipping. “The member for Avalon literally gave the finger to Canadians as he stood to vote for our motion to give them a reprieve on home heating costs,” said Conservative House Leader Kerry-Lynne Findlay.

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The MP making the vote was Newfoundland MP Ken McDonald — a Liberal who has become noted for his penchant to occasionally break ranks with his party on the issue of carbon pricing.

Just last month, McDonald became the only Liberal to back a non-binding Conservative motion to repeal the carbon tax entirely. He then did a brief media tour to claim that the carbon tax was rendering his party unelectable all along the Atlantic Coast. “Everywhere I go, people come up to me and say, you know, ‘We’re losing faith in the Liberal party,’” he told CBC.

But on a much less sweeping Conservative motion, McDonald changed his mind and voted the Liberal line. Monday’s motion wasn’t calling for repeal, but for a “temporary, three-year pause” on “all forms of home heating.”

The motion was measured enough that it even received the support of the NDP – who remarked that while they usually have no problem ignoring Conservative ideas, this one was different. “For once the Conservatives haven’t gone over the top with their motions,” said NDP House Leader Peter Julian last week.

And McDonald has previously supported a near-identical motion from 2022. In October of last year, he was also the only Liberal to support a Conservative motion calling on the government to “exempt all forms of home heating fuel from the carbon tax.”

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A few weeks ago, McDonald explained his two acts of carbon price rebellion as an issue of pride. “I couldn’t vote against the two Conservative motions that I voted in favour of and feel like I could walk around my community with my head held high,” he told National Post.

The only material thing that’s changed in the interim is a Trudeau government “carve-out” on the carbon tax for home heating oil.

Fewer than three per cent of Canadian homes use heating oil, but the ones that do are disproportionately concentrated in East Coast ridings like McDonald’s. As of 2019, oil was second only to electricity in terms of how Newfoundlanders heat their homes, with about 48,000 households still using it.

So on Monday, McDonald was effectively rising to vote down a measure that would extend the same tax benefits to the rest of Canada that had just been extended to large swaths of his own constituency. What’s more, it was a tax benefit that he’s previously been on record to support.

The Conservative benches knew this, and it’s why McDonald’s vote was accompanied by a chorus of heckling from the Tories. “Ken, you flip-flopped again,” someone shouted.

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Making the rounds of social media is a low-resolution video of McDonald’s vote that does appear to show him extending a clear middle finger at the heckling Tories. A higher-resolution capture, however, shows that the middle finger is accompanied by an index finger as it scratches McDonald’s temple – a point that the MP made sure to emphasize in subsequent public comments. “If they think it’s one finger, that’s up to them,” he said.

And thus are observers left with two explanations. That a Liberal MP with a history of unfiltered public comments just happened to rise on a controversial vote that he knew would be heckled – and simultaneously had an uncontrollable itch on his temple that could not wait the several seconds until he was once again sitting down.

Or, that McDonald may have meant more in the gesture than he’s letting on. That’s certainly the Conservative position. As Findlay said on Monday, “I would comment that it is very unusual to scratch the side of one’s head with one’s middle finger as one is voting.”

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