By Fergal McAlinden.
The forty first Parliament of Canada, in its partisanship, lack of decorum, and uncivil behaviour, left a sour taste in the mouth. With heckling and recriminations rife in parliamentary debate, Canadians’ enthusiasm and appetite for politics were dented significantly; dismay at the negative, starkly partisan way politics was conducted was one of the key reasons behind the election of the Liberal Party and their bright, optimistic leader Justin Trudeau just over a year ago. “Politics doesn’t have to be negative and personal to be successful,” declared Trudeau ebulliently in his victory speech. “…you can appeal to the better angels of our nature, and you can win while doing it.”
Onlookers hoped that the positivity and inclusiveness of Trudeau’s liberal agenda would spill into the staid, bitter hall that the House of Commons had become.
It would prove no easy task though: in the latter years of the Harper government, unparliamentary behavior and poor conduct had reached perhaps its worst ever level. A report by Samara Canada on heckling during the last parliament painted a dismal picture of civility in the Commons: a sizable percentage of MPs who responded admitted that the prevalence of heckling negatively affected their job performance and, in many cases, dissuaded them from contributing during parliamentary debate at all. Most troubling of all was the finding that while 69% of MPs surveyed perceived heckling to be a problem, 72% of respondents freely admitted they were guilty of doing it themselves.
Nor was Trudeau himself blameless for the malaise that set in during the Harper years. In 2011, still two years from becoming Liberal leader, Trudeau found himself at the centre of a media storm over his utterance of an obscenity at Conservative MP and Environment minister Peter Kent during a parliamentary debate. “Did Justin Trudeau’s four-letter obscenity take Commons’ behavior to a new low?” wondered the National Post.
Those who had grown tired of the partisan sniping and jeering that frequently characterized parliamentary debate hoped the commitment of the new government to conduct business differently might lead to a clean break from the hostile and rowdy atmosphere that too often pervaded the walls of the Commons. One year later, it’s clear that while some encouraging progress has been made, there’s still work to do – lots of it.
There was plenty of optimism abound when the new speaker, Geoff Regan, outlined his proposals for how the House would conduct itself under his supervision, early December. “It shouldn’t be like a boys’ club,” remarked the MP for Halifax West. “It should be a place of respectful debate.” Regan made the eradication of heckling one of the priorities of his speakership in his inaugural speech upon ascending to the role.
“I will not tolerate heckling. You don’t need it,” he declared – somewhat ominously facing an immediate barrage of jeers from parliamentarians. “And we will not tolerate unparliamentary conduct.”
But it hasn’t been an easy ride for the Liberal speaker and his aspirations for a more cordial atmosphere in the Commons.
Despite the assertion of interim leader Rona Ambrose that the Conservatives in opposition would strike a more conciliatory, less ‘nasty’ tone than during the previous parliament, boorish and uncivil conduct has continued unabated. “Observers have noticed a rise in the heckling level from a curtain-edged corner of the Commons chamber, close to House Speaker Geoff Regan,” noted the Hill Times as early as January.
Just months into its new sitting, the Commons then found itself the subject of unwanted national and world media attention as a result of the political farce that was Elbowgate. More recently too, this month, Liberal MP Frank Baylis expressed his dismay at the consistently poor conduct of MPs during his maiden year in the House of Commons. “I have been in the House for a year,” he noted. “I was very surprised and disappointed to see how members behave in the House. I am not talking about one party or another. I am not talking about the opposition or the government. I am talking about all members. It is something that I find unacceptable,” he said, adding, “and it has to change.”
Despite the negatives, nevertheless, there are some encouraging signs that the government and Regan are beginning to assert their authority to improve the civility and tone of debate in Parliament. Regan’s first year as speaker has been notable for his determination to intervene where necessary, in marked contrast to his predecessor Andrew Scheer. In his first ten days alone, Regan made twenty more substantive interventions to parliamentary debate than Scheer did during his.
He’s also demonstrated a welcome determination to hold hecklers accountable for their actions: although the use of MPs’ names is expressly forbidden under parliamentary rules, Regan has attempted to deter heckling by calling out the guilty parties’ riding when they interrupt a speech. Nor has Regan’s naming and shaming been strictly partisan – members of his own party have also fallen foul of this practice.
Regan, encouragingly, has also recognized that heckling is disproportionately carried out by males, and that its prominence in parliament is damaging to aspirations for greater gender balance in a House where only 26% of members are female. “We want to have more and more women parliamentarians in the House of Commons,” he has remarked, “and it is important that we have a workplace that is civilized, so let us ensure that it is not like a 1950s old boys club in here.”
The Liberals’ decision to end the practice of applauding their members before or after they made a speech drew initial derision from several members of other parties, including the NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who believed it to be missing the point. “Parliament hasn’t become disruptive because of clapping,” he remarked. “Parliament gets disrupted because people are offensive and insulting, and won’t work together.”
However, refraining from applause undoubtedly improves the quality and flow of debate in the Commons; the practice has become so widespread that virtually every contribution in parliament is applauded, irrespective of the quality of the point. This behaviour, along with stymieing debate and unnecessarily prolongs proceedings, also arguably contributes to the raucous atmosphere in which heckling flourishes.
By contrast, the Quebec government banned applause in its legislature last year, while in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, clapping is also forbidden. Granted, it’s usually replaced with a tedious and bizarre barrage of low groans, but it’s nonetheless successful; only in exceptional circumstances, such as the emotive time MPs paid tribute to their murdered colleague Jo Cox, is applause to be heard.
There’s another advantage to the Liberals ending their policy of clapping: it has allowed the Speaker to more effectively single out hecklers. CBC poll analyst Eric Grenier noted that after the Liberals stopped applauding in the Commons, Regan began to call out hecklers every 1.9 days – compared with every 3.6 days over the first sixty-four days of his tenure. Self-confessed former heckler Marc Garneau noted that the policy was a refreshing change: “We have to get used to it. I used to be a bit of a heckler myself, but I’m enjoying it.”
However, there’s little time for back-slapping; there remains much work to be done if the Commons’ boisterous atmosphere is to give way to more respectful debate.
Despite Regan’s efforts, heckling remains rife, and the Liberals themselves faced criticism at the beginning of October when foreign minister Stéphane Dion made a disrespectful gesture to Conservative MP Michael Cooper as he made a sensitive case for returning the abducted children of Alison Azer to Canada. Ironically, Dion’s fellow Liberal Frank Baylis had earlier made the case for wide-angle cameras to be installed in the Commons in order to record such behaviour, a course that was also pursued by Arif Virani. “If outspoken members of Parliament knew their heckling, jeering and interventions could actually be caught on camera and beamed via CPAC to the living rooms of people around the country,” Virani asserted, “it would mitigate their misbehaviour.”
As recommended by Samara’s report, the regulatory powers of the speaker could also be expanded to allow measures that more forcibly deter heckling. Regan has taken a more forceful stance as speaker than his predecessors, but his efforts are compromised somewhat by the limits of his position. The ability to eject a heckler or temporarily withdraw his speaking privileges would act as an effective deterrent to uncivil behavior in the Commons; after all, Standing Orders 16 and 18 actually make it an offence to interrupt members when they are speaking, or to act in a disruptive or disrespectful manner towards other MPs. This should be properly enforced.
The appetite for change among MPs certainly seems to be there; aside from the usual core of boisterous backbenchers, it appears that many MPs – particularly newcomers – are actually fed up with the prominence of heckling and uncivil behaviour in the Commons. Encouragingly, the Liberals’ decision to end their party’s practice of applauding came not from the top, but from the caucus members themselves – particularly rookie MPs. “A lot of the new members were not very satisfied with the way the House of Commons functions,” noted Liberal backbencher Robert-Falcon Ouellette.
Justin Trudeau was lauded for his decision to select a gender-balanced cabinet a year ago, but greater efforts must be made to reform the crude and often hostile culture inside the Commons if the imbalance between male and female representation in parliament is to be addressed. The Liberals’ decision to cut the applause has helped calm things down, as has the more assertive role taken by the current speaker, but there remains much work to be done if the Commons is to become a platform for elevated and respectful debate, rather than a rowdy and laddish playground.
“The sad news,” then House leader Dominic LeBlanc noted, “is the tone is actually massively better than previous parliaments. I hope we can make this tone last.”
Fergal McAlinden is an Irishman who has arrived in Canada via Oxford and Belfast.
A political devotee, he has cut his teeth in Canadian politics volunteering for Samara Canada, an organisation seeking to reconnect citizens to politics.
He divides his time between delving into the new waters of Canadian politics and the eternal struggle of having his accent understood over here.