Cause and effect in parliament -

Cause and effect in parliament

Is parliament too rude, too partisan, and too dysfunctional?


There’s a lot of weird stuff in today’s Hill Times piece retailing Keith Martin’s parting shots at his place of work for the past seventeen years. The least plausible, though, has to be his claim that when he was elected as a Reform MP in 1993, the House was “a place for bipartisan activity” and a place “where you could work quietly with other political parties to advance initiatives for the public good.” Mr. Martin, surely you kid.

But nostalgia is a powerful drug, and bashing parliament is all the rage these days; declaring our democracy “finished” is the sort of thing MPs and affiliated partisans turn to when they aren’t getting their way in the Commons. (Recall that reforming parliament was the centrepiece of the Reform/Alliance agenda when it looked like the Liberals were in power forever. Funny how that went away once they gained office).

The HT piece contains three main claims: that parliament is too rude, too partisan, and too dysfunctional. They are often treated as equivalent, but as Joe Comartin (wisely) points out, they are distinct. Let’s look at each in turn.

1. On the rudeness question, I don’t see how that should bother anyone outside parliament. If MPs want to run their workplace like it’s always last call on Friday night at YukYuks, well, good for them. But if MPs do want to do something about it, they might want to begin by understanding just what rudeness is. For example, I loved this bit quoting David McGuinty, who – get this – blames the prime minister for the uncivil tone of parliament:

But Mr. McGuinty said any true change has to come directly from the Prime Minister.

“If the Prime Minister of Canada wants to set a civil tone, if he wants to detoxify the House of Commons, if he wants to work as a democrat, he can do that. But Stephen Harper doesn’t want to do that,” Mr. McGuinty said.

2. With respect to partisanship: I’m always surprised when members of parliament who are also members of a party complain that parliament is beset by partisanship. Why, then, don’t they quit their party and serve as independents?

Here is Keith Martin on committees: “Many committees are ground down by partisanship. The committees have just become another theatre for political warfare, an extension in fact of the House.”

I see this as the consequence of two things. First, deliberate changes have been made to strengthen the power of parliamentary committees, as demanded by MPs. When you give a body made up of political partisans more power, what the heck do you expect will happen? Second, the instability and uncertainty of minority government means that every issue is politicized in a way it need not be when the government has a majority and knows it will be in power for four or five years. The math isn’t difficult: Stronger committees + minority government = increased partisanship.

3. Parliamentary dysfunction:

Remember a few years ago, when everyone was convinced that the solution to whatever ailed our democracy was minority rule, that it would force the parties to work together in a more bipartisan and collegial manner? Some of us argued at the time that it would only make things worse, and we were right.

Is our democracy seriously broken? I don’t think it is, but I need to find time to write something defending that position. I hope to do so soon. In the meanwhile, everyone should pick up John Peppal’s Against Reform, as preparatory reading.


Cause and effect in parliament

  1. Excellent piece, Andrew. You make some good points.

    It's a bit rich for McGuinty, who operates in the best tradition of the Liberal "rat-packers", to put the entire blame on the PM for the uncivil tone in Parliament. Sure, the PM may deserve a share of the blame. But, let's face it; there is more than enough blame for all parties to accept their share.

    • The PM sets the tone. Harper isn't entirely to blame, but he's done nothing to help either, worse he's chosen to let blowhards like Baird to have the floor.

    • Hey, the opposition partiy members are all sweethearts–Wayne Easter, Marlene Jennings, Mark Holland, Pat Martin, and more.

  2. Contrarian cynicism FAIL

  3. Yes, and who was it again that picked up the Mace in protest of an undemocratic Liberal government?

  4. You don't think that anything changed or got worse in this respect under the the Harper Government? I think it's demonstrably and deliberately worse, not just another dysfunctional minority government, and can cite several instances of new, novel and inspired means of hyperpartisan behaviour by the government:

    1) A not completely secret government strategy to disrupt committees
    2) A poison pill fiscal update
    3) Non stop attack ads for two+ years
    4) PMO coordinating Member statements to attack Opposition every day before Question Period
    5) 10 per centers flung into adjacent ridings to accuse Oppostion of protecting child molesters
    6) Minister refusals to either testify themselves or let their staff testify at parliamentary committees/counselling staff to dodge subpoenas
    7) Attacking civil servants who are serving/acting as per legislation (Chief Electoral Officer, CNCC, PBO, CWB …)

    It's one thing to take a contrary view — your point about minority governments not being great legislators is a good one. But surely you have to concede that McGuinty, even though not without sin himself, does have a point about Harper being responsible.

    • It's true that the Harper government has introduced a stronger partisanship that isn't overly concerned with honesty into Canadian politics, seen in the preponderance of attack ads even when there's no election campaign, in the vitriolic tone of the 10-percenters and general abuse of them (I, in Victoria, am rather tired of receiving junk mail from MPs in the BC lower mainland), in the attacks on civil servants. But part of the reason for this may be that the Liberals didn't really have any need of extreme partisanship during their previous decade of rule, due to not being in any danger of losing their majority for most of that time. When the political contest is closer, politics is likely to get nastier.

    • Exactly. I have to wonder what Potter was smoking when he wrote this myopic piece of nonsense.

      Where the hell have you been for the past four years Potter?

      No one has done more to undermine the civility of politics in this country in the past four years than Harper.

      The guy's a walking attack ad, and if I ever see one of his Minister's that isn't spewing scripted propaganda points every other sentence, I suspect I won't see them again long after.

      I mean COME ON!

  5. I agree with Potter, on all points. Power and partisanship are directly related. Hence the dysfunction of committees. If you increase the power of committees, you increase the partisanship, because suddenly there is a lot at stake. If you play a hockey game for fun, it will be a lot less competitive than if you give $10,000 to the winner.

    Same goes for parliament. In a minority government power is more evenly distributed. Hence more partisanship. If you put two equal fighters in the same ring, you'll get much more of a fight than if you put a champion in with a pipsqueak. Once again, there is much more at stake if every vote counts.

    I especially like the McGuinty quote. It's such a bone-headed thing for Mcguinty to say in so many ways. Firstly, it takes more than one to tango. The PM may have a lot on his plate, but civility of the MPs in parliament requires that everyone take part. The PM has enough to do without having to act like a kindergarten teacher. Secondly, it takes a lot of chutzpah to accuse others of rudeness in a rude manner.

    • Right. So increasing the ability of Parliamentary committees to hold the government to account just naturally causes the Conservatives to:

      – Produce a 200-page booklet outlining tactics specifically designed to disrupt Parliamentary committees

      – Show up on the wrong day, demand to be heard immediately regardless, and throw a chair when he doesn't get his own way (that would be shameless political hack Senator Doug Finley)

      – Openly instruct party members to defy Parliamentary committees' summons

      – Create a novel classification of Canadians (political staffers) who, apropos of nothing, claim to no longer be subject to summons powers of Parliamentary committees; instead, their appearances are filled by MPs who are not obliged to answer committee questions.

      Yep, what we've seen since 2006 is a totally normal outcome of the structure of Parliamentary committees. It's like a hockey game! What do you expect? The committees are the problem, not the wholesale rejection of accountability by the Conservative Stephen Harper Party.

      And you know who doesn't love hockey games? Hitler.

  6. Great article Mr.Potter!!

    I also think they need to stop taking it so personal, or we will end up like this!
    [youtube FLgy33JDH9w youtube]

  7. Minority government in a first-past-the-post electoral system is a recipe for hyper-partisanship and gridlock. If there was little chance of a majority prize out there, a more colloborative environment might be possible. I accept Potter's assertion that partisans must lobby for their views, but at some point a little comprimise and negotiation is needed for anything to get done. However, if conceding anything helps the other party inch towards majority, then they're less likely to co-operate.

  8. It's nonsense to blame a minority government situation for the obnoxious of the politicians, particularly the extreme hyper-partisan Conservatives. Harper the micromanager does bear much of the responsibility; he has chosen to surround himself with vicious atack dogs and he has failed to rein them in.

    • Wow, what a shock. Holly blames Harper.

      In other news, the sun rose this morning.

  9. I find it difficult to understand why opposition MPs blame the Prime Minister for bad tone in Question Period. Their questions are worded in an insulting manner. Their goal doesn't seem to be genuinely seeking answers, just trying to trip up the government. They are the ones who form their questions (usually read), and the government has to respond impromptu to the pejorative insinuations, even outright lies. I find the Prime Minister responds to what is hurled at him in a polite manner. Keith Martins sounds bitter. He won last election by about 60 votes, I think it was. In my opinion, the opposition does not want Parliament to work, but blames any disfunction on the government.

  10. Hahaha, mmmm I don't know what happened but I am with you it fits just right : )

    It was a big brawl in the parliament in Korea!