Why every day is amateur hour in the House

To call question period a zoo would be an insult to the relative civility of wild animals

Why every day is amateur hour in the HouseApart from sex, the only realm of human achievement where ignorance and inexperience are widely seen as virtues is politics. Sarah Palin is only the most notorious recent example of the phenomenon; the “vote for me, I have no experience” gambit succeeds with remarkable frequency, which speaks volumes about public attitudes toward the political process and politicians. Politics is seen as a profession in the same sense that prostitution is, practised only by people of highly suspect moral character.

Canadian politicians are no exception, and the merits of this judgment are clearest in this country in the daily disgrace known as question period. To call question period a zoo would be an insult to the relative civility and good temperament of wild animals; one suspects that the occasional parleys between Bloods and Crips in South Central Los Angeles are less partisan and hostile affairs.

There is a tendency to chalk this behaviour up to an excess of familiarity among parliamentarians—the result of too many lifelong MPs going at it hammer and tongs day after day, year after year. The obvious analogue here is the famously entrenched U.S. Congress, which is highly professionalized and yet beset by partisanship and scandal.

Indeed, not so long ago there was a gnawing sense among some Ottawa observers that the incumbency rates in the Commons had reached levels dangerously comparable to those in the U.S. Congress.

And so in 2005, Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail wrote a sharp column lamenting the steep rise of MPs’ salaries under Jean Chrétien. Canadians, he argued, had become increasingly alienated from the political process, which they saw as the domain of “an increasingly self-perpetuating political class, or caste, with its own vocabulary, rituals, defence mechanisms and, in many instances, rather old ideas.”

Except a new study out this week from the Public Policy Forum suggests just the opposite. Bluntly stated, the report’s conclusions are that the House of Commons is so bad precisely because it is made up (mostly) of men who have little experience and education, lack any institutional memory of how Parliament ought to function, and are widely ignorant of the proper relationship between politicians and the bureaucracy.

The report’s figures are striking. One quarter of Canadian MPs are newly elected, while just over two-thirds have less than five years experience in the Commons and only three per cent have been serving their constituents for more than 15 years. There is a sharp contrast with U.S. and U.K. figures: two-thirds of the U.S. Congress have more than five years experience and over a quarter of representatives have more than 15 years experience; in Britain, two-thirds of parliamentarians have more than seven years experience, and a third have more than 11 years experience.

There is a similar discrepancy with respect to education: only two-thirds of Canadian MPs have a university degree, while 72 per cent of British members have attended university and fully 93 per cent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives have a degree.

David Mitchell, the head of the Public Policy Forum, finds this all pretty alarming. The amateur character of the Commons has led, he says, to “an unprecedented level of partisan acrimony and a high degree of distrust between elected representatives and the federal public service.”

Well, in many ways times have merely changed back, with the Commons returning to its traditional demographic makeup. A major theme in Ned Franks’ classic 1987 text The Parliament of Canada was that in comparison with other Western legislatures, Canadian MPs are political amateurs, cycling through a House of Commons that exhibits unusually high rates of churn. (When Brian Mulroney swept to power in 1984, the turnover rate was 52 per cent!)

This helps explain many of the more unpalatable features of Canadian political life: not only the monkeyfied feces-toss of question period, but also its more substantial failures of accountability and responsible government. The root of the problem is a mismatch: an entrenched and experienced government facing off against a transient and largely clueless House of Commons.

Mitchell places some of the blame for the present structure on the succession of minority Parliaments that has seen Canadians trudge to the polls three times in the past five years, with yet another election threatening sometime before fall. There’s probably something to this, and—for those keeping score—it provides yet another argument against minority government.

But given the historically transient character of the Commons, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Canadians actually like it this way. The great thing about democracy is, you get the political representation you vote for, which is a polite way of saying we’re the ones who keep sending batches of uncivil, hyperpartisan ignoramuses to Ottawa.

In both Parliament and the bedroom, there is something deeply attractive about someone who has yet to be morally tainted by what goes on once the doors are shut. But in both chambers, if it is civility, consideration and effectiveness you are after, it helps to have someone who knows what they are doing.




Browse

Why every day is amateur hour in the House

  1. Interesting and (I fear) depressingly accurate summary of the situation.

    So here's the question: if you took a random sampling of 300 Canadians, would they be as childish as this lot? More so? Less so?

  2. "The great thing about democracy is, you get the political representation you vote for, which is a polite way of saying we're the ones who keep sending batches of uncivil, hyperpartisan ignoramuses to Ottawa."

    I believe that salary and other elements of the job are part of what is required to attract people with education and a desire to contribute. Hwoever, that is not all that is required. For a person who has reached a certain level in their career where they can either choose to make the turn into public life or go on to higher executive position in their job, they have to see the prospects of public life in a positive light. they have to see potential that they will have an impact, do some good.

    Does anyone get the sense that the efforts required of MPs are wotrth it? To get elected, where you put your personal and financial well being on the line, you have little to no actual impact on the final outcome of your election – which rests more often than not on the campaign run by your leader. this is often followed by a few years in purgatory, learning the archane ropes of Parliament, treated like a pawn by the minions in your whips office, ignored by your leader. You may get to Cabinet, should your party be so lucky to win an election, but chances are, regardless of your merits, you will be chosen or not for demographic , regional and linguistic profiles over which you have no control.

    Committee work achieves what, exactly? Remember, I ask this in context of an ambitious, capable individual who has realized some success intheir chosen field. Leaders form policy based on the reports of policital and polling consultants. Tehy create Zoe's and Bart's and whatever to personify an electoral sector and dissect their hopes and dreams and develop policies that will attract the greatest number.

    So who applies for the job? Amazingly, many thoughtful, altruistic individuals who get caugth up in the mystique of the job and who are quickly underwhelmed by what they encounter and by how little impact they can have as an individual in a party. Then it's either bail out early and get back on the career path or start playing the game that gets you noticed. See John Geddes article on Jason Kenney. Compare his trajectory to Sheila Copps'. That's how you work your way to the front when you aren't annointed.

  3. If you took a truly random sampling of 300 Canadians, almost 40 of them would be children. Still, they would not be as childish as this lot.

  4. Interesting that you claim that the frequent election calls are an argument against minority governments. It seems to me that if the parliament were better behaved, we wouldn't be facing so many elections. Minority governments only function when the members of all parties treat each other with respect and work together to get the job done. Instead we see a parliament in which the government is unwilling to work with the opposition, instead calling one election after the next in the hopes that it will get a majority government. If they're behaving this badly in a minority, we should be thankful that they don't have a majority.

  5. So you think that our MP's are somehow selected (by themselves, by the system, by the voters) for their childishness? Or are they affected by the environment when they get there? I've only met a few MP's but they didn't strike me as childish when I met them; methinks they get infantilised by Parliament Hill somehow.

  6. The most interesting part of this piece was the photos chosen to accompany it don't support the study at all. In terms of education, the four politicians shown all have university degrees and three of them have more than one. Rather than being political neophytes, the four of them have been in some form of political arena for more than a decade. Three of them in a very similar forum to the HoC (Queen's Park).

    These are hardly "men who have little experience and education, lack any institutional memory of how Parliament ought to function, and are widely ignorant of the proper relationship between politicians and the bureaucracy" with the last point being debatable depending where one lies on the political spectrum.

    As a final point, do we really need three Harris Tories out of four potential spots in the photo banner? Surely we could throw in a highly partisan Liberal to balance out the photo.

  7. Sarah Palin was inexperienced?

    Please point out the executive experience Mr. Obama had before assuming his current position.

  8. Good question. I'm not sure exactly what causes our MPs to be infantilised, but I'm sure that it is partly a byproduct of our Parliamentary system, and of the reduction of serious political discourse to media soundbites and mugging for the cameras.

  9. I think you've hit the nail on the head, Brad (as usual). Super-outgoing, super-motivated people who then get put on the shelf / backbenches; no wonder there's frustration, manifested in the form of childishness. Do you think that more free votes, as John Turner suggested recently, would have the effect of giving MP's more to do — by way of scheming, soul-searching, and (not least) debating — so as to take some of the psychological pressure off?

  10. Interesting and (I fear) depressingly accurate summary of the situation.

    So here’s the question: if you took a random sampling of 300 Canadians, would they be as childish as this lot? More so? Less so?

    • If you took a truly random sampling of 300 Canadians, almost 40 of them would be children. Still, they would not be as childish as this lot.

      • So you think that our MP’s are somehow selected (by themselves, by the system, by the voters) for their childishness? Or are they affected by the environment when they get there? I’ve only met a few MP’s but they didn’t strike me as childish when I met them; methinks they get infantilised by Parliament Hill somehow.

        • Good question. I’m not sure exactly what causes our MPs to be infantilised, but I’m sure that it is partly a byproduct of our Parliamentary system, and of the reduction of serious political discourse to media soundbites and mugging for the cameras.

          • Except we have virtually the same political system as in the UK and our media, while by no means stellar, is not the debacle that the US media is.

            I can’t help but think that our diminishing public participation (e.g., decreasing voter turnout) is a major factor in all of this.

    • my grandchildren are reaching voting age,and have watched question period. when it comes to voting they have said how could they vote for any of these people the way they act. so maybe this is the answer to low voter turnout.

  11. Excellent articule Andrew,

    I'm going to place the blame squarely where it belongs… on you. I jest, but I do place a rather large amount of the blame on the mass media as a whole. I've watched CPAC and never cease to marvel at the difference between the actual debates in the house and QP. MP's are generally respectful and normal in temprement during debate but the nightly news never shows selected clips from this part of the chamber they always show clips of Sheila Copps hectoring, Joe Clarks jowels vibrating in mock outrage, or Jason Kenney's obnoxious bloviating. If the only thing the media will bother itself to pay attention to is childish antics why should the politico's cease using them?

  12. “The great thing about democracy is, you get the political representation you vote for, which is a polite way of saying we’re the ones who keep sending batches of uncivil, hyperpartisan ignoramuses to Ottawa.”

    I believe that salary and other elements of the job are part of what is required to attract people with education and a desire to contribute. Hwoever, that is not all that is required. For a person who has reached a certain level in their career where they can either choose to make the turn into public life or go on to higher executive position in their job, they have to see the prospects of public life in a positive light. they have to see potential that they will have an impact, do some good.

    Does anyone get the sense that the efforts required of MPs are wotrth it? To get elected, where you put your personal and financial well being on the line, you have little to no actual impact on the final outcome of your election – which rests more often than not on the campaign run by your leader. this is often followed by a few years in purgatory, learning the archane ropes of Parliament, treated like a pawn by the minions in your whips office, ignored by your leader. You may get to Cabinet, should your party be so lucky to win an election, but chances are, regardless of your merits, you will be chosen or not for demographic , regional and linguistic profiles over which you have no control.

    Committee work achieves what, exactly? Remember, I ask this in context of an ambitious, capable individual who has realized some success intheir chosen field. Leaders form policy based on the reports of policital and polling consultants. Tehy create Zoe’s and Bart’s and whatever to personify an electoral sector and dissect their hopes and dreams and develop policies that will attract the greatest number.

    So who applies for the job? Amazingly, many thoughtful, altruistic individuals who get caugth up in the mystique of the job and who are quickly underwhelmed by what they encounter and by how little impact they can have as an individual in a party. Then it’s either bail out early and get back on the career path or start playing the game that gets you noticed. See John Geddes article on Jason Kenney. Compare his trajectory to Sheila Copps’. That’s how you work your way to the front when you aren’t annointed.

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Brad (as usual). Super-outgoing, super-motivated people who then get put on the shelf / backbenches; no wonder there’s frustration, manifested in the form of childishness. Do you think that more free votes, as John Turner suggested recently, would have the effect of giving MP’s more to do — by way of scheming, soul-searching, and (not least) debating — so as to take some of the psychological pressure off?

      • I’ve recently come to feel this way as well. The way parties force their members to vote with the party line is destructive to our system. It’s the reason why people are coming up with these ridiculous voting schemes to replace FPTP. We’re electing people to represent our riding, but they’re unable to do so.

        More free votes? First suggestion I’ve heard! It sounds like a good idea…

  13. Interesting that you claim that the frequent election calls are an argument against minority governments. It seems to me that if the parliament were better behaved, we wouldn’t be facing so many elections. Minority governments only function when the members of all parties treat each other with respect and work together to get the job done. Instead we see a parliament in which the government is unwilling to work with the opposition, instead calling one election after the next in the hopes that it will get a majority government. If they’re behaving this badly in a minority, we should be thankful that they don’t have a majority.

    • Minority governments only function when the members of all parties treat each other with respect and work together to get the job done

      Tell me another one. Boy, do you live in a dream-world. If that were true, then we would not need democracy at all, we could all just get along fine without the bother of elections.

      • So by disagreeing with me are you suggesting that minorities function when the party members disrespect each other? I really don’t get what it is that you’re saying. Maybe the politicians don’t treat each other with respect, but if they did a minority would work.

  14. The most interesting part of this piece was the photos chosen to accompany it don’t support the study at all. In terms of education, the four politicians shown all have university degrees and three of them have more than one. Rather than being political neophytes, the four of them have been in some form of political arena for more than a decade. Three of them in a very similar forum to the HoC (Queen’s Park).

    These are hardly “men who have little experience and education, lack any institutional memory of how Parliament ought to function, and are widely ignorant of the proper relationship between politicians and the bureaucracy” with the last point being debatable depending where one lies on the political spectrum.

    As a final point, do we really need three Harris Tories out of four potential spots in the photo banner? Surely we could throw in a highly partisan Liberal to balance out the photo.

  15. Sarah Palin was inexperienced?
    Please point out the executive experience Mr. Obama had before assuming his current position.

    • none

    • Thanks for that 9 month old talking point, Titus.

  16. Maybe we could see some upsides if we had question period scripted? Not like some Soviet Congress, but have the opposition submit questions in advance of to the period and then let the government respond. In fairness to MPs, it is quite difficult to talk meaningful policy off the cuff. If Question period was preceded by a written debate, one would hope questions/answers would be slightly more informed that "conservatives hate women" or "Ignatieff is actually an EU spy on a mission to implement socialism", or whatever the current debate is.

  17. Excellent articule Andrew,

    I’m going to place the blame squarely where it belongs… on you. I jest, but I do place a rather large amount of the blame on the mass media as a whole. I’ve watched CPAC and never cease to marvel at the difference between the actual debates in the house and QP. MP’s are generally respectful and normal in temprement during debate but the nightly news never shows selected clips from this part of the chamber they always show clips of Sheila Copps hectoring, Joe Clarks jowels vibrating in mock outrage, or Jason Kenney’s obnoxious bloviating. If the only thing the media will bother itself to pay attention to is childish antics why should the politico’s cease using them?

  18. Maybe we could see some upsides if we had question period scripted? Not like some Soviet Congress, but have the opposition submit questions in advance of to the period and then let the government respond. In fairness to MPs, it is quite difficult to talk meaningful policy off the cuff. If Question period was preceded by a written debate, one would hope questions/answers would be slightly more informed that “conservatives hate women” or “Ignatieff is actually an EU spy on a mission to implement socialism”, or whatever the current debate is.

  19. Don't blame the amateurs. Blame the veterans: the party leaders, the house leaders, and the speakers. Decorum could be fixed pretty quickly if these aforementioned decided it was called or and if they then just did their jobs.

  20. Minority governments only function when the members of all parties treat each other with respect and work together to get the job done

    Tell me another one. Boy, do you live in a dream-world. If that were true, then we would not need democracy at all, we could all just get along fine without the bother of elections.

  21. none

  22. Don’t blame the amateurs. Blame the veterans: the party leaders, the house leaders, and the speakers. Decorum could be fixed pretty quickly if these aforementioned decided it was called or and if they then just did their jobs.

  23. So by disagreeing with me are you suggesting that minorities function when the party members disrespect each other? I really don't get what it is that you're saying. Maybe the politicians don't treat each other with respect, but if they did a minority would work.

  24. Except we have virtually the same political system as in the UK and our media, while by no means stellar, is not the debacle that the US media is.

    I can't help but think that our diminishing public participation (e.g., decreasing voter turnout) is a major factor in all of this.

  25. Why is it, that if I want to encounter a fact, statistic, or study in MacLean's, I have to go the the opinion pages? Miley Cyrus's doings are incontrovertible journalistic fact, apparently; but if you have to cite a study, why, you must be expressing an opinion, so off to the opinion pages for you!

    We have one foot on the boat and one foot on the pier, here: we would be better off either paying MPs and MPPs much, much more and getting very competent, highly experienced managers who aren't outrageously wealthy – compensating them for career losses; or paying nothing and going back to the old British system in which only the very wealthy could afford to be in parliament, which allowed the peerage to plan to be there and educate themselves accordingly so that they didn't embarrass themselves too badly.

    Of course, putting salary caps on private sector management compensation would also help even the public/private scales, not that that's the only argument in their favor.

  26. I've recently come to feel this way as well. The way parties force their members to vote with the party line is destructive to our system. It's the reason why people are coming up with these ridiculous voting schemes to replace FPTP. We're electing people to represent our riding, but they're unable to do so.

    More free votes? First suggestion I've heard! It sounds like a good idea…

  27. Why is it, that if I want to encounter a fact, statistic, or study in MacLean’s, I have to go the the opinion pages? Miley Cyrus’s doings are incontrovertible journalistic fact, apparently; but if you have to cite a study, why, you must be expressing an opinion, so off to the opinion pages for you!

    We have one foot on the boat and one foot on the pier, here: we would be better off either paying MPs and MPPs much, much more and getting very competent, highly experienced managers who aren’t outrageously wealthy – compensating them for career losses; or paying nothing and going back to the old British system in which only the very wealthy could afford to be in parliament, which allowed the peerage to plan to be there and educate themselves accordingly so that they didn’t embarrass themselves too badly.

    Of course, putting salary caps on private sector management compensation would also help even the public/private scales, not that that’s the only argument in their favor.

  28. I'd rather have an immoral ignoramus running my country than an immoral genius doing the job. After all, that means we respect intelligence more than others. 'Cause a genius is more capable of screwing us over than an ignoramus. And that would simply destroy what little rights we got when politicians weren't in it for themselves.

  29. I’d rather have an immoral ignoramus running my country than an immoral genius doing the job. After all, that means we respect intelligence more than others. ‘Cause a genius is more capable of screwing us over than an ignoramus. And that would simply destroy what little rights we got when politicians weren’t in it for themselves.

  30. Put an end to live taping of Question Period and Comities. Limit reporters to voice recorders and old fashioned notepads. One could only hope that by having to rely on reports that news outlets might try being journalists again instead of commentators to the action as if it were a hockey game coloured by Don cherry.

  31. Put an end to live taping of Question Period and Comities. Limit reporters to voice recorders and old fashioned notepads. One could only hope that by having to rely on reports that news outlets might try being journalists again instead of commentators to the action as if it were a hockey game coloured by Don cherry.

  32. A few weeks back as the fear of pandemic swine flu was taking the whole country by the throat, I was delighted to read a quiet note about the performance of Leona Agglukaq, the Minister of Health when she contacted her Liberal Health Critic, Carolyn Bennett to apprise her of the Government's position and action on this issue. Dr. Bennett stood in the House of Commons to thank the Minister for her cooperation. It was the first time in a long time (years?) that I remember true parliamentary behavior that I could respect and applaud.

    Most of the time I am not only appalled but repelled by the behavior of the boys in the House. No small wonder that so few women are drawn to the Parliamentary life. Shame. Greater balance between genders and as you have indicated in your article, Andrew, a tad more education on all sides would make for a very different parliamentary culture.

  33. A few weeks back as the fear of pandemic swine flu was taking the whole country by the throat, I was delighted to read a quiet note about the performance of Leona Agglukaq, the Minister of Health when she contacted her Liberal Health Critic, Carolyn Bennett to apprise her of the Government’s position and action on this issue. Dr. Bennett stood in the House of Commons to thank the Minister for her cooperation. It was the first time in a long time (years?) that I remember true parliamentary behavior that I could respect and applaud.

    Most of the time I am not only appalled but repelled by the behavior of the boys in the House. No small wonder that so few women are drawn to the Parliamentary life. Shame. Greater balance between genders and as you have indicated in your article, Andrew, a tad more education on all sides would make for a very different parliamentary culture.

  34. Thanks for that 9 month old talking point, Titus.

  35. A bit of statistical detail that caused me to think in your "Why every day is amateur hour in the he House" was your statistics on education with 66% Cdn parlimentarians having university degrees as compared to Brits and Americans at 72% and 93% respecitively. To put a positive spin on the Canadian situation, I wonder if this means we have a much more open access to Parliament than particularly the Americans. Driving through Surrey BC on the eve of a provincial election a week or so ago, I noted totally Indo-Canadian names and faces on all campaign signs. The area looks similar during federal elections. Obviously in Canada we are getting representation by population in a multicultural society. In the US, I suspect that still the rich down to the comfortably educated middle-class have a pretty tight corner on politics. Also, it seems to me that a college education is, in the US, as much a rite of passage as an education. At least the movies and tv would seem to portray it thus.

  36. A bit of statistical detail that caused me to think in your “Why every day is amateur hour in the he House” was your statistics on education with 66% Cdn parlimentarians having university degrees as compared to Brits and Americans at 72% and 93% respecitively. To put a positive spin on the Canadian situation, I wonder if this means we have a much more open access to Parliament than particularly the Americans. Driving through Surrey BC on the eve of a provincial election a week or so ago, I noted totally Indo-Canadian names and faces on all campaign signs. The area looks similar during federal elections. Obviously in Canada we are getting representation by population in a multicultural society. In the US, I suspect that still the rich down to the comfortably educated middle-class have a pretty tight corner on politics. Also, it seems to me that a college education is, in the US, as much a rite of passage as an education. At least the movies and tv would seem to portray it thus.

  37. my grandchildren are reaching voting age,and have watched question period. when it comes to voting they have said how could they vote for any of these people the way they act. so maybe this is the answer to low voter turnout.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *