The House of Commons is a sham

No one shows up. Nothing gets done. The sad decline of our most important institution.

The House of Commons is a sham

Adrian Wyld/CP

In the early evening hours of an otherwise unremarkable Thursday in December, as a crowd gathered on Parliament Hill for the official opening of the annual Christmas light show, Jim Maloway was lecturing a nearly empty House of Commons on the history of suicide as a technique of military assault. “We had Dutch soldiers fighting for control of Taiwan in 1661, who used gunpowder to blow themselves and their opponents up rather than being taken prisoner,” he explained.

Maloway, a New Democrat backbencher, is either the last man truly dedicated to Parliament or the greatest symbol of its current neglect. In 2010, he spoke more than three times as many words in the House—309,647 in total—as any other member of Parliament, nine times more than the Prime Minister. In the month of December alone, Maloway contributed to debates on vehicle imports from Mexico, autism, white-collar crime, free trade with the European Union, RCMP reform, the parole system, Canada Post, human rights, a proposed national Holocaust monument, railway safety, the prosecution and registration of sex offenders, immigration reform, the military justice system, the census, oil tanker traffic off the coast of British Columbia and prison farms. All the same, you’ve probably never heard of him.

On that Thursday night in December, the House was debating a Senate bill that sought to add suicide bombing to the Criminal Code. A small cluster of four Conservative MPs, chatting with each other in the southwest corner of the room, waited impatiently for Maloway to finish. Irwin Cotler, the Liberal MP, sat listening on the opposition side. The teenage pages assigned to deliver notes and fetch glasses of water for MPs had already begun to clean up. In addition to the 300 or so empty seats around Maloway, the galleries above were empty as well, save for a few police officers.

After he had finished, a series of perfunctory oral votes confirmed that the bill had the unanimous support of the House. And thus did Canada apparently become the first country in the world to explicitly outlaw suicide bombing as a crime unto itself. Save for a short item on the National Post‘s website a week later, not a single major newspaper would carry word of this apparent landmark in international law.

To witness such a moment is to see the House of Commons at both its most serious and least relevant, to understand the gravity of the institution and the sense of neglect that hangs over its proceedings. Indeed, of all the questions the House of Commons must consider on a daily basis, there is one that underlies everything: does this place still matter?

On a basic level, the answer to that question must be yes. “This assembly is the most important ever held in any part of British America,” declared Robert Alexander Harrison, the former MP for Toronto West, upon making his maiden speech in the House shortly after it first convened in November 1867. “In its hands it holds the destinies of half a continent.” This is still essentially true. The House of Commons contains the 308 elected representatives of the population. It authorizes the collection and expenditure of tax dollars. It passes and amends the laws that govern our society. It holds the government of the day to account. Its purview is immense, up to and including—as set out by Speaker Peter Milliken’s ruling last year on access to Afghan detainee documents—the nation’s most closely guarded secrets.

But then there is what you see when you linger around the chamber that Harrison and those first parliamentarians passed on to us, and the questions of purpose and meaning that follow. Except for perhaps a dozen MPs and the odd tourist group, the vast room sits empty for almost the entire day. Thousands and thousands of words are spoken to little obvious notice or consequence—the press gallery mostly ignoring the proceedings and almost all votes of any importance destined to break along party lines. Power has coalesced around the offices of party leaders. Decisions are made elsewhere and then imposed on this place, debate seemingly rendered moot. For all its hallowed tradition and sombre ritual, the floor of the House of Commons cannot now be said, except on a purely geographic level, to be at the centre of political life. But for all the modern laments about the emptiness of our politics, here would seem to be the yawning gap at the heart of it all.

As the clock turned 10 on a Thursday morning this month, the mace, an enduring symbol of royal authority and the parliamentary system, was laid upon the clerk’s table and the Speaker took his chair. After a moment for prayers, Peter Milliken paused to address the two dozen MPs in attendance. “I invite the House to take note of today’s use of the wooden mace,” he said. “The wooden mace is traditionally used when the House sits on Feb. 3 to mark the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the original Parliament Buildings on this day in 1916.”

The occasion thus noted, the House moved to the tabling of a report from the standing committee on procedure and House affairs and the introduction of a private member’s bill from New Democrat Olivia Chow that would establish a national transit strategy. Petitions—which can be tabled before the House so long as they contain at least 25 signatures—were presented on behalf of citizens concerned, respectively, about the war in Afghanistan and the import and export of horses for slaughter and human consumption.

After the Speaker had ruled on an outstanding point of order concerning another private member’s bill, the House resumed debate of Bill C-42, an act to amend the Aeronautics Act. The NDP’s Libby Davies picked up where she had left off the day before. A few pairs of MPs chatted with each other as she spoke. Most of the others in attendance sat with their heads down, their attention directed at paperwork or BlackBerries. Those MPs assigned to the House each day generally do likewise, using the time to catch up on correspondence, reading or, as the season may dictate, the signing of Christmas cards. Except when there is a grunt of derision or amusement, it is generally difficult to say who is paying attention to what is being said. “As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to examine this kind of legislation in great detail to establish whether or not it is warranted and whether or not the legislation goes too far toward invading the privacy of Canadians,” Davies ventured. “I would say for us in the NDP, we have come to the conclusion that this legislation does go too far.”

The House of Commons is a sham

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Various New Democrats took turns—one rising to deliver a speech, then others rising to ask that person rhetorical questions—lamenting legislation that would govern the sharing of passenger information with American authorities for flights that travel over the United States. Eventually, a few Liberals joined the discussion. Not until 11:25 a.m., in response to a speech from Liberal MP Joe Volpe, did anyone from the government engage the debate.

For about 20 minutes, a sizable group in the south gallery brought spectator attendance to approximately 11. Later, a number of schoolchildren stopped by. One young man, perhaps 12 years old, joined the New Democrats in clapping as Peter Stoffer called on the House to “kill” the bill in question. Otherwise, the gallery was rarely home to more than a few visitors at any one time. Those who do stop by over the course of a normal sitting day tend to regard the proceedings as one might a museum exhibit.

But only by attending in person can one get any sense of this scene. In the interests of objectivity, TV cameras and still photographers are restricted from broadcasting images of anything but the head and torso of the individual speaking at any given time. Though a backbencher was recently spotted napping in the background of one shot, this mostly hides the peripheral goings on. Still, to mask the fact that speeches are often given in the company of hundreds of empty chairs, MPs are sometimes recruited to sit near the person speaking, to fill out the camera frame.

On the floor of the House that day, the number of MPs eventually dipped to about a dozen. When Liberal Martha Hall Findlay rose to deliver a speech, the entirety of the Conservative presence in the chamber was three MPs. Before she had finished, that was down to two. For all of this—and for much of the day—the press gallery was entirely empty.

As if to address this scene directly, the NDP’s Peter Julian stood to plead for attention. “It is important,” he said, “for all members to speak to Bill C-42 because, even though it has not received a lot of media attention and journalists have not been writing the kinds of articles they should be writing about its implications, it does have implications for the average Canadian from coast to coast to coast.”

In many ways, the scene in the House reflects modern practicalities. Since the proceedings are televised, attendance is not necessary to follow what is said. MPs have myriad other responsibilities they must attend to, from committee work to dealing with the concerns of constituents. In the beginning, House debates were covered extensively in the popular media. Up until the mid-1980s, the Canadian Press kept a reporter in the House for the duration of each sitting day. But those days are gone and, besides, despite the impressive decor—carved sandstone and wood, chandeliers and stained glass—a lack of wireless Internet access makes the chamber something less than a modern workplace for reporters.

But the sight of the ornate room sitting mostly empty, an MP on his or her feet pontificating into the abyss, speaks as well to the undeniable obscurity of the institution at this point in history. Because the debates don’t matter, the press doesn’t cover them and because the press doesn’t cover them, the debates don’t matter. Instead of covering the exchanges that occur each day in the House, the evening political shows prefer to assemble their own panels of MPs to exchange shouted talking points.

The system itself seems to be fading, maybe even fraying. According to figures compiled by Ned Franks, the Queen’s University professor and parliamentary scholar, the number of sitting days for the House has gradually declined over the last half century, from highs of 163 days per year decades ago to a low of just 105 days per year between 2004 and 2008 (a period that included three federal elections). After being prorogued to start the year, the House sat for 119 days in 2010. And even those figures may flatter more modern Parliaments, Franks figures, because of how rarely the House now sits through the evening and how many MPs travel to and from their ridings on Fridays and Mondays.

How effectively that diminishing time is used is questionable. Between 1963 and 1968, Lester B. Pearson’s minority governments introduced 285 bills and passed 245 (86 per cent) of those into law. Since Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, just 117 of 279 government bills (42 per cent) have been so successful. While the government regularly complains of opposition obstruction, the opposition accuses the government of wilful delay. When Parliament is prorogued or dissolved, all government bills that have not been passed into law are terminated and must be reintroduced when business resumes. In the last five years, Parliament has been prorogued at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request three times and dissolved once.

Meanwhile, recent governments have taken to loading legislative measures into the annual budget that are then not properly considered by the House. Last year’s bill topped out at 883 pages, including measures related to Canada Post, credit unions, environmental regulation and the Nuclear Safety and Control Act. As Franks has written, such omnibus bills “subvert and evade the normal principles of parliamentary review of legislation” as they are rushed through the House and Senate. “I don’t subscribe to the theory of the decline of Parliament,” he says, “but I will say that, in many ways, it has been abused in recent years.”

The House of Commons is a sham

Nathan Denette/CP

The last two years have been marked by direct challenges to parliamentary authority: from last year’s battles over detainee documents and the government’s rejection of calls for political staff to testify before parliamentary committees to a current squabble over the government’s refusal to turn over technical information related to its own legislation. But if the government is susceptible to charges of disrespect, the opposition—divided and fearful—has not always functioned as an effective check on authority.

And abuse, whatever the source, may be a natural result of disregard. When it came time last fall to present the traditional economic update that follows the budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did so in a speech to the Mississauga Chinese Business Association, on the Tuesday of a parliamentary break week. Opposition MPs fumed that Flaherty was avoiding the accountability of the House, but the chamber is rarely the scene of a closely watched address. Aside from the residential schools apology, two addresses on the arrival of foreign dignitaries, and customary replies to two Throne Speeches, Prime Minister Harper’s remarks to the House over the last three years have been almost entirely limited to the 35-second replies of question period.

“I worry about it,” says NDP MP Joe Comartin, about the state of Parliament. “I don’t think we can continue on this path for much more than another five or 10 years. We are eroding… the role of individual parliamentarians. And eroding the role of the ministers as well. Eroding the role of committees. Eroding the debate, the importance of debate and the effect of that debate on the public discussion. We have to reverse that course.”

By 1 p.m. on that recent Thursday, the House is ready for a vote on the proposed amendments to the Aeronautics Act. A sufficient number of MPs enter the House from the adjacent lobbies to ensure the necessary quorum­—just 20 MPs are required. The acting speaker asks for those in favour to say yea, those opposed to say nay. In her opinion, the yeas have it, but a recorded vote of all members is requested for the following week. (It will pass with all but the NDP voting in favour.) The House then moves to consideration of a free-trade pact with Panama.

As the clock nears 2 p.m., the noise of humanity begins to fill the House. The benches on both sides are suddenly occupied; the south gallery fills with tourists and interested observers. Invited guests and staff members file into the east and west galleries. Even the press gallery sees a half dozen reporters.

Monday through Thursday, question period—”oral questions” on the official schedule—takes place for 45 minutes each afternoon, starting at 2:15 p.m. The 15 minutes immediately preceding are reserved for statements by members. During this time, any MP may stand to speak for one minute on a topic of his or her choosing. Mostly it is a time for members to honour favourite causes and constituents. On this day, Deepak Obhrai rises to address a recent spate of executions in Iran. Liberal Jean-Claude D’Amours salutes several award-winning entrepreneurs in his riding of Madawska-Restigouche. In recent years, despite objections from Speaker Milliken about the personal nature of some attacks, this time has also become an extension of question period: MPs rising to spout uncontested partisanship on the off chance anyone’s paying attention. This afternoon, Liberals Shawn Murphy and Yasmin Ratansi rise to respectively condemn Conservative policy on taxation and foreign affairs, while Conservative Tilly O’Neill-Gordon praises government efforts in her riding of Miramichi.

The 45 minutes that follow are both the most-watched and most-bemoaned portion of each day in Ottawa. In its wake, there are regular complaints about decorum, mindless partisanship and unanswered questions, most of which may misunderstand entirely what it is that ails the House. “Decorum,” says Comartin, “is almost more of a symptom than it is a disease itself.”

Monday through Thursday, question period brings perhaps 250 MPs to the House. The vast majority will have no direct involvement in what follows. They are here not to speak, but to sit around those who are speaking and nod their heads for the sake of the television cameras. They are here to stand and clap and cheer for their side and heckle and sneer at the other. A few government backbenchers will be given the honour of rising to ask a planted question of whichever cabinet minister has something self-aggrandizing to say that day. Here the MP is at once at his most prominent and least useful.

Immediately following this show, there are often complaints from the floor—MPs rising on points of order or privilege to claim some slight or offer some further argument of an issue raised. Mostly these interventions come to nothing, seemingly raised only for the sake of getting something on the record. On this day, Liberal Wayne Easter will rise to complain that his involvement in plans to run an underwater cable between Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick has been misrepresented by Transport Minister Chuck Strahl. Government House leader John Baird will then stand to ridicule Easter’s version of events. Speaker Milliken will dismiss the dispute. “I do not think that is a point of order. It sounds like a dispute as to facts,” he says. “I suggest we move on to orders of the day.”

By 3:20 p.m., moments removed from question period, there are just 15 MPs in the House as debate resumes on free trade with Panama. In the relative quiet, Scott Brison, a lively and entertaining speaker, engages in a spirited back-and-forth with the NDP’s Peter Julian, an insistent orator, over the moral obligation of international trade and the politics of Central America.

The House of Commons is a sham

Adrian Wyld/CP

In the relative intimacy of a mostly deserted House, the discussion can be substantive, even wonkish. Members will address one another cordially and cross the centre aisle to sit and talk with each other. There are moments too of passion and eloquence. “One of the arguments that the NDP members used against the free-trade agreement with Colombia was that there had been some level of illicit drug trafficking and money laundering in Colombia in the past,” says Brison, recalling a previous debate to make the case for dealing with Panama. “I want to address that because if we are serious about working with the government of Colombia and the people of Colombia to reduce that drug trade, the most important thing we can do is provide alternative economic opportunities through legitimate trade.”

As debate proceeds, Liberal Kevin Lamoureux, a newcomer to the House who may challenge Jim Maloway’s dominance of the word count, finds excuse, in discussing the benefits of free trade for the Manitoba hog industry, to note that Manitoba annually produces more pigs than it has people. As he and Maloway go back and forth, several MPs work away at laptops. The NDP’s Linda Duncan, seated nearby Maloway, alternates between listening to him and reading various documents she’s brought with her. A group of five teenagers arriving in the south gallery brings the audience to six. With his fourth intervention of the day, Maloway raises France’s tax treaty with Panama as a point of comparison. He will speak five more times before the day’s business is finished.

Before being elected at the federal level, Maloway served for 12 years in the Manitoba legislature. There, he says, he was less interested in engaging in legislative debate and more interested in media interviews and attention. Now, he figures, he’s making up for lost time. He says he is in his Parliament Hill office most nights until 9 p.m. reading up on legislation. He enjoys the competition of debate, and figures more people are listening than it might seem—a view shared by other MPs who report emails and questions about speeches they’ve made and legislation that is being considered. He also understands his practical value to the NDP side. If he is able and willing to sit in the House and speak to whatever legislation is on the order paper each day, other NDP MPs are free to take care of appearances, speeches, interviews and other demands.

How you view the purpose of the House depends largely on how you view the purpose of an MP like Maloway. What should an MP’s role be? Does he represent his riding or his party? Is she beholden to her constituents or her party leader? Is he a conduit for the wishes of others or is he ever entitled to do what he thinks is best?

On paper, the MP possesses great power, but the idea of the backbencher as a powerless placeholder has become central to our politics. After all, the Westminster system functions, often efficiently, as the product of oppositional “teams.” Elections are presented as a choice of party and prime minister. (In a recent Ekos poll, only 17 per cent of respondents identified the local candidate as the most important factor when it came to voting.) At present, the most highly prized quality in modern Ottawa is discipline, both of behaviour and message. The party leader who exerts it is admired. The MP who disobeys is ostracized. There is a certain logic to this. “We happen to be individual persons, but we were also elected as a group of MPs under a certain set of promises that we also have to respect and hopefully implement,” says Conservative MP Bruce Stanton. “I understood that my role in this was to get my seat elected so that my party could put a new program in place.”

The system is as well, to a certain degree, self-regulating. Individuals who disagree with a party’s policies are unlikely to run for, or remain in, that party. Leaders who fail to heed the views within their caucuses are unlikely to remain in power for long. MPs point out that debate does occur—within caucus and in private conversations between members.

Such discussions may occur beyond the public realm, but then the public may not be interested in the discussion. “I remember the controversy over prorogation,” says Conservative MP James Rajotte. “We were back in the House and it was probably mid-April and people were still saying, ‘So when is Parliament getting back to work?’ ” As Stanton explains: “The whole prorogation thing last year raised the notion that the public often thinks we’re not working unless we are in Ottawa, but the fact is you get more appreciation when people see you out and about in your own riding.”

So perhaps Canadians aren’t really interested in what goes on in the House on a day-to-day basis. By one understanding of representative government, that’s logical enough: we vote to elect representatives to mind such business for us. But amid declining voter turnout—a historic low of 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in October 2008—here may be another of those traps. Because we aren’t concerned about the individuals we send to Ottawa, we have a House of Commons that doesn’t interest us and because we have a House of Commons that doesn’t interest us, we aren’t concerned about the individuals we send to serve there.

When the Conservatives campaigned in 2006, they promised all votes in the House except those on the budget and the main estimates would be considered “free votes”—that most elusive dream of reformers. Five years later, such freedom is only generally applied to votes on private member’s bills and so-called votes of “conscience.” In the past year this led to interesting splits on bills concerning such contentious issues as euthanasia, abortion and transsexual rights. (The bills on abortion and euthanasia were defeated. The bill on transsexual rights passed the House and is now with the Senate.) But the extent and meaning of this freedom is limited by how rarely private member’s bills ever move far enough or fast enough through the House and Senate to become law. In the last decade, only 25 private member’s bills originating in the House achieved royal assent. Six of those were drafted to mark special occasions (for instance, the fourth Saturday of November each year is now officially “Ukrainian Famine and Genocide Memorial Day”). Four of those involved changing the names of ridings.

A vote last September on a private member’s bill that would have abolished the long-gun registry was perhaps the most closely watched in recent years (even if all but the NDP’s members broke along party lines). A result hung in the balance, the votes of individual members mattered and a national debate ensued. If those who seek change have a dream of a more perfect Parliament, this was a peek at that future.

Since announcing that he would not seek re-election, Liberal MP Keith Martin has been searing in his criticism of the present situation. “I’ve never seen morale so low or Parliament so dysfunctional in more than 17 years of being there,” he says. “There’s an overwhelming sense of futility, disappointment and sadness among most of the MPs who are there.” Martin is unmatched in tone, but is not alone in his concerns. One MP uses the term “farcical” to describe the process of debate in the House. “I think the vast majority of MPs are interested in playing a bigger role,” says Conservative MP Michael Chong, “in having greater authority and autonomy to execute their roles.”

The House of Commons is a sham

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Martin is explicit in assigning blame. He laments for those who surround party leaders, the “fairly young, ambitious, rapidly partisan individuals who often treat MPs with utter disdain.” The incentives, he says, are backwards. “Rabid partisanship is rewarded,” he says. “Overweening and excessive party discipline has disempowered members of Parliament and forced them to pay utter homage to the leaderships of their party, instead of their true bosses, which are the people that sent them there.”

There are, by Martin’s telling, two particularly worrisome results of the system as it is: the important debates it does not allow Parliament to have and the untold number of individuals it discourages from taking part. “We’re sending a very sad and sorry message to the bright and the young,” he says, “that their skills are not going to be used to the best of their abilities if they go into federal politics.”

Change, if it is ever to transpire, would need to start with those questions about who and what an MP is supposed to be. Since 1970 it has been a requirement of the Elections Act that any candidate seeking to stand for a political party in an election must receive the signed endorsement of that party’s leader. Chong, whose proposals for question-period reform are being studied by a parliamentary committee, would start there. “The current situation is at the root of the imbalance between not just the executive branch and the legislature, but also the root of the imbalance between party leaders and their caucuses,” he says. “If you know that the leader may not sign your papers in the next election or may in fact kick you out of caucus, that’s going to colour your judgment about whether or not you’re going to support the party line on a particular vote.”

The theory follows that moving the power to authorize candidates from the party leader to the constituency or a regional authority would leave the MP less beholden to the leader and more likely to speak freely. If MPs were more likely to speak freely, more free votes would have to result. And if fewer votes were preordained by party lines, debate would become more meaningful, both as an expression of individual views and as a means of influencing others. At once, the individual MP and the House as an institution would become more relevant.

Other reforms could follow, but ironically any change may ultimately depend on the will of MPs who are now so apparently disempowered. “It’s not a matter of us being impotent,” says the NDP’s Paul Dewar. “It’s a matter of us caring enough to do something about it.”

At 5:30 p.m., Feb. 3, the House moves to private members’ business—an hour is set aside each day for the consideration of such bills. In this case, the bill up for discussion is C-507, a proposal of the Bloc’s Josée Beaudoin that would restrict federal spending power along a strict interpretation of the Constitution Act. The Speaker has ruled the bill exceeds the scope of private members’ legislation and absent a royal recommendation­—essen­tially the authorization of the sitting government—it will not be allowed to proceed to a final vote. However unlikely that recommendation, debate is allowed to proceed. What follows then might be considered even more moot than usual.

Conservative Jacques Gourde expounds at length on the government’s economic stimulus as a testament to positive federalism, Liberal Paul Szabo takes the opportunity to promote the benefits of umbilical cord blood preservation. Apparently a national public cord-blood bank would be an initiative worth pursuing, but not—he seems to suggest—something that could be achieved if the restrictions in C-507 were ever made law.

Daniel Paille, the dramatic Bloc frontbencher, rises here to enliven the chamber with a sovereignist cri de coeur. “As long as the people say that they are willing to wait for a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum, we will be here, because we were elected by people who asked us to be here,” he proclaims. As he goes on, a teenage page walks up and down a nearby aisle, getting an early start on the cleanup.

As the clock passes 6 p.m., the visitors’ galleries are entirely empty, save for four police officers. A motion to begin adjournment proceedings is soon thereafter passed. But before the House can conclude with its business, it moves to the so-called “late show”—a sort of postscript to question period that allows members to pursue the government at greater length on issues of particular concern. In this case, the result is a recitation of rote talking points, three Liberals and three Conservatives taking turns to stand and repeat their party lines on employment insurance, crime and Internet access. The Conservatives read theirs from prepared sheets of paper.

It is a wholly surreal half hour. With a motion to adjourn already adopted, the population of the House dwindles to as few as four MPs. As the clock nears 7 p.m., Jean-Claude D’Amours and Conservative Mike Lake are virtually alone, surrounded by hundreds of green and brown chairs, speaking blandishments only for the sake of each other. “This government,” Lake finishes, “will always act in the best interests of consumers, increase competition and increase the uptake of technology on behalf of Canadians when it comes to the Internet.”

With that said, the Speaker announces the House will stand adjourned until the next morning at 10 a.m. A little less than nine hours have by then been committed to the official record. To what end it is difficult to say.




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The House of Commons is a sham

  1. A well written notation of the current state of affairs in possibly the most important Canadian institution to our collective well being.
    Question period for being a great source of sound bites is not (thankfully) representative of the legislative debating that should take place in the House.
    Our MP's won't reform the Senate since it would largely cast a darker view on their own habits and usefulness.
    Put them to work doing what they are "paid" to do and that is effective to serve Canada not the party coffers.

  2. Mmmm … Mr. Wherry, this reads like selected passages from a diary of a journalist who is growing to hate his job. In any event, I share your pain.

    I loved the Pearson/Harper statistics, perhaps the most telling of all. If I may recap, with an addendum…

    Lester B Pearson 1963-1968
    Bills introduced: 285
    Bills passed: 245
    Score: 86%
    International Achievements: Nobel Peace Prize

    Stephen Harper 2006-2011
    Bills introduced: 279
    Bills passed: 117
    Score: 42%
    International achievements: (take your pick)
    Hosted a G8/G20 event with more police and more bogus arrests than any other to date, including South Korea.
    -or-
    Lost a UN vote for a seat on the UN security council for the first time in history… to Portugal, no less.

    • I`m not sure it serves any useful purpose to compare achievements from the past to what you perceive as failures in the present. But, if you do, then you should add a little context.
      Since a minority Parliament depends as much on the actions of the opposition as the gov`t, you might want to check to see if the PC`s joined with the NDP and Socreds to attempt an overthrow of the gov`t because of a reduction in direct payments to individual political parties. A disruptive opposition can seriously damage the effectiveness of Parliament by using Parliament for partisan purposes, as we are observing this week.

      As far as your international part—-I was not aware Pearson won the Nobel between 1963-68, and as for the UN and it`s internal politics, nuff said—-and I don`t think that Middle East peace thing is working out all that well……..and also, you should check to see if the `60`s crowd used the Black Bloc method of protest back then…….you know, just for some context.

      • "an overthrow of the government." Really? Are you completely ignorant of how our system works, or just so consumed by the misleading rhetoric of Harper and his hacks that you don't care if our system works at all?

        • A large percentage of our citizens woud have thought that the replacement of a government with 143 representatives with 2 opposition parties with a combined representation of 109 only 2 months after an election would constitute an overthrow. Toss in the fact that the main reason for the opposition anger was a proposal that would reduce their public subsidy, then you can see why the public would consider it an attempted overthrow.

          • Lets put the public subsidy in context. This public subsidy is such a small part of taxpayer contribution to political parties and it is also the most representative of support. Why didn't the CPC attack the real public expense in the support of the political parties. The CPC as the largest spenders also benefit as the largest receivers of taxpayer money in the 50% refund of election expenses from the taxpayer. The taxpayer claimability of donations? Who do you think is the biggest beneeficiary of taxpayer funds? This attack on democracy came from a party whose focus is attacking oppostion rather than giving this country good government. By doing this they see their advantage. They lose little while other parties with smaller public contributions lose a lot. That is your democracy. If the CPC was honest in any of this they would start looking at reducing election expense rebates. But that would hurt their take from the taxpayer more than the other parties. So they can't do that. It's all about deceit and politics and you are a victim of their spin.

          • You forgot to mention the huge, and hugely misleading, campaign the Conservatives launched, Blue. That campaign was actually a pretty good demonstration of why political parties should receive subsidies…because the best democracy money can buy gives us anti-democratic thugs like Harper for leaders.

          • Wow Blue – you certainly prove this point…

            Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.
            -John Stuart Mill

    • You seemed to have forgotten to mention Prime Minister Harper's courageous stand in leading the way on the world stage by instructing Canada's UN delegation to boycott a speech by that hate monger, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the UN General Assembly. As he did in boycotting the Durban II conference in Geneva, Switzerland, the prime minister showed exceptional intetinal fortitude adn honesty. You should give credit where credit is due.

      • What contribution did that boycott have on anything?

        • Canada showed the world it's contempt for the evil and lies perpetrated in the middle east. It was a moral victory over tyranny and evil. That's the conrtibution.

          • And what has changed, as a result of that? I guess I'm a little more results oriented than you are.

          • Jan, that's just silly to this poster Ken Rowan maybe is very meaninful and touches really close to home, don't make you hate for Harper make you insensitive towards other people's views or feelings.

  3. One more thing – I would vote for any MP that would have the courage to stand up and ask which one he should should first accuse of being a liar – Oda or Harper. It may get him/her kicked out of the House for a while but there is nothing quite like stating the truth so elegantly. Decorum be damned. John Baird has turned QP into a sham – a goon that protects Harper like Semenko protected Gretzy. A big mouth but a clumsy speaker.

    • I`m not sure giving a shout out of liar to individual MP`s and referring to the Government House Leader as a goon is the way to an effective Parliament.
      But I am not surprised to hear these suggestions from a Liberal.

      • I`m not sure giving a shout out of liar to individual MP`s and referring to the Government House Leader as a goon is the way to an effective Parliament.

        That part of your comment was awesome…two thumbs up.

      • And Blue, not a surprise to read your response. AM email spin points from the PMO so typical one can write their own spin as you do ahead of time because the cons and their parrots are soooooo very predictable. When all else fails, change the topic,throw in a lie or 3, blame the lIberals for the pst government and look like a kool AId tin foil Cap idiots admoiring a know dictator as Hypocrit Harper. And I agree with Diogenes 54. Call them out a when they try this. not really calling them liars but if its plausible, its fine. Call it a fib, lets be perfectly clear and call ithem on their BS.As for Biaird, he looks and iacts like a rabid bull dog but I suppose when your gay you have to resort to tough words to fluff your own feathers.

        • As in Iran, there are no gay Conservative caucus members. :-)

    • *sigh* Partisan ramblings such as this certainly don't encourage our MPs to behave any better.

  4. I'm relieved that AW stated the House of Commons is a sham, and not, say, the role of an MP. I have come to learn that attendance in the House of Commons is but one role of many played by our MPs.

    From Speaker Milliken's website: Members have an extremely busy life. In many cases, their ridings are thousands of kilometres away, and they must travel back and forth between the House of Commons and their constituency. The time differences and jet lag contribute to the erosion of what little free time they have. In addition to their time in the riding and in the House of Commons, there are myriad other demands on their time, and a bewildering variety of responsibilities to fulfil.

    Yes, the House is an important part of an MP's role in our democracy, but it is also only a part of his job description. When they are not attending debates at the House, I trust that our MPs are doing work either in Ottawa, or in their respective constituencies. To suggest that the House is a sham might be accurate, but it would have been inaccurate, IMHO, to state that the roles played by our politicians are irrelevant or a sham.

    • All the more reason to make sure that the time MP's have in Ottawa, and in the House, is put to the best use possible, instead of being the giant waste of time it appears to be.

    • Or, alternatively, they could be attending evening "receptions" and indulging in
      "free" finger foods.

    • The House of Commons rules should change to permit MPs to vote and oversee committee and House of Commons sessions over the internet rather than be required to be present, which would reduce travel costs, stress and increase interaction with their constituents. Danny Handelman

  5. Great story Aaron… good peek into some of the systemic problems of parliament. Seems like a daunting problem indeed. I'd blast somebody for not doing something about it, but I'm at a loss to provide any suggestion on how things could be made better. But, you've given me a better idea of the conundrum, at least.

    • There was one clue in the article … it was in the power of the party leader to approve (or not) local candidates. I seem to remember there being times in the past when local constituency organizations were inundated with new members immediately prior to an election in order to force the installation of a particular candidate. I also recall that there was a rule imposed (perhaps by party officials rather than government) to put a time limit on how close to an election that new party members could participate in voting on the candidates. So presumably we reached the present state as a result of trying to block abuses at the local level. What seems to have happened, though, is that the party now becomes a monolithic bloc with all power at the leader's level. Instead of the party being a coalition of more-or-less like minded individuals each with their own local "power base," the party has become an autocratic institution. This in turn has now translated into how government works.

      So, if I were to suggest a place to start – it would be in starting to unravel those local rules around authority of the local constituency versus the authority of the party leader in approval of local candidates. Restore more of a balance with local accountability. Um, wasn't that one of the Reform party's policies?

      • I believe Harper and Manning fell out over that. Harper won.

      • Keep in mind the alternative is in the US, where the leader has no control over his caucus and representatives are beholden to local interests. While that has merits, it has equivalent problems. You can vote for a Democrat because you like Obama, but then have the Demcrat rep vote with the Republicans. This system also results in the vote-trading – which again can be positive or negative depending on your view. Negotiation is not a bad thing, but having to vote against your conscience on one thing in order to gain favour on another is riddled with extended consequences. Personally, I like voting for a candidate and knowing they will argue their conscience in caucus but stand united with the party consensus in parliament. The reform needs to happen at the party level if MPs are not given the chance to influence the party stance.

        • You mean, so the leader actually has to show leadership and convince his party members that something is in their best interest, instead of holding their nomination forms over their heads?

          That's just crazy talk.

        • The speakers of the two houses of congress have significant influence over their caucuses.

    • The other thing, not mentioned in the article, is changes to the election financing rules so that financing for the parties goes through the candidates, and not the other way around. I've been arguing for that change, and the change in the nomination rules, for about 6 years.

    • Oversize electoral districts, wide variation of electoral quotients within and between provinces and territories, and the disenfranchisement of those under the age of 18 will collectively have a significant effect on parliament. Danny Handelman

  6. Our entire system of politics and government is in dire need of a major overhaul.

    How goofy is it to be operating at this day and age with policies and procedures which date back more than a century?

    Unfortunately…those people we rely on to make those changes are the politicians and MP's themselves. Who aren't likely to embrace anything which challenges the party system status quo.

    • Sadly if they actually followed the procedures then decorum might return. It was dull but it was also an honour based system. A bit more respect for the system and less for the 24 hour news cycle is much needed.

    • The status quo will remain as long as those of certain demographics (older, religious, non-”visible minority”, and those of higher economic status) have a higher voter turnout than their counterparts. Danny Handelman

  7. Maybe this whole tradition thing is what is stifling Parliament. It is 2011, and MP`s don`t take horse carriage, and steam engine and ice boat down to Charlottetown to have a meeting, all the while drinking barrels of whiskey…..well, maybe the whiskey part still happens.
    I think politicans hang onto the past because they don`t want to give up the power that some of the arcane rules of Parliament give to individual members. I mean, what organization, business, etc. would allow a windbag like Maloway to spout on and on, ragging the puck—-he even admits his verbal diarrhea is to allow other MP`s to exit the House.
    Oh, and some polling group should go out on the street and ask the citizens what they think of this weeks prima fascie motion to the Speaker—I would suggest the front line polling kids prepare for a blast from the folks once they explain what their MP`s are up to.

    • "I think politicans hang onto the past because they don`t want to give up the power that some of the arcane rules of Parliament give to individual members. I mean, what organization, business, etc. would allow a windbag like Maloway to spout on and on, ragging the puck—-he even admits his verbal diarrhea is to allow other MP`s to exit the House."

      Seems to me individual members could use more power, not less. Isn't that one of the problems? And who gets to decide "Hey, Maloway, shut yer yap"? The guy was elected to represent his constituents, and he's doing that in the way he sees fit. His constituents can tell him to shut up if they want to.

      • C`mon gbs, you know 99 plus % of his constitutents are unaware of his constant verbage in the House.
        And I don`t think he is gaining any respect or influence by rambling on from either his fellow MP`s or his constitutents.
        I think he is part of the problem—-using the arcane rules of an old institution just to hear himself speak.

        • I'm not so sure about that… if he were my MP, his constant verbiage would be the stuff of legend (either positively or negatively).

          As an aside, don't you think it's funny that the two of us, who can't stay off these comment boards because we like to hear ourselves talk, are critiquing a guy who likes to hear himself talk?

          • Well when I look below and see tyt get the standard approval for praising Hedy Fry or maybe it`s because he disses me, I should give it a rest…………..but first I`ll give a shout-out to Colby.

        • I'm one of his constituents…one who was quite unsure of him when he took over for Blaikie…and I'm aware of his verbiage in the House. He actually notes it in his mailings to constituents.

          The things he's said during those speeches, and the fact that he actually has opinions on issues and is willing to air those opinions has won him my respect.

        • I listened to what he said yesterday evening about the release of Finance Department documents, and thought that while he repeasted himself a few times he made good points, inxluding a comparison with US Congress which routinely costs its bills so members understand the implications. Hedy Fry also made some important points about the nature of the work of MPs and how that is being undermined when the flow of information is obstructed. MPs were actually talking about the nature of their work, and their role in parliament, but I don't think you'd care to hear it because it was critical of your team's current behaviour.

          Acutally, I call bullsh*t blue, I don't believe you've ever listened to Maloway. You've probably never even heard of him until this article and just made up your mind on ideology. I think it's your commentson these boards that are governed more by the need to "hear" yourself speak, than Maloway.

          • I don't think this article, or any of the MPs quoted in it, were being critical of any one "team". It seemed to me to fairly criticize all parties and individuals involved.

            As I've said before, Wherry's stuff that is published in the magazine, as opposed to the stuff that's just on the blog, is usually quite fair and balanced…. and of great value!

        • If anyone else would show up, maybe he'd have less time to speak and more time to listen.
          All things considered MP's are there so we don't have to be. I want my MP to have a voice rather then become another lapdog.
          If your local news isn't covering it's elected officials, it's a beef to be had with them.

    • Wow. Funny thing. Maloway is my MP. He's a damned good MP too. I appreciate the fact that he still stands to speak in the House on a regular basis. For that you call him a "windbag" and say he's "ragging the puck."

      Here's something you can do, Blue. Watch CPAC for a week. See who says what in the House and in Committee meetings. Then you'll be able to tell which "windbags" are "ragging he puck." Baird and Kenney come to mind, then there's the ever ridiculous Rob Anders and the perpetually incompetent Deanie del Mastro.

      • Rob's been pretty quiet lately. Perhaps he ran out of feet to swallow.

        • He made an asinine statement before Question Period yesterday. I can't remember what it was, but I do remember thinking that his constituents should be embarrassed.

          • I am one of Rob Ander's constituents and "we" are embarrassed but we are tories so we have to keep Rob if we want to vote for Stephen.

          • To me our voting system is so undemocratic, I hate it!

          • The oversize electoral districts, wide variation in electoral quotients within and between provinces and territories and the disenfranchisement of those under the age of 18 are consistent with the lack of democracy. Danny Handelman

      • Oh, I`m sure there are other windbags then Maloway—he`s just the one Wherry mentions is standing alone going on and on in the House.

        And I think it is rather mean of you to sentence me to a week`s watching of CPAC. You may disagree with me but I don`t think I deserved that. I mean, I could end up like Wherry.

        • CPAC is the best thing on during the day, Blue…unless you really like Star Trek re-runs or those weirdly horrid slasher movies on CMOV. I wasn't trying to punish you, but encouraging you to expand your horizons. Pierre Poilievre is on right now looking even creepier than usual. Is it possible he's a vampire?

          Maloway speaks in the House as part of his job. It gets (or attempts to get) his views heard, which is why we sent him to Ottawa. We'd do well to have more MPs like him.

          • And you really have to watch some of the committees to see how dysfunctional the place is -and to measure what MP's are bringing to the table.

    • The unwillingness of politicians reducing their influence is evidenced by the fact that the federal electoral quotient has gradually increased over the years. Danny Handelman

  8. Wherry is nostalgic for a time when politicians main means of communication was in the House and on the hustings, which is fair enough, but he needs to recognize that the primary purpose of the House was always and simply to enact decisions into law. Where and how those decisions are arrived at must necessarily vary.

    We should not fret just because staged speeches are no longer to be given or heard in the House. To be nostalgic about that is to miss an important part of the reality of those good old days – 99% of the population only ever heard of these debates second or third hand through the media of the day. We can now see and hear from Harper and the rest any day of the week on our television sets or other device.

    The other antics have always been a part of our parliamentary system.

    • I disagree vehemently, Bill Simpson, that the primary purpose of the House is merely to enact laws. The primary purpose is to have a discussion on the implications of specific laws prior to enacting them. Enacting them is merely the final formality once the discussion has ceased.

      By saying "Where and how those decisions are arrived at must necessarily vary" you basically state that Parliament should (or does) not play a role in formulating new decisions/laws, and that it should merely be a rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere.

      If that's what we've devolved to, then we've already lost. Redressing this state of affairs should be the highest priority of the House of Commons, in my humble opinion, as it speaks to their sole reason for existence.

  9. I'm not 100% sure why a prospective MP needs the signature of the party leader before they can run for that party, although I would hazard a guess that it has something to do with giving party HQs some ability to exclude uber-wingnuts from their ranks.

    On that basis, the (unintended) consequences that AW describes – MPs are dissuaded from speaking their minds – seems to outweigh the intended benefits.

    Perhaps that rule needs to be changed so that party HQ only has a limited number of vetoes that they can use in any given calendar year (ie 3).

    • It's because Elections Canada needs some authority other than the candidate to tell them who gets the party affiliation beside their name. After all, if anybody could campaign as a conservative here in Alberta, you'd have the whole ballot full of them.

      That said, that authority does not have to be the leader, and I do like the idea of making it the riding association. I mean, there's ways for the Party HQ to control that as well, as the CPC have been rapidly putting in place since Mr. Harper came to power, but that one extra level of remove could make a world of difference.

      Richard Westgate above points out some of the difficulties therein as well.

      • I would absolutely love to see a House of Commons populated by MP's that are beholden only to their local riding association. Think of the flavour it would add to debates and votes. I really think Wherry has highlighted a useful course of action here.

        • You're looking for the US House of Representatives. No thanks.

          • If it was the US House of Representatives, we'd have proportional representation.

            The responsibilities for MP's are not the same as congressmen and the responsibilities for the House of Commons are not the same as the House of Representatives, irrespective of how ridings choose their candidates. The only thing that might be similar is that they would be more apt to represent their constituents first, and their party second.

            And what's so bad about that?

          • The members of the House of Representatives are not elected with proportional representation. The House of Representatives is worse than the Canadian House of Commons largely because the average population per district is significantly greater, resulting in greater dependence on the party and a small number of significant campaign contributions. The candidates interact with their constituents very little. Danny Handelman

    • There's nothing stopping an MP from running as an independent, or from running under a party banner and then sitting as an independent (cutting all ties to their ex-party) some time after being elected, as has already happened on many occasions.

      • Sure, those are other options…..at this juncture I still prefer the modification I suggested above.

      • You mean nothing other than the chances of getting elected without a party affiliation.

  10. Respect for governent, at every level, continues to decline. Personally, I have slowly become a libertarian with complete and utter contempt for government and virtually every department therein. I'm not alone.

    • A-Men Judge- Does this not prove why voters have lost all respect for al political figures

  11. If they are supposed to be keeping uber-wingnuts from their ranks, how do you explain the presence of Rob Anders and Cheryl Gallant?

    • You didn't see the uber ones.

      Heh. Joke aside, Rob Anders continued presence, and the lengths the CPC went to ensure that presence during the riding nominations, astounds me. My only conclusion at this point is that he has something on Harper. Perhaps a drunken night of experimentation between the two of them at some convention hotel..

      • Stay classy you two.

        • Oh that's okay, I wouldn't want to make you feel out of place.

        • No concerns at all about Rob Anders as an MP?

          • No. I probably don't like 90% of MPs, but as long as they're fairly elected, so be it. The same applies to Liberals, Dippers and Bloc heads. I don't even like the rules regarding party nominations, but the rules are the rules. There's nothing stopping anybody from running against him as an Independent (though the per-vote subsidy does give a huge advantage to established parties).

          • You'd vote for Anders?

          • If he was the best candidate running in the riding I might.

          • Thanks for the dance.

          • Many are not fairly elected if one considers the electoral districts are oversize in most provinces and those under the age of 18 are disenfranchised.

      • Thwim, you must be an Edmontonian.

        • Now come on.. that was uncalled for.

    • I can think of three main criteria that HQ considers when deciding if they will sign the nomination papers for a potential candidate; a) will this candidate be able to win the seat?, b) how much grief will this candidate cause inside of caucus?, and c) will we be able to control, live with, or otherwise deal with any "off-the-cuff comments" this person might make?

  12. Thanks, Wherry, for this excellent article. Even though I walk under the shadow of the Peace tower frequently to attend committees and other Hill engagements, I've decided–based on your article–to force myself to spend at least one full day in the house over the coming month, just to witness first-hand how it really works. I'm one of those who has eschewed personal visits for watching QP on CPAC or the Internet, but you've made me realize that I shouldn't keep doing that.

    You take a lot of flack for perceived partisan articles, but I know few others who write the House of Commons in such a way as to make the reader feel that they are really there. Kudos.

    • You are so lucky, take advantage of it!

  13. All our institutions….the pillars of our society….are falling apart. Church, schools, the police, families, Parliament….and people just drift away.

    The best our 'leaders' have been able to do is to apply bandaids to gaping wounds, or worse, try to take us back to the 'old days and old ways' of the 50s or earlier. A sort of political tent revival movement. And some people go with that…they don't know what else to do.

    What we need of course is a saviour, a new young dynamic person with a vision and drive. But such people are scarce, and the system is set up to halt any real change in it's tracks. That part still works unfortunately.

    It's not just Canada of course, this is going on all over the world.

    So it is both the most exciting time, and the most dangerous time to be alive.

    • Reminds me of the middle ages, Emily … when Christ and his angels slept. sigh

      • Well we're certainly drifting or sleep-walking or whatever you want to call it….and it's a dangerous time to do so, because the rest of the world is moving forward.

        I'd say it was more our Dark Ages, and we seem to be getting further and further away from the Renaissance we need.

        I'll join you in that 'sigh'.

    • Messiahs could be tiresome.

  14. A lot of Canadian's complain but and try to persuade another to change thier mind on an issue but i almost never see anyone who has to to the publicm comment time there or provincial legislature. I know the govt there came to my home state that has an award winning interactive site online to notify people when they are seeing public comments, required by law here, but the govt. in Canada has not used the systems here at all. they like to keep you all in the dark. Canada is not a real democracy at all.

    • A true democracy requires more than just two choices on a ballot, in my opinion.

      While I agree that the government could do well by instituting a higher level of direct consultation, it requires an informed electorate in order to implement. Unless the government is willing to educate people on the pros and cons of a specific course of action before they integrate those comments into legislation, you'll probably end up worse off than you are right now.

      I mean, let's be serious here: does anyone really think that most voters want to read two or three lengthy reports and associated dissenting opinions before signing up on their online form to put in their comments? Or would they simply avoid educating themselves on a topic and appeal to 'common sense' in their submission?

      • Well, noob, I'm still waiting for common sense to tell Canadians that democracy needs their involvement and that a coalition is an acceptable , long respected, form of leadership in democracies.

        • It is not that Canadians do not accept a coalition. It is that they want to be able to vote for it before it takes power. Let the opposition parties run as a coalition in an election. We vote, if they get the majority of seats, they run the country.

          • Can you identify a single precedent, in any parliamentary democracy anywhere, where a coalition, as such, ran for office? It's difficult to imagine how such a campaign would even work logistically.

          • the Liberal-National coalition in Oz.

          • I am corrected and edified. You can always learn something on these boards. Thanks!

    • Canada would be more democratic if the electoral quotient would decrease, especially in the four most populous (and underrepresented) provinces (which would result in the national popular vote for each party more closely resemble the distribution of seats in the House of Commons), and enfranchising non-citizens (for non-federal elections) and those under the age of 18. Danny Handelman

  15. A very interesting read with the apparent solution at hand. Remove the requirement to have the Leader's signature to run for the party. This will most definitely lead to a more meaningful parliament.

    • I agree that it would help, but I doubt that it would be an end-all solution to what ails parliament.

      • A significantly lower electoral quotient will help parliament.

  16. An excellent article on the demise of parliamentary democracy as demonstrated in the House. l think the point the author made near the end regarding the necessity of each potential federal candidate to be approved by the party leader is key; until that is changed Members in all parties do not have the ability ( or courage?) to fully represent the ridings and make decisions that might benefit not only their own constituency but the country as a whole. Rather, they must always be responsible to the leader, rather than the voter!

  17. Successive Liberal governments over the decades slowly transfer defacto legislative power to the courts, tribunals(i.e. CRTC), and the executive branch, so there is not much for your average MP to do anymore. That is what happens under a "natural governming party".

    The meant opposition MP's were mostly just playing politics all the time and being obstructionist in the Commons and in Committee, which just gets amplified in a minority Parliament. In the current Parliament it has been worse because the Opposition refuses to defeat the Government and have an election to solve the problems.

    People keep complaining that Harper is a dictator. He has a minority. If you don't like what he is doing, defeat him. Instead they whine and complain, and the media facilitates the whining and complaining instead of calling them out for being cowards. The fear of losing their own seat is their greatest fear. i.e. They don't want to do or stand for anything as MP's. They just want the job, the paycheque, and do the time and get their lucrative pension.

    Why blame Harper for the omnibus budget bill? The opposition let him get away with it. The parties don't want to fight or argue over real issues. They want to fight over focus group tested fake issues. And the media does not want to call them on this (well except for the governing party).

    The Liberals are going to spend the same order of magnitude on fighter jets. The Ontario Liberals are running ad campaigns on US business media about Ontario's and Canada's low and decreasing corporate taxes. The media doesn't challenge the Liberals on their phony polictical posturing.

    • So the person committing the action shouldn't be held responsible for it if others don't stop him? Interesting take.

      You do realize that line of logic eventually leads to, "It ain't illegal if I don't get caught"

    • Wherrys just beginning his NDP campaign. More to come i'm sure.

    • They do so by writing their own partisan comments and making up their own words instead of using the actual words uttered and saying it was reliable sources. Yes to them but not those who are not Communist lovers of the current dictator.. If I were a politician, I would carry and have on at all times a good recorder to shove in their faces on politions and their payed Media followers and call a BS to their faces.. It was once the media who were the watch dogs for Canadians and now it has resorted to a media following the dictator around looking for more handouts from the Dictatorial Harper regime of misfits. Making up their own stories because they are to lazy to investigate what are facts and what are lies and BS. BTW, the media does not challenge the Hypocrite propaganda Cons on their phony political posturing. Don't even try to deny that. We see it every day 24/7 on most media outlets looking for freebies from the Cons by accommodating them to drive wedges to Canadians.

      • It is no wonder sales of papers are declining daily. I personally will use my own brain and common sense. I do not need the media telling me and supporting liars. I learned that when I was still a kid many years ago. If it looks like a duck waddles like a duck, it is a duck period.

  18. a well written article!__

  19. thanks for the article. This is something i have been feeling for a while, and probably other canadians have the same feeling. I have a couple of comments… not that it really matters.
    1: the usefulness of the HC…well what do you expect when you get a bunch of politicans together. Debate is useful, but when the debate becomes self-absorbed that is when people stop caring.
    2: the decrease of interest in the HC… One thing that was not discussed in this article is the increasing role of the provinces and "off-loading" of responsibilities. I dont know if this means that more people are tuning into their provincial debates more then national, but it would be interesting to see if the same sort of "Sham-iness" is occuring at the provincial level, my feeling is that the same thing is occuring.

    • "One thing that was not discussed in this article is the increasing role of the provinces and "off-loading" of responsibilities. "

      Offloading? Responsibilities of federal & provincial governments are very clear. Things aren't being offloaded to the provinces, the federal gov't is stepping OUT of things they should never have been involved in. Provinces are responsible for delivering healthcare, not the feds. Same with education (daycare). Monetary policies are federal, although provinces have the right to set commerical laws/policies, which is why some provinces are against a national securities commission.

      • What they "should" be involved in is a subjective idea. Personally, I very much feel that our education and health care systems should be looked at on a national level.

  20. For my sins …. sadly,given my age and condition,largely of a venial variety …. I routinely watch the
    the after-QP debates on CPAC. Recommended. It's the one area of parliamentary activity where
    I can actually learn stuff. I stopped watching QP a long time ago. Committees can be useful and
    fun but CPAC only rarely shows them live.
    Unfortunately, our political culture (including media) is too informed by the craziness to our south
    that I think it's the triumph of hope over experience to hope for improvement.
    Good article, Aaron.

    • Don't knock venial! It's better than "venal", which would probably require you to start watching QP again…

    • I certainly think the national media should bear some responsibility for the current state of affairs. If, as Wherry indicates, there are rarely any journalists in parliament outside of QP it only stands to reason that QP becomes the focus of Canadians attention and all political debates that take place outside of QP.

      I also found it shocking that there is no wireless connectivity in parliament. Not only would that aide journalists in doing their jobs better, I think that every MP should have a laptop in front of them at all times in parliament to give them access to whatever information is being debated.

  21. Did I miss something? Canada became the first country to outlaw suicide bombing. How does one get convicted of blowing themselves up? Just wondering.

    • In addition to that, just what form of legal punishment would sway the opinion of someone who is willing to kill themselves? Even in the blood-thirsty United States, the most excessive penalty available is merely death.

      Until we possess the medical capabilities of re-animating the bomber's corpse and then sentencing them to a lifetime of watching Jerry Springer, it's a pretty useless law.

    • Never mind, the key here is that are not eligible for early parole.

    • haha…flippin brilliant

    • In absentia, I'm guessing.

    • Hehe. I don't disagree. But I suspect it's necessary to lead to other laws, such as encouraging someone to become a suicide bomber, attempting a suicide bombing, etc…

      • It is as Minister Nicholson says, sending a message.

    • If you can be charged with attempted murder, you can now be charged with attempted suicide bombing (in the event you were unsuccessful), no?

      • Yes, because bombing–on its own–is not a felony, right? And I go back to my initial point: if a person is willing to blow themselves up, do you really think that they're going to be worrying about a penalty if they fail? Seriously?

        What a ludicrous law.

  22. Our schools don't make students politically literate, and once they're adults the media which might inform them primarily treats politics as a marketing exercise, and politicians as celebrities to gossip about.
    There is a fairly widespread illusion as a result that regardless of who goes to Ottawa life will go on much as usual for the average person, and thus we need only watch as someone gains "power" as if it were some kind of meaningless award .

    • I think I honestly felt much the same way–complete political apathy–until I watched Dalton McGuinty implement the racing law, the smoking in cars with kids law, and the cell phone in cars law.

      And although they're all 'common sense' (i.e. have a strong appeal to emotion), which makes them impossible to argue against, I began to wonder, as time went on, whether the government really needed to be legislating against such activities.

  23. Perhaps the quality of our members of parliament reflects on the people who lead them and elect them.
    Macleans also indicted itself for not reporting all parliamentary debates. Perhaps we don't feel like paying for it or we don't want to hear.
    The honourable members also check their brains at the constituancy office when they blindly vote as their leader tells them to vote instead if their own conscience or the will of their constituants.
    Reform is sorely needed to keepus interested.

    • The highest priority of reform is to reduce the electoral district to 1867 levels (less than 19,000), which would significantly reduce the influence of parties, campaign contributions and party leaders. Danny Handelman

  24. If the system is broken then you have to ask why. Its because the opposition and the government are continually sparing about uninmportant things. The opposition this week talked about Oda all week. No real business got done. Lying? Everyday lies are spewed in the House in sust a volume that few believe what comes out of the mouths of any politician. The minority government rules were designed for the odd minority parliament which may last 18 mos at most. We have now had five years of minority with four parties trying to run the country. No wonder we are turning into a banana republic.

    • They sparred about Oda for an hour during QP, max. QP is only a small portion of the work of the House of Commons.

  25. Harper is a sham

    • earl is a sham

      See what I just did there? Pretty clever, huh?

    • And the biggest impediment to the honourable functioning of our parliamentary democracy.

      • “Conservatives” have similar opinions of the Liberals when they obtained majority governments with similar proportion of the national popular vote through the oversize electoral districts, wide variation in electoral quotients within and between provinces and territories, and the disenfranchisement of those under the age of 18, non-citizens and those incarcerated to sentences in excess of two years. Danny Handelman

  26. Good article. I'm not sure there should be so much concern about the HC being vacant for extended periods because much of the governing of the country takes place elsewhere, in government departments, offices, courts and other parts of the government structure.

    What does concern me is the ridiculously politicized nature of what is supposed to be debate when their are members in the House eg. during question period. I find the "at their throats" approach of the opposition parties scratching to make political points to be disturbing and uncivilized. Surely there's a way of questioning government's decisions and policies without resorting to the constant nastiness and theatrics.

    For example. What did Minister Oda do? She over-rode a staff decision in her own department. As head of the department I'd say that's reasonable. Did she mislead the HC committee… let's say Jack Layton has it right for once and the answer is yes. Was it intentional?… I doubt it but who knows. Is it an issue worth spending days of that question period time on in order to score political points when there are other pressing issues at hand? Not as far as I'm concerned. The HC is being threatened by the undignifed behaviour of those who work there … occasionally.

    • What did Bev Oda do? Try this for a scenario…

      She signed off on approval of funding for KAIROS, as did other important people. Then she got a call from Langevin Block with orders to reverse that decision NOW. So she did. We don't know exactly who made this clumsy forgery (and that is what it is). Maybe it was Oda, maybe one of her minions.

      But we do know this… she lied about it in the beginning, she lied about it again, and she keeps piling lies upon lies. And this is OK for Harper because if he throws limousine Oda under the bus, she just might tell all – that the order came from the man himself. So Oda still has her job.

      That, my friend, is pure contempt of parliament.

  27. Great article Wherry!

    I completely agree with the idea that nomination papers need to be signed by the leader needs to go ASAP.

    But I also find it interesting that there aren't any journalists in the gallery outside of QP. It's tough to blame our parliamentarians for not caring about parliament in general if the media isn't going to cover it. The wider debate of policy in the country is always informed by the media, so it stands to reason that MPs are going to want to debate issues in the media. If the media isn't covering parliamentary debate, then the MPs will not debate the issues there.

    And my GOD, there isn't wireless internet access in the house? That is beyond ridiculous! Not only, as stated, does it make it next to impossible for the modern journalist to do their job there, its an incentive for MPs to be outside of parliament to get timely access to information. I can only think that if MPs had internet access in parliament, they could at least get more work done while there, rather than in their offices. Which wouldn't necessarily solve any of the issues at hand, but it would at the very least fill some more seats.

    • Don't fret, they all have Blackberrys and have access to everything they need.

  28. February 17, 2011, I channel hopped until I got to CPAC. Listening to the members statements I learned a few things, including a weekend event in Winnipeg celebrating the French/Metis and the voyagers that opened this great land. This was followed by a member of the Government reading text that complained about the opposition wanting an election and forming a coalition government. It reminded me of the Conservatives current ads on TV. Then another member of the Opposition spoke of the good a charity in their riding and how it helps all Canadians. Then another member of the Government stood and delivered another "commercial" like attack on the opposition, word for word the same as the first.

    I also noticed that when a member was speaking with no one around them, a couple of MP's would sit in the desks behind him/her. In fact it was funny to see some of them in different seats, moving around like chess pieces. Except after reading this article we can in fact see that it is not funny! Just another sign of what should be a place where the "common" person has a voice via their elected MP is in fact silenced voice and ignored.. One only has to look at the election brochures to know that we are not voting for who we want to represent us and our issues, BUT we are voting for the leader of a party who will in turn tell those we have elected how to vote.

    The MP's are supposed to represent us in Ottawa, NOT represent their party when they come back home.

    We as Canadian's MUST take a more active role and make our voices heard.

    • The influence of the party would decrease if the electoral quotient were to decrease, such as that found in 1867 (less than 19,000). Danny Handelman

  29. Excellent story on our country's current Democratic Deficit!

    We're replacing Parliamentarians with casual-help that's there for their own self-serving reasons. To hell with Public Service. The men and few women in our Parliament are losing Canada's Vision. The last 5 years have witnessed a deterioration and manipulation of democracy so that it's become unrecognizable. Shameful….but just try to remember, when you get nostalgic about REAL democracy….

    STEVE MUBARAK rules!

    • The Liberals obtained majority governments with a similar proportion of the national popular vote, through similarly oversize electoral districts, wide variation in electoral quotients within and between provinces and territories and disenfranchisement of those under the age of 18, non-citizens and those incarcerated to sentences in excess of two years. Danny Handelman

  30. Comparing records of achievement adds nothing to the debate? How often do the cons bring up the sponsorship scandal when answering a question in QP?

    • I don't know… not often enough?

  31. This article could have been written in 1997

    • No, Jim Maloway wasn't a Member of Parliament then.

  32. The House of Commons is no longer relevant to the current age… the Westminster System was developed in a time where communication was facilitated by horsemen.

    Let us leap into the 21st century where the common man can speak for himself instead of through proxy; forums like this one where debate is alive and well.

    • I think it's even *more* important, these days, to elect people to represent the views of their constituents. We've already turned the HoC into a stream of Twitter-length speaking points, instead of an actual debate about any specific issues. I can't imagine that it would be remotely productive to open up our decision-making process even more to people who may or may not have taken the time to educate themselves on a specific issue before clicking "submit comment".

  33. This is very thoughtful and helpful article.

    I had never thought about the fact that PM Harper rarely 'speaks' in the house – not including his silly out-of-context QP one-liners. He never speaks in an unguarded or unrehearsed manner … anywhere. Watson would be more cogent on policy – and without the 'human' nastiness.

    I definitely watch 'the debates' if someone of Joe Comartin's ability is speaking because I learn something about criteria to consider for good public policy. Often the Bloc MPs raise important ideas as well. Have I forgotten anyone? Doubt it.

    I was shocked to find out how much time is wasted by the government prepping for QP. Do they even understand their responsibilities to Canadians?

    It would be nice to have more thoughtful journalists presenting insightful ideas like this. And much less P&P, "Power Play" and "Question Period".

  34. Funny that this article appears the same day I finally make my way to the visit the House, after so many years wishing to see it first hand. Living in Winnipeg, the snippets of footage and QP a lll I had to go on for, I was excited to finally visit. This article captures the disappointment I felt in seeing the rote events unfold.

    I was lucky, they called everyone into the House for some votes on bills, so I got to see all 308 MP's check they bakcberries, read the paper and chat with each other. I even heard a few desktop slammed in impatience for the speaker to get things underway.

  35. This report really hits the bullet. As a student of political studies, I regularly follow question period. I find the MPs who do not get up to ask a question nor debate are mere cameos, who are viciously partisan. Heck, once I was present in the public gallery and Jason Kenney had the newspaper spread out on his desk throughout QP! It certainly makes one ask what they are doing there if they are not actively participating.

  36. We should implement some of Chong's ideas to reform the place and make individual mps matter again [ removing the signing of nomination papers by the party leaders would be a very good starting point] for their constituents' sakes and their own and not, as has become obvious now, principaly the Party. If not we might yet get to the point where we have one MP speaking to an empty house and a bored an impatient janitor.

  37. The House of Commons is a joke and Question Period is an embarrassment. But isn’t all this – and I quite agree with all that Wherry says – a function of a fundamental problem with our politics of this new millenium? That being that it is not about governing the country. It is not about serving the country. It is not about public policy arrived at after fulsome debate. Nope.

    It is and has been for some time, only about power, getting it and keeping it and, once you have a majority, doing what you like with it. This is a politics of personalities won by PR. In such a system, what happens in the House of Commons is irrelevant, cause nobody is watching.

    • No one needs to be watching the House of Commons for them to be effective. Quite the opposite, in fact.

      I wish politicians would remember that from time to time.

  38. I prefer the present system where one votes for a party and not for a candidate who could vote independently. There are several advantages for the current system. By voting for a party, one knows the general policies and values that party (and MPs) stands for. If an independent MP could vote however they want to, how would they determine how the majority in their riding are thinking? What if the proper vote is against the wishes of the majority? I don't want my MP voting based on their conscience – especially if their conscience is based on religion. Independent thinking MPs could be like American politicians whose vote can be bought by who contributes to their campaigns. The party system of voting may not be perfect but it is better than the alternatives.

    • Really joel, you'd prefer your MP to be an unthinking automaton, responsible solely for selling the official party line to their constituents?

      The MP is tasked with knowing what the majority of their constituents wants, and if they vote against them they can expect to be canned in the next election. How in the world would the national party know any better than an individual MP on what their constituents want? I think that's a thousand times worse than the 'problems' you identify with allowing MPs to vote independently.

    • If the party leader and/or cabinet bases their decisions on religion, shouldn’t it be of concern of each MP in that party to be voting along party lines? Contributions by those of higher economic status and corporations tend to be directed toward the status quo parties (Liberals and Conservatives) and the smaller parties and independents get little per capita in campaign contributions. The importance of campaign contributions would decrease if the electoral quotient were reduced, as there would be greater interaction between constituents and candidates rather than advertising. The US electoral districts are significantly larger, on average, than Canadian ones, so it is not surprising that contributions in the US are considerably greater. Danny Handelman

  39. I dunno, I'm personally happiest when the fools we elect don't actually do anything. Better they do nothing then screw everything up by doing something.

  40. being the first country to outlaw suicide bombing…pretty hard to convict someone, even if it was possible…

  41. HARPER HAS DISGRACED OUR PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY.

    In the past 5 years we have witnessed a despicable deterioration of Democratic pinciples with an alarming LACK OF CIVILITY in Parliament.

    The level of vitriol is unprecedented and unless we get rid of the current bunch of arrogant, biting Bullies and firstly muzzle the childish dangerous foaming-at-the-mouth John Baird, we see no improvement.

    A Coalition is long overdue to restore dignity to this poor land and its most disgraced insitution (currently). Time's over. The world is rebellling against Dictators. '

    Our Hill must be liberated from the Cavemen in charge. They're a disgusting blemish on the footnotes of our country's history.

    Trudea, Pearson, Dief, Douglas, Lewis….must be turning in their grves to see the disaster on our Parliament….

    • The underrepresentation of the four most populous provinces and rapidly growing regions, and the oversize electoral districts favour the cavemen and centralization of power. Danny Handelman

  42. Really?

    The only "at their throats" hooligans are sitting on the Conservative benches and judging by their chief dog John Baird, they need some prozac or we Canadians need an antidote for their bites!

    The cons are a disgrace and I don't care if you vote for Greens, NDP or Libs or Bloc. They have deteriorated our democratic discourse to the level of a U.S. backwater redneck rage…shame on them.

  43. What a great commentary on the malaise that has fallen over what should be our seat of democracy in this country.

    As a Nortel pensioner, I have spent many hours in the Finance and Industry Committee meetings over the past two years, as well as sat in the Member's Gallery as legislation related to revising our archaic bankruptcy laws has been tabled and squashed. Partisan politics and lobbying by big financial institutions have blocked every initiative by the Opposition parties to see that Justice-in-Bankruptcy prevails and that the assets of the bankrupt companies payout pension and disability underfunding before the foreign junk bond holders get their money. Too many people who comment on the Nortel situation are ill-informed about the impact on pensioners and the disabled under these circumstances. While the Opposition Parties are willing to help, in most cases, except for 13 Conservative MPs who have been voting with their conscience, our Government is leaving us high and dry. What they don't seem to realize is that many of the 20,000 people affected will end up using federal and provincial drug benefits and support systems to the tune of nearly $500million of taxpayer funded programs which would be unnecessary if the bankruptcy laws were changed with retroactivity.

    Most developed countries protect pensions and disabled benefits in a bankruptcy. Our governing party listens to the big banks and lobbyists like John Manley and Don Boudria rather than support those people who worked hard, paid taxes, and put deferred wages into a pension fund. It was not our fault that Directors like Manley, who had responsibility for our pensions while he was a Director of Nortel, sat by and watched the value erode.

    I also support MP Michael Chong in his efforts to bring back civility to the House. His Bill is in Committee now but he suffered the barbs of his own party colleagues when he presented this Bill. Let's hope sanity will start to prevail in the House.

  44. Parliament must be about the only body that does not require a quorum in order to conduct its business.

  45. Parliament must be about the only body which does not require a quorum in order to conduct its business.

  46. Excellent writting, Mr Wherry,
    and how amazing it is, when you are non-partisan,
    the tone at Wherry's place follows suit.

    Very much illustrates that the leaders, all the leaders, set the tone in QP with their questions as well as their answers.

  47. What’s missing is good leadership. Mr. Harper unfortunately is a small minded man with control issues that have mushroomed since he was given power. Rather than bringing people together, he pits one against the other, instills fear rather than inspiration, does NOT show respect; resorts to cheap shots and dismissive behavior rather than allows for thoughtful dialogue. Worst of all he doesn’t listen to science, or to experts on issues that matter (other than those who sell out for money). His cabinet mirrors his poisonous style and what we’ve got are politicians than make us cringe.

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