The House of Commons has seen and heard a lot worse than the typical heckling that, this afternoon, so rudely interrupted the second question period of the year. It wasn’t so long ago, in 2013, that a Conservative MP made a living of repeating, ad nauseum, non-sequiturs about pizza delivery men from his childhood. The next year, then-Opposition leader Tom Mulcair went so far as to challenge the speaker’s neutrality. There was also that memorable moment several years ago when the Speaker ruled the sitting government in contempt of Parliament. None of these incidents was met with a polite nod, nor quiet expressions of anguish. The place got loud.
Set against those heritage moments of disorder, Jan. 26, 2016, will go down as perfectly forgettable. No one was accused of using unparliamentary language. Nobody flipped the bird. Nobody stormed across the aisle in anger.
In what might have been a bit of a pre-emptive strike against raucous days ahead, Speaker Geoff Regan chose the second sitting day of 2016 to make an impassioned plea for order. Unprompted, except by the normal hubbub of the place, Regan stood midway through QP and reminded parliamentarians that they sit in “a crucible of democracy. It’s a place for vigorous debate. It’s a place where ideas—”
And then, of course, Regan was interrupted by heckling loud enough to give him pause. Perfect.
He eventually continued his mini-lecture, even waxing philosophical about the room he oversees. “It’s a place where ideas are tested. But the test of an idea is not how loud the applause is, or whether it’s a standing ovation—and nor is it whether it can withstand rude interruption. The test is time.” With that, QP went on.
The House wasn’t finished considering the matter, however. Green Leader Elizabeth May rose on a point of order after question period and, citing the standing orders that govern the House, appealed to her colleagues’ better selves. She was, inevitably, lightly heckled as she made her appeal. The Speaker thanked May and elaborated on his own soliloquy: “I know very well that Canadians feel very strongly about this. They know that students come here regularly, and see what happens in Parliament. They want this to be a place of vigorous debate, but where we also show respect for one another,” he said. “And I think we all have the capacity for what most members have shown: to restrain ourselves when there are things we don’t hear.”
It all sounded so earnest, particularly on an otherwise ordinary day. As for the odds that MPs will take those words to heart? Well, decorum only lasts until somebody forgets they’re supposed to be polite. A Samara study of parliamentarians revealed that nearly three-quarters of the 29 respondents to their survey admitted to heckling during the last session of Parliament, even though more than two-thirds called the outbursts a problem. They offered reasons, says Samara: correcting the record, getting something on the record, and supporting their own side. Samara offers anti-heckling measures, including a change in party culture and various forms of discipline.
But before those institutional changes win the day, how long until the next heckle? Give it about 30 minutes.