On seriousness - Macleans.ca

On seriousness


Rob Silver delves into parliamentary reform.

Lots of people – including many politicians and pundits – talk a lot about how horrified they are by parliamentary decorum. Accusations of a doctored tape here, your family are a bunch of terrorists there. That’s our House.

Shock, horror is expressed. Promises to raise the tone are made. I blame Harper, Tim blames the Liberals. And on it goes. You want to change the tone in the House of Commons in one day? Pass a law eliminating parliamentary privilege as it relates to defamation. Treat the House the exact same way you treat the scrum outside the chamber.

There isn’t a single substantive issue or debate that I can think of that would be harmed in any way.


On seriousness

  1. here here

    • Where? Oh, there.

      At the risk of being pedantic, it’s “hear, hear”, not “here here”.

  2. We’ve just seen how defamation proceedings can be used to curb comments about matters. Making it even easier to start that kind of thing would likely make things worse. In fact, now that Harper has opened the floodgates, filing for defamation may soon become a matter of course for political parties (though actually going to trial will be less so).

    The only thing that is going to work is a committment on the part of MPs of all stripes to honest discourse and decent behavior. Rules and laws won’t work if our elected officials won’t work to observe their purpose.

    • I agree. The last thing we want to shut down is the one place where individuals can speak their minds openly and freely. By opening up the Pandora’s box of suing opposition parties and leaders Harper has yet again manfully shouldered the burden of undermining our ancient customs and Parliamentary privilleges for a short term tactical gain. Lord how i despise this man!

      • It’s nice to see how you totally missed Silver’s point (unless you were being sarcastic) and blame Harper for everything that is wrong with the system. Harper is not the first party leader to sue another party leader. I believe that Dion sued Duceppe over something Duceppe said that tried to link him to the sponsorship scandal. Where were the free speech warriors on that one? I also seem to remember the Martin government daring Harper to repeat a comment about Liberals and organized crime outside the Commons during the height of the sponsorship scandal at which point he would have presumably been rightfully served his defamation suit. So to pretend that somehow Harper is solely responsible for the decline in decorum, the rise in libel chill, destruction of our democracy, whatever … is pretty ridiculous.

        I’d also point out that Harper would probably not have sued the Liberals for defamation if they hadn’t put a rather inflammatory headline on their website and Dion had not got baited by the press for repeating the charge outside of parliamentary privilege. The Liberals were doing a pretty good job of embarassing Harper over this until they crossed that line. Should we really be blaming Harper for Liberal stupidity?

        • Harper is certainly the first PM to sue an oppoition leader, so i think yr grasping at straws. The worst aspect of SH’s libel suit is the fact that it was almost certainly a political ploy, and therefor doubly cotemptible.

          • What straws am I grasping at exactly? I don’t really see any difference in Dion suing Duceppe over allegations Duceppe made about him and the sponsorship scandal and Harper suing Dion over allegations Dion made about Cadman. In both cases the accusations were based out of political motivations and the lawsuits were ultimately politically motivated as well. We are talking about politcians afterall.

            Anyway, is it your position that only the PM should not file defamation suits? If you want to try and make a compelling case that the Opposition should be allowed to defame/libel the PM (which would ultimately be what would happen if the PM is not allowed to defend himself legally) then go ahead and try to make it but I don’t really see the need to turn the PM into a punching bag and I fail to see how it could possibly help parliametary decorum (it would likely make it worse).

    • Making it even easier to start that kind of thing would likely make things worse.

      Especially given the distortions in defamation jurisprudence that have been created with SLAPP suits launched by corporations with deep pockets.

      No, there is value in maintaining parliamentary privilege. But they can easily clamp down on the number of times the MP’s mislead the House, which is, in essence, a lot of what the Conservatives have been doing.

    • There are simple middle ground options available here. I agree that removing privilege for the purposes of tort law (defamation) would be chilling on debate. We have to take the good with the bad on completely free speech.

      But absent a legislative change to Parliamentary privilege, the Houses themselves certainly have the power to enact more stringent Standing Orders in the Commons or Rules in the Senate and enforce them with any variety of consequences they wish. All that’s lacking is the collective will of a sufficient majority of Members of the House, for instance, to put those rules in place.

  3. You want to change the tone in the House of Commons in one day? Pass a law eliminating parliamentary privilege as it relates to defamation. Treat the House the exact same way you treat the scrum outside the chamber.

    That’s too drastic. A more reasonable step might be to permit the HoC cameras to pan to the individuals cat calling, gesturing rudely or chatting away when they should be paying attention.

    • I think a lot of it is that simple. Perhaps some restriction of making blatantly untrue statements, too.

      If I were an MP, I would be embarrassed to sit through that kind of behaviour.

      • Yeah, I agree, with Mike T, the cost of having to defend oneself from lawsuits is likely a sufficiently a deterrent to stop people from making legit allegations at times.

        Lets embarrass the hell out of the of those who act like high school kinds.

        Here is a proposal, if Macleans provides the space (with sufficient editorial oversight of course) I ma sure we could rustle up a few of us to form a panel to read/watch Question Period and put forward a weekly “Most Shameful Performer”. we could use a bunch of criteria…like the churlish behaviour TI outlines….sleeping, etc etc…

        Alternatively Aaron could do it as part of his normal gig on here, but that prob comes with considerable risk of reducing access… perhaps.

        • Good idea! Pity we couldn’t get pics on Y Tube?

          • we could prob grab screen shots fro QP on CPAC actually.

  4. Rules that if broken would result in substantial fines. Effecting their pay, that would bring a new level of civility.

  5. If the Speaker would just do his damn job, there wouldn’t be a problem. Rules exist, but they are not enforced.

    There is a reference above to High School kids and suggesting that MPs are acting like same. That is an insult to the majority of high school students who know that if they behaved as MPs do, that they would be ejected from class.

  6. How ’bout just prohibiting catcalls? This proposal wouldn’t do anything about shouts of “You’re a wimp!” or “You’re a pig!” — those are matters of opinion. In fact this is wildly off-base: the problem isn’t the falseness of speech in the House, it’s the rudeness.

    Frankly, it’s the TV media’s fault. If CBC and CTV just had a 2-minute daily segment of “Today in Abusive Public Discourse,” showing clips of MP’s acting like animals, it would change MP’s’ behaviour pretty quick. And it might be amusing. Take a page from Keith Olbermann, TV news guys, and be public tribunes for once!

    • How ’bout just prohibiting catcalls?

      Or at least permit more profanity. If we’re going to have a spectacle, let’s at least have one that’s saucier and juicier.

      I miss the days when MP’s called each other drug dealers and sluts.

      • I miss the days when MP’s called each other drug dealers and sluts.

        I miss the days when MP’s called each other‘s drug dealers and sluts, by dialing phone numbers that they found scribbled on the walls of Parliamentary washrooms. Ah, the good old days.

  7. Hear! hear!

    I think this parliamentary privilege is connected to Britain’s past archaic libel laws (which we also inherited) where basically you couldn’t say anything that might reflect poorly on someone. If we haven’t already updated our libel laws (as of 10 years ago, they stood out around the world – not sure what the current situation is) we should do both. Make our libel laws reasonable and have them apply to parliament as well.

  8. I totally disagree. If an MP makes an accusation in the House which he refuses to make outside of the House, then I know where to stand on the seriousness of the accusation.

    If they really want to improve the quality of debates in the House, they should go back to prohibiting the reading of notes in the House. I like to see members stand up and ask questions – not read them. It gives me a sense that they are actually looking into a matter with seriousness. The same goes for the minister answering the question – I hate it when they refer to cue cards. I want to feel that the minister is aware of what is happening on a file and that he can answer because he is well briefed and understands the issue. I was told that they authorized notes to encourage MPs to use the other official language. Well, I encourage them to use the official language, but not to read questions or answers from notes.

    • This hits the nail on the head. “Authorised notes to encourage MPs to use the other official language” — riiiiight. I tried that for a math exam once, somehow the teacher didn’t buy it.

    • I want to feel that the minister is aware of what is happening on a file and that he can answer because he is well briefed and understands the issue.

      With that gang of used-car salesmen…sorry…entrepreneurs…the Conservatives elect? Good luck.

  9. The fact that there were a surprising number of people vying for the job of Speaker suggests to me that there is an appetite for change within the house. Sadly, it seems like they prefer the status quo, but I wonder how much of the vote was due to the Harper Central Control effect.

    • I wonder if the vote would go differently, were it held now. I think Harper may have lost some of his control over his caucus. I’m not even sure how they can whip secret ballots.

  10. Peter Milliken is definitely part of the problem (I don’t think he does a very good job at all, personally) but the response he’s given to complaints is that we should all be lobbying our own MP’s about their behaviour. Thing is, MP’s only really respond to their own constituents, and without better reporting on specific bad behaviour, it’s unclear whether such complaints are useful.

    Someone in the media should set up a Media Matters for America type initiative; name and shame the individual MP for specific acts of unparliamentary behaviour and then provide an email address to swamp him/her with complaints. But I really think this gang of inarticulate wingnuts can’t do anything other than catcall and vilify. It’s what their supporters like, after all.

    • Didn’t the Citizen already try that when the CPC was in opposition?

  11. There’s a reason they call Question Period “The Show”, because that’s exactly what it is. The questions are usually rehearsed, as well as the answers. NOTHING substantive gets resolved or decided during QP; all the real work, where MPs actually deliberate and represent their constituents (or at least those that donate to their re-election fund) happens in Committee, but the great unwashed doesn’t get to see THOSE sausages get made.

  12. A quick look on the parliamentary site seems to indicate that freedom of speech is a privilege and it lists some others about exemption from jury duty and the like. However, it also talks about the general privileges of the House itself. Included there is the privilege to judge and punish its own members. Maybe this is where the balance needs to be recalibrated. if they claim the right to speak freely, with no wories about court action, then they should be more vigilant about policiing their own conduct.