Taking attendance


The Globe frets that too many MPs are failing to show up to cast (the preordained) votes (that follow the debates no one pays attention to). The editorial board scolds.

House attendance is just one of the tasks of a politician, but, in the past decade, the House has never sat more than 130 days in a single year. MPs have enough time to attend to their parliamentary duties. MPs should let the sunlight in, and the House of Commons should actually levy the fines that are supposed to be slapped on the worst truants. MPs could learn from their unelected counterparts in the Senate, where attendance records are released monthly.

This seems a fair enough proposal. But like the frequent laments for civility and decorum, this complaint also seems to deal with a symptom, not the disease.

The value of attendance in the House is, in the first place, difficult to judge. Thanks to live television coverage, one needn’t be present to follow what is going on. Meanwhile, those who are present aren’t necessarily participating or even paying attention and there is little attention paid beyond the chamber to those who do participate. To ask the contrarian question: what does it matter who is there when what goes on there doesn’t matter? It would, of course, be lovely if every MP approached every vote in the House with a certain seriousness. But why should they attach any more seriousness to the vote than is otherwise attached to the rest of the process?

I’m not sure the vote truancy rate is necessarily related to the larger problem—I suspect there are a variety of reasons, specific, genera and cultural that explain absences—but at the risk of repeating myself, I’ll go back to some of what I wrote last month. The thousands of words that are spoken in the House each day go almost entirely ignored. The vote results are almost always preordained—or at least decided elsewhere within party caucuses and leaders’ offices. The debates thus don’t seem to matter. So the press gallery doesn’t cover the debates. And because the press gallery doesn’t cover the debates, the debates matter even less. There is no external incentive to distinguish yourself as a valuable contributor to the House. There is no reward for proving yourself a skilled legislator. The popular media is much interested in partisan strategy and election speculation. Your reelection as an MP will mostly depend on the popularity of your party and party leader (and, to a certain extent, your work in the riding). Because MPs are considered to be little more than pawns when they go to Ottawa the public’s interest in individual MPs is limited. And because the public is predominantly concerned with party leaders and policy, those leaders are free to treat those MPs as pawns.

It’s unclear what perfect attendance would do to make the House an inherently better, more relevant, institution. It might make us feel better that our MPs are there, but it wouldn’t say much of anything about what they are doing with their time (other than the physical act of standing and nodding in the clerk’s direction to formally cast a vote).

If there is a conversation to be had about attendance though, there’s no sense limiting it to the floor of the House of Commons. There’s a row of seats above the Speaker that’s reserved for the press gallery. And aside from a half dozen reporters in attendance for each afternoon’s Question Period, those seats go almost entirely unused.


Taking attendance

  1. 'To ask the contrarian question: what does it matter who is there when what goes on there doesn't matter?'

    Not sure if 'contrarian' is the right term… this question seems more profound than that.

  2. Pavlov's dog has more autonomy than a Canadian backbencher. What difference if they show up or not? The party whips are the only decision-makers in the place.

  3. There's a row of seats above the Speaker that's reserved for the press gallery. And aside from a half dozen reporters in attendance for each afternoon's Question Period, those seats go almost entirely unused.

    Watching the HOC sideshow day after day, month after month, year after year – is going to make a hard drinker out of anyone. And I imagine there's just not a lot of reporters with the constitution of Keith Richards.
    It's a wonder you're not all a bunch of jaded cynics
    It's a wonder any of you survive.

  4. But why should they attach any more seriousness to the vote than is otherwise attached to the rest of the process?

    What a pile of bull.

    How can you suggest that the votes are pre-ordained?

    THIS IS A MINORITY PARLIAMENT. The government cannot pass ANYTHING without the support, or abstention, of at least some of the opposition. Showing up to vote matters in general, but it's crucial in minority Parliaments. That is what we pay them to do. It is the primary function of an MP…to cast the representative vote of their constituents. You cannot use cynicism about the current malaise as an excuse because you don't like the makeup of the list.

    You say that the public is more interested in the leaders instead of the individual pawn MPs. OK. Who is at the top of the absentee list? Ignatieff missing 182 out of 311 votes??? Where is he? I don't see either Jack Layton or Gilles Duceppe on this list. Yes, Harper is number 2, but that is to be expected, the PM is often required to be away from the House. Of the top 20 on the list, 15 are Liberal MPs, 2 are independents, 2 are Conservatives no longer in the House, and the other is Harper.

  5. So, showing up is 'crucial' but you forgive Harper for not.

  6. And because the press gallery doesn't cover the debates, the debates matter even less.

    A little undeserved authority bestowed on the press gallery, Aaron, present company excluded. The PPG is unable to make something matter less than nil.

  7. Looking at the Globe charts, I think it's interesting that the two parties that take turns governing us, the Liberals and Conservatives are the ones that don't regard parliament as relevant.

    Bloc and NDP leaders show up for votes, speak in debates, and their parties' members do likewise. If the other two leaders showed the same respect, as Prime Minister, or as the Official Leader of the Opposition, what takes place there might be worth something.

    Have we ever had a Prime Minister who said, "I'm going to listen to debate before I decide?" Have we ever had an OLO who said, "I'm looking forward to hearing the perspectives of the members so we can form our position on the upcoming vote?"

  8. Your reelection as an MP will mostly depend on the popularity of your party and party leader (and, to a certain extent, your work in the riding).

    Really? I would only vote back my current MP in spite of the first two and insufficient evidence of the last.

  9. As to the votes: I presume they still do the stupid lengthy bell-ringing, then the assembling of everyone to sit in the House through the interminable and individual stand-up-nod-to-Speaker-sit-down ritual of double-naming of every yea voter and every nay voter. I have attended conference sessions with wireless interactive survey touchpad thingies that can tally up survey votes over a ten-second period of cheesy music. Surely we can invest, what, $75K, maybe, for secure electronic voting by MPs, and get each recorded vote nonsense over within a few minutes?

  10. While I think you're underestimating how often votes are pre-determined before debate because of the whips, I do agree that general cynicism is hardly a fair excuse for such shoddy attendance records. Numerous votes are held back to back to back so the idea that they're happening at the drop of a hat while the MP is off doing other work is a hard excuse to swallow. It is absolutely the responsibility of MPs to be present for votes. Obviously, a 100% attendance record won't happen, and if it did, it probably wouldn't lead to more decorum, but that's not the point, nor is it an excuse to be indifferent to the attendance being so far away from 100%.

  11. Would Mr. Wherry be mitigating the significance of this particular Parliamentary statistics maybe because his preferred party is the greatest violator? Naaaaah. I mean, he certainly wouldn't hold back his snarky attacks at politicians for that reason, would he?

    By the way, when was the last time he's mocked Liberals? Just wondering.

  12. Wouldn't it matter to parties that plan on running on some sort of democratic deficit nonsense? Instead, they seem to hold Parliament in greater contempt than the party they keep saying is holding it in contempt. If that makes sense.

  13. Should pay them by the day – you're not there, you're not paid (unless you or someone close is ill).

  14. I think that's probably a bit steep. MPs are away for various reasons – constituency work and events, committees, travel, other parliamentary duties etc. Not enough to make up for the voting discrepancy, but still enough that they do deserve a certain amount of leeway. Again, not enough to justify the level of absences we're seeing, but there should be a willingness to accept a middle ground. If absences pile up, answers need to be given, but if absences fall within what's determined to be a fair average, than I don't think an explanation is needed.

  15. the people get the government they deserve.

    this country is a 3rd rate banana oligopoly.

    the politicians are only there to make sure it stays that way.

  16. WDM, if you read johng again, I think you will conclude that he is NOT excusing indifference to the attendance for votes.

  17. Sure, build it in – constituency work and events, travel, etc. I'm not saying their pay should solely represent their attendance in the house. But attendance in the house of commons for debates and for votes has a value to us. And attendance in the house should have a value to them.

    Let's not forget that once-upon-a-time there were no planes. Having MPs spend most of their time in the HoC didn't stop Canada from developping into a democracy or from voting laws or from managing taxpayers' money.

  18. And it would be a lot more difficult for government to prorogue for long period of times – their own caucus would be in a foul mood.

  19. Oh, I agree. My post was definitely a bit rambly. Was disagreeing with the notion the votes aren't largely pre-ordained. Was agreeing with him on the rest.

  20. But in a minority parliament, the votes are NOT pre-ordained. "All hands on deck" need to be counted for either preservation of the government or to collapse it (for confidence votes), and for legislation to keep rolling (for all the other stuff). In a majority, if the government can cover the spread on any given day, THAT's when the votes are largely pre-ordained.

  21. EXACTLY.
    If the stats showed the CPC was m.i.a.
    this wordy excuse for Liberals would read like the Harper Government was leading the charge on the death of democracy!

  22. Whips still decide party strategy, up to and including saying 'we're going to vote against it, without defeating it'. So while a minority Parliament may see Whips making a more concerted effort to ensure the chips fall correctly, how they want them to fall is decided well before the actual vote, whether that vote be a for or against.

  23. That was a pretty amazing exercise in doublethink there! Especially from a guy who constantly screams about the evils of differential treatment!

  24. Obviously surprises happen (ask joe clark) but most votes can still probably be figured out beforehand.

  25. I'd argue that it's more important for the members to research and understand the impact of a bill than to listen to empty partisan debates over the merits of a bill. If MPs spent their time doing due diligence prior to voting, and then voting based on their research / conscience / constituent's wishes, we'd have a more effective governing body. Probably more interesting debates (based on facts) and question periods, as well. Instead, we have the whip, the bullhorn, and a house full of self-important fools.

  26. Yes, but that's such a cop-out. I'm a Liberal and I know Liberals are the worst at this. And I understand that having an election every two months isn't something anybody wants–and we certainly can't afford.

    But put the pressure on the government not to table such stupid bills! If it doesn't deserve to pass it should fail.

  27. Here's the thing. It IS stupid to attend to debate an empty room, or listen to some guy who didn't bother preparing a rousing speech because he knew nobody would be there to listen. So, he rambles on for his allotted time. It is dumb to arrange your week so as to attend a vote, the result of which has been well known and iron-clad for the entire week. It is a waste of time and hydro for the hour-long vote counting, bell ringing, etc. that is a vote.

    But do we spend 42 million dollars on a temporary building for this waste of time and money to continue? Of COURSE we do.

    Either modernize the system or don't. But don't ignore the system you refuse to modernize because it is inefficient and outdated!

  28. The Conservatives were terrible about this from 2006-2008, but have since gotten a bit better in this respect in terms of treating every bill as a confidence matter.

  29. Many liberal absences are intentional in order to let a bill pass without voting for it. It's not a practice the Bloc and NDP seem to engage in (to their credit – if you're going to 'let' something pass at least have the stones to actually vote for it).

    With regards to being vocal, it's something the NDP and Bloc are used to as perennial opposition parties, unlikely to be able to ever craft meaningful legislation themselves at least making their positions heard has a hope of pushing the government in a direction. On the liberal side, they're too afraid of having their ideas stolen to talk about them… On the conservative side, to some extent their representatives can stand on the government's record and keep their debate to caucus perhaps while still having it be effective. I'd be interested in seeing similar numbers for previous governments, to see if the conservatives were any more vocal in opposition and it's just my impression that the liberal party is wholly ineffective and in need of a major shake-up.

  30. All i'm hearing from you is strategy. I'm tired of strategy. If the people's representatives don't want to represent the people they should resign.

  31. They constantly protest that they're not a liberal media, but look at what they write on their blogs .

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