The Commons: This uncivil democracy

It would be nice if MPs were nicer, but that’s not the problem

Just before Question Period this afternoon, Costas Menegakis, the Conservative MP for Richmond Hill, stood in his spot along the back row of the government side and lamented for the NDP’s quibbles with a piece of government legislation.

“The NDP has proven once again that they will always put the interests of criminals first,” he reported, his words thus committed to the official record where they will remain in his name for eternity.

Was this uncivil?

A few spots after Mr. Mengakis, it was Ted Opitz’s turn. “Yesterday my NDP colleague from Scarborough Southwest said that his party will offer practical solutions,” explained the Conservative MP who had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court for the honour to stand in this place and say these words. “What he fails to mention is that the NDP solution is a new $21 billion job-killing carbon tax.”

This is mostly ridiculous, but is it uncivil?

Question Period then began. Soon enough, Bob Rae was on his feet, speaking loudly and wagging his finger at the Prime Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, it is clear after the Minister of Finance’s attack on the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Mr. Kevin Page, that it is the Prime Minister’s intention to turn the taxpayers’ watchdog into his personal lapdog. That is the plan that the government has,” he declared. “Why is the government having to fire Marty Cheliak, Pat Stogran, Linda Keen, Peter Tinsley, Paul Kennedy, Adrian Measner, Munir Sheikh, Steve Sullivan and Remy Beauregard? Why is the name of Kevin Page being added to this list of people who are being thrown out of the bus because they had an independent opinion about something?”

Was that uncivil?

After a response from Tony Clement about the future of the parliamentary budget officer, David Christopherson, seated directly across the way, made a silly face and a “nonsense talking” motion with his right hand.

Was this uncivil?

Peggy Nash criticized the government’s reductions in the corporate tax rate. “When,” she wondered, “will the Minister of Finance stop putting his well-connected friends ahead of the rest of Canadians?”

Was that uncivil?

The NDP’s Jack Harris asked a question about the management of military bases. Defence Minister Peter MacKay stood and dismissed the “the usual inflammatory and ignorant language of the member opposite.”

Was this uncivil?

Liberal MP Scott Brison asked about mortgage policy. The Finance Minister stood and explained that the government had sought to tighten the market. “You loosened them!” Mr. Brison shouted.

Was that uncivil?

NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice challenged the government to explain the cost of flying the Prime Minister’s limousines to India. Pierre Poilievre stood and wondered aloud if Mr. Boulerice was interested in seeing Quebec separate from Canada.

Was this uncivil?

The NDP’s Sadia Groguhé asked the government to account cuts to the health care provided by the federal government for refugee applicants. “Mr. Speaker,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney explained, “it is clear that the NDP wants to force Canadian taxpayers to subsidize the required medical care for illegal immigrants who have no right to be in Canada.”

Was that uncivil?

It is necessary to ask because civility is something we often say we are concerned with. Just this morning, Nathan Cullen, the NDP House leader, stood in the foyer and announced the launch of a Civility Project. Fines and suspensions would be dealt to those who were found to have acted without sufficient grace. Everyone would strive, together, to be better.

It is no doubt a lovely idea: that we should be nicer and more respectful and more mature and better mannered. It is the sort of thing we teach our children (or at least the sort of thing we used to be able to teach our children before this age of incivility corrupted our youth with its rock music/hippies/video games/rap music/violent movies/Internet/baggy pants ). Even at its vaguest, civility is a principle worth following: don’t be a jerk, say please and thank you, hold the door open for little old ladies and so forth.

But this is not a tennis match and this is not a place of friendly competition. This is a necessarily adversarial environment with profound and meaningful stakes. Here we place 308 individuals on our behalf to hash out our differences of opinion and thoroughly air the possibilities for our future. It is not merely that there will be conflict, but that there need be conflict. Through debate, through the direct and repeated meeting of strongly held views, we hope to end up with something of benefit to the greater good. It needn’t—shouldn’t—always be awful to behold, but it is inherently a fight.

So how to separate the acceptable expressions from the unacceptable, the permissible from the harmful? We have come up with laws of war, so probably we can devise standards of democracy. But it is difficult to enforce rules on the rhetorical, dangerous even to say what can and cannot be said—all the more so in a place that is supposed to represent all of us, even the jerks. You could easily describe any or all of the above as uncivil: beneath us, beneath this place, silly at best, abhorrent at worst. And that is just an hour on a Tuesday afternoon. Where would you draw the lines?

You might start with a line that already exists. Question Period is to pertain to the administrative responsibility of government. The Speaker has periodically seen fit to intervene on those grounds to rule the odd question out of order: questions about phone-calling tactics employed during the last election, for instance, are not particularly relevant to the affairs of government. Speaker Scheer could start to enforce that standard more forcefully. He could, for instance, cut Mr. Poilievre off when the parliamentary secretary, as he is fond of doing, turns a question from the New Democrats into an excuse to stand and expound on the failings of members of the opposition. (Something like this.) Between 2:15pm and 3:00pm each afternoon (and between 10:15am and 11:00am on Friday mornings), the House is not constitutionally obliged to give Mr. Poilievre time to talk about whatever he would like to talk about. (And Mr. Poilievre is a smart young man who could surely come with something more relevant to say.)

Here, meanwhile, is the question Lawrence Toet, the Conservative MP for Elmwood-Transcona was sent up to ask just yesterday.

“Mr. Speaker, Canada is not immune to global economic challenges from beyond our borders. That is why in 2013 we will continue our commitment to grow the economy and create jobs by keeping taxes low and through measures like major new investments in research and development. However, while we are focused on helping the economy grow, the NDP wants a $21 billion carbon tax which would cripple our economy and put Canadians out of work. Could the Minister of Finance please give this House an update on our government’s action to grow the economy and create jobs for hard-working Canadians?”

The Conservatives would argue that this was a question about government business—you see, even when rules are applied, there are ways of getting around them for your partisan purposes. But the Speaker might have stood up immediately after that third sentence, pronounced the question unfit and moved on to the next MP in line. He might set the standard that no wandering into such nonsense in this particular way would be tolerated.

The Speaker’s hand might be strengthened in this regard by new standing orders and the agreement of the House. The Civility Project might ultimately succeed in this way. But it would only be part of a solution—a small something in service of making things somehow better.

Because if we really wish to do something about making this place a more respectable spectacle, we would not worry about parsing Mr. Toet, we would wonder why Mr. Toet was up asking this particular question in the first place. For while this House may be dragged down by dispiriting words and accusations, it is brought lowest by the talking point and the use of precious time and adult human beings in business attire to convey scripted banalities.

In a more perfect House of Commons, such a backbencher—and this is not to single Mr. Toet out, only to use him as a convenient example—would be in the House during Question Period to do two things: represent his constituents and hold the government to account. He would be here primarily not to lob friendly set-ups at the Finance Minister, nor to fill out the camera frame or clap or nod in affirmation of whatever his side just said. He, and backbenchers on the opposition side, would be free to stand up every so often and ask a question of the government about some matter of particular concern to him or his constituents—a question that had not been vetted by anyone with any authority over him.

That would be a more civilized House of Commons.

But that would require a fundamental change to the Elections Act—eliminating the requirement of a party leader’s endorsement to run as a party’s candidate, then fashioning a more coherent rule—and a change in the ways our political parties do business. And that would entail risks for those parties and their leaders. And we—the public, the reporters, the pundits—would probably have to reorient ourselves around the idea that MPs weren’t necessarily automatons and a party leader was not judged on his ability to maintain absolute and total unity.

It is, of course, easier to say we would like our elected representatives to be somehow nicer, somehow more respectful and respectable. And it is easier still to sigh and lament when they seem to fail to change or succeed only in seeming to get worse. But there are something like 35 million of us and there are 308 of them. They are outnumbered. Ultimately we get the House of Commons we are willing to accept. And we are only deprived what we are not willing to fight for.

The Commons: This uncivil democracy

  1. It’s a good explanation of the problem

  2. This is a necessarily adversarial environment with profound and meaningful stakes.

    So are courts of law, where the stakes are equally profound and meaningful, and no competent judge would tolerate the mindless yammering, partisan sandbagging, and personal slagging that goes on in the House everyday.

    Democracy would be dignified, not threatened, by a concerted effort to behave like adults in our seat of government.

    • I assume your comments apply both ways i.e. the government and the opposition parties. Why do the opposition have to do an ad hominem attack before asking the question. If Charlies Angus wants to know about the cost to limousines transported to India why not stand up and ask the question. Why the high costs. However, by the time he is finished I wouldn’t answer his question either. That is the problem. Instead of trying to create sound bites simply ask the damn question. Likewise with a simple question the government would look foolish not to at least attempt an answer given they have 45 second in which to do it.

      • “I assume your comments apply both ways i.e. the government and the opposition parties.”

        Of course my comments apply both ways. And intended that way.

        You can go on and on with examples of incivility among the opposition members and I could easily match you with an equal number of anecdotes involving your saintly choir children in the government benches.

        IMO, there are uncivil boors on both sides of the House. You can be partisan and still expect more respectful behaviour on both sides.

        • I don’t disagree.

  3. It is what it is, there was a reason why the government and opposition front bench rows were placed two sword lengths apart.

    • That’s a lame justification for a status quo that, in no way, facilitates the conduct of the nation’s business. In fact, the current situation demeans everyone who participates in it.

      In hockey, goonery may be entertainment (bread & circuses for the masses) but it sure as hell ain’t sport.

      In debate, cheap ad hominem comments, insults, name calling, and unsupported accusations may be entertaining but it sure as hell ain’t governing.

      • Most of the time the rude behavior, insults and foul language emanate from the opposition.

        • I disagree, and neither of us has the data to prove our respective cases. But I would submit that it is the responsibility of the government of the day (of any political persuasion) to set the tone and it should be the role of the speaker to enforce it.

          This constant, mutual finger-pointing at the miscreants on the other side of the House doesn’t exculpate anyone. There’s boorish behaviour on both sides.

        • Such BS. This government has debased our political institutions like no other before it, its not even close.

  4. The carbon tax thing is utterly the lowest form of populist politics. It DOES unfortunately still work. And the NDP will have to do something after another 2 years of this. As foolish as it is, it causes a result. Laughing at it, calling it names, cleverly debunking it in twenty different ways will not help. It rarely backfires because most people ARE at the level. This is proven by experience. Arrogance and ignorance are in very good supply. Harper is conducting a bottom feeding operation because that is the western model of success. Selling a billion bottles of cheap ketchup is big business, whereas, selling a few thousand bottles of excellent expensive ketchup is low profit and high overhead. Harper’s method is the cheap processed product method. And it is successful as well as disgusting.

    The parliament is as civil as cheap ketchup at Costco. Therefore, I do believe that the question is the wrong one.

  5. How did Bob Rae get fingered as uncivil? He is usually the most articulate of the bunch, with great questions. Too difficult to answer?

  6. Exactly right — it has aptly been said that in a democracy we get the government we deserve. As long as we are happy with a national media that is content to build their reporting around media hand-outs rather than real (and more expensive) investigative reporting, and as long as large numbers of Canadians are content to leave politics to the politicians we’ll see only a further degradation of democracy.

  7. But two changes are needed to bring this about.
    1. The leader of the party no longer approves the candidate, but rather approves the riding association and the board thereof. The board then has to sign off on any changes to the board, which they forward to EC, and sets their own rules for which candidate they approve. The party leadership may choose to disconnect the riding association from the party at any time — in order to prevent the association from bringing on people the party really doesn’t approve of — but receives nothing from that riding association when they do.. no money, no membership lists, nothing. They’ll need to build a new one.

    2. A media blackout is imposed on every candidate. No candidate’s image, voice, or name may be used in any media outside of their riding, except for in media whereby the viewers have to specfiically seek them out (ie, their twitter feed, web-page, facebook site, etc), or except in the case where candidates of more than one party are present and each party is given equal time to present. Party campaigning may continue so long as it does not use any candidates image, name, or voice.

    This would do a few things:

    First, it would encourage candidates to have more debates.

    Second it would strengthen the idea that people are voting for their local candidate, since that candidate’s will be the only name they hear or see for the bulk of the campaign, aside from debates.

    Third, it would place the responsibility for party promises on the shoulders of individual candidates. Harper wouldn’t be able to blow in to BC, tell loggers he would not negotiate with the US on softwood because the courts had already sided with us, and then promptly do the exact opposite of that because he couldn’t go there in the first place, so any such message would have to come from the local candidate.. and any failure to follow through would then be placed squarely on the shoulders of the local candidate.. giving them some significant incentive to press for what was being promised.

    Fourth, it would discourage parties from using negative advertising, as that kind of advertising is a lot harder to do if you can’t make a specific person the bad guy.

    Fifth, it would focus the media on policy, since they wouldn’t be able to report directly on candidates except for when local debates happen.

    Which also suggests sixth: It would mean increased coverage of local debates across the country, since that’d be the only time the news could get candidates names out there.

  8. Let’s start by changing Question Period to Answer Period. It is clear that the CPC feels it has no obligation to provide meaningful answers to anything; make it a requirement that the member who gets up to answer a question answer the question asked or be removed from the HoC until an apology is issued.

    • I would agree, but the opposition has to stop asking “Have you stopped beating your wife yet” kind of questions. Ask an honest question, get an honest anwer

      • I see lots of honest questions being asked with nonsensical &/or completely off-topic responses coming back from the government side. It really doesn’t matter how good the questions are; the response is almost always crap.

        • All the opposition members can do is make sure that they always ask honest, direct questions, in spite of government provocations. That much is within their control.

      • Nothing stopping government members from taking the high road – provide that honest, direct answer in spite of opposition provocations.

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