The House: On civility

Parliament returns this week, and ministers have promised a more civil House

On the eve of Parliament’s return, we return to our episodic consideration of the House, this time to consider the frequently discussed, but poorly specified, question of civility.

In theoretically good news, the 41st Parliament promises to be a civil one. In theory.

The official opposition is presently promising to pursue a civil tone, even banning its members from heckling. Most of the leading candidates to be Speaker have publicly committed to establishing a more civil House. Various observers have even mused that the Prime Minister, luxuriating in the comfort of a majority government, might be somehow less prone to partisanship. This is all well and good and we should encourage these feelings no matter how much precedent makes it difficult to believe that anything will come of any of this.

But we should also, while we’re at it, come to some agreement on what exactly we mean by “civility” and what reasonably we should expect of Parliament in a robust democracy. Keeping in mind that decorum should be the least of anyone’s democratic concerns at the moment—that civility is more symptom than disease—if we are to deal with the problem, we should first agree on what precisely the problem is.

No one—it seems to me—should aspire to a House of Commons in which only hushed and demure tones are heard. The opposition leader should not be required to say please and thank you. The Prime Minister should not have to grovel and bow before the House at all times. This is not high tea at Buckingham. Nor should it be. But this, I suspect, is where this new era of civility will first be declared a failure. The first time a voice is raised or an indelicate criticism is aired, there will be laments that the whole thing has gone to pot again, that the House and its members have once more failed us and themselves and the mythical democracy we aspire to.

This understanding of civility is mostly nonsense. Democracy itself—and our parliamentary system specifically—demands debate, argument and confrontation. It is necessary some times for these arguments to be contentious. We are regularly faced with difficult decisions and divergent views on terribly serious issues. These matters should be pursued with all the passion and conviction they are due. When the government fails in its responsibilities—and even when it doesn’t—it should be pursued with the greatest of vigour.

What’s more, one should likely not aspire to a world in which the politician is a quiet, submissive individual of dry wonkishness and constant compromise. It should not be the dominant force, but it would be infantile to deny that entertainment is part of politics. We seek out leaders who stir something in us. Whatever our cynicism, we are not entirely averse to being inspired, or at least amused. It is public performance. There are heroes and villains. There is celebration and mockery. We hopefully do not lose sight entirely of the very real things involved, but we are entertained. (At the very least we are provided with someone at whom we can direct our frustration.)

So what goes on in the House of Commons should be substantive and serious and respectful and important, but it should also hold our interest. It should periodically be fun. (Let us not seek a day, for instance, when one MP cannot shout across the aisle that another MP’s wig is a prop and thus constitutes a violation of the standing orders.)

Conversely, it should not be depressing and soulless and destructive. However necessary it is that there be debate, however much we should not wish our politicians to be whispering dullards of Victorian manners, the daily discussion should not be dominated by empty, ruthless nastiness. And this, perhaps, is where we should attempt to fashion some sort of line.

It easier, in this case, to identify the line by what could be said to cross it. No one, for instance, should be likened to a Nazi or fascist (unless the individual in question is actually a Nazi or fascist). In this same vein: no Hitler comparisons. Same for most other murderous dictators.

If we can be thankful for anything about the tone of our Parliament it is that such stuff has been generally rare in recent memory. Our rhetorical suggestions of evil are somewhat more subtle.

Patriotism, for instance, should generally not be questioned. You should not frivolously accuse anyone of sympathizing with the terrorists or in any way being in league with the enemy (whoever the enemy happens to be at any given time). Only if you are prepared to ask that authorities investigate the individual in question or state for the record that treason has been committed, should such charges be levelled. These once were serious matters. If you mean what you say—and surely you wouldn’t say anything you didn’t mean—you should have the courage to follow through and ensure that no harm has been done to the country by the member opposite.

The same rules should likely apply to any suggestion that another is “soft” on crime—that any member of parliament desires to see bands of thugs freely roaming the streets, robbing old ladies. Surely there is some aspect of the criminal code that could be applied to anyone who would so carelessly facilitate criminal activity. Your obvious convictions and indeed your duty to the country should compel you to at least call Crimestoppers and report the honourable member.

Somewhat relatedly: the notion that one does or does not sufficiently support the troops has by now lost all meaning, if it possessed any substance to begin with. Indeed, given how much we all solemnly attest to supporting said troops, we should perhaps cease invoking their service for the purpose of slandering a political opponent. Such stuff would seem to demean such service.

Denigrating specific geographic regions (“Unfortunately, this priority is not shared by the Bloc and the leftist urban elite from the Plateau”) should likely be avoided. Same for unnecessary references to social class (“I would encourage him to look beyond the view from the terrace of his condo in Yorkville and to look at the real needs of people in this country”).

Allusions to the annihilation of the country or the destruction of the national economy should be reserved to the most serious of matters. Implications of grievous personal failure and/or unholy intent should be saved for only the most necessary occasions. Indeed, reasonableness here would seem to be paramount.

Questions about tone and volume and wit are all likely valid. One could reasonably advocate for a total ban on heckling if one desired to enforce elementary school rules on the place. But emptiness is the real crime here: empty words, not raised voices, are the definition of incivility.




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The House: On civility

  1. Not giving each other the finger, even when off camera, would be a nice start.

    • The thing about giving someone the finger is that even friends do that to one another.  I wonder if any of these guys are friendly outside the house.  Maybe Harper and Layton secretly meet for a beer at a mutual friend’s place?!

      • Well there are 308 of them, so certainly some are friends and attend each others bar mitzvahs and weddings etc….but there are also some who hate each other. However the HOC isn’t a locker-room, it’s the board room of the nation and while there they should be behaving in a professional manner with, at a minimum, the manners they were raised with.

        It’s astonishing that in a country like Canada, well known to be polite and civil…we should have to spell out rules of civility. It’s one of our strongest cultural values!

        • You are absolutely right about Canadians having a reputation for always being polite. That is why it is always suprising for me when I blog and find people belittling one other, calling one another names and being absolutely disrespectful just because their political affiliations differ.  What do you make of it?

          • Some Canadians have an American in-your-face attitude….and they take advantage of the Canadian tendency to politeness. Occasionally they need a swat back.

            We may be polite, but we aren’t meek.

  2. “Democracy itself—and our parliamentary system specifically—demands debate, argument and confrontation. It is necessary some times for these arguments to be contentious. We are regularly faced with difficult decisions and divergent views on terribly serious issues. These matters should be pursued with all the passion and conviction they are due. ”

    1) Conservatives think liberals and progressives are ignorant/stupid/misinformed/naive but these can all be remedied through education. So conservatives like debate. 

    Liberals and progressives think conservatives are racist/homophobic/sexist and what can be done?

    Liberals and progressive don’t believe that reasonable people can disagree on many moral issues, which is what public policy is. 

    2) “…. demands debate, argument and confrontation. ”

    Liberals and progressives don’t debate or argue. Libs and progs think science and intellect have settled all of society’s moral issues and who is against science? 

    3) Two ideologically driven parties will improve civility because they won’t question each other’s motives as much. Liberals don’t believe in ideology so they constantly question dippers and conservatives intentions.

    Liberals are the ones who are constantly making personal accusations because they have no ideology to argue about.

    • …and we’re off! Name-calling right out of the gate.

      Good thing this isn’t the HOC, or Wherry’s quest for civility would be looking rather Quixotic already…

      • “Good thing this isn’t the HOC, or Wherry’s quest for civility would be looking rather Quixotic already…”

        Looking? Presumably Wherry knew his quest was quixotic before he even started writing. 

        Left wing – progressives and social conservatives – tabula rasa – utopian – both want to control but use different justifications – bible or nature, both utopian for time that never existed

        Right wing – economic conservatives, libertarians – civil society and genes are important and influential.

        Technocrats – liberals – pick and choose policies from either side based on what they believe make them most popular. No ideology, liberals think everyone has ulterior motive like they do. Demand civility while accusing others of being sexist, racist … etc.

        • Yadda yadda. Come back when you have something worthwhile to contribute.

    • Public policy is not a moral issue. Stop that.

      • Lots of people seem to think it is.  Look at Layton, a couple of election campaigns ago, sanctimoniously accusing Paul Martin of killing homeless people.

        • You’re confusing politics with morality.

      • ” …. political visions can be boiled down to Locke versus Rousseau. The Lockean vision holds that man is the captain of his soul, that his rights come from God ….. The Rousseauian vision holds that the collective comes before the individual, our rights come from the group not from God, that the tribe is the source of all morality” Jonah Goldberg, National Review, 2008

        Public policy is moral. I read this story and think since when is liberty for pedophiles more important than protecting children from known pedophiles. Choices are being made. Left wing types think everything in isolation, one thing does not effect other. 

        ————————
        Edmonton Sun, May 8, 2011: But community supervision didn’t stop Danial Todd Gratton, who has repeatedly abused kids, from doing it yet again, despite participating in ongoing therapy in Alberta Hospital’s sex offender program ….
        ——————–
        Left Wing: “Surely one key test of any society is how we treat the most vulnerable and, even more particularly, the most despised.” Alex Himelfarb

        “the characteristic of all social doctors is that they fix their minds on some man or group of men whose case appeals to the sympathies and the imagination, and they plan remedies addressed to the particular trouble” William Graham Sumner
        —————–
        Right Wing: “But the newest research is showing that many properties of the brain are genetically organized, and don’t depend on information coming in from the senses.” Steve Pinker

        ” …. they do not understand that all the parts of society hold together, and that forces which are set in action act and react throughout the whole organism, until an equilibrium is produced by a readjustment of all interests and rights.” William Graham Sumner

        “No one is likely to obtain many plaudits for the rather obvious, indeed self-evident, thought that a street robber cannot commit street robberies while he is in prison; but an intellectual who first demonstrates that the cause of an increase in street robbery is the increase … ” Theodore Dalrymple, Review of Thomas Sowell Intellectuals and Society

      • Too much for you to read?

        • Possibly if you stopped trying to republish Postrel’s entire book on here, and stuck to topics?

        • Both you and your fraud friend Jonah Goldberg conflate liberalism with statism when the exact opposite is, in fact, the case. History shows an inexorable move on the part of conservative regimes towards authoritarianism (such as those resultant of the alliance of corporate interests and racialist nationalism that typified the fascist movements of the early-20th century to Thatcher in the latter part) whereas the primary driver of liberalism, i.e. individual,  personal  choice vs. coercive, hive-mind communitarianism, has actually driven economic and social progress since Hobbes,  through Locke, Mill and latterly Rawls, Dworkin et al. 

          (Even libertarians such as Nozick have trouble refuting the fundamental liberal case (though they ride the pony into places no liberal likes). The rest is dreck. And Jonah Goldberg is as specious as they come.)

          Quoting a major-league twit like Virginia Postel does your case no benefit. 

          • Boomers and their parents fundamentally changed meaning of liberal after world war two. Prior to 1960 or thereabouts, I and many other economic conservatives and libertarians would have been Liberal. 

            Fascism is third way – boomer ideology – between free markets and nationalization. Have business produce wealth to fund public welfare, education, medicine … etc. Fascism nothing to do with Thatcher or right wing. 

            Agree about conservative and authoritarianism. Both socialists and religious have ideal they want to achieve regardless of what rest of us want.

  3. It would be nice if the online bloggers showed more civility toward one another as well but that is not going to happen either.  The commons is like a boxing ring.  It is punching and counter-punching, with everyone trying to connect with the voters.  What I don’t understand is why the political journalists don’t analyze the strategies of the politicians more.  Like these latest appointments by Harper to the senate.  No one is suggesting that it is an “in you face” strategy to ram senate reform down the opposition’s throats.  He is taunting them to decry the patronage appointments that have gone on for decades by making one of the most blatant examples of it ever.

    • Probably because everyone knows it’s bait, so they’re not rising to it.

  4. I expect much more civility in the House, simply because nobody will be paying any attention to the Liberals anymore.

    • The Star is running the story today:

      “NDP Leader Jack Layton, who has often boasted that he’s the one to bring civility back to Parliament, is in fact the least civil MP of all, according to a new study.
      Layton, says the study by McMaster University researcher Alex Sevigny, is among the worst offenders in the 308-member House of Commons, for negative exchanges during Question Period.
      The irony won’t be lost on many when the New Democrats hand out buttons at the return of Parliament Thursday reading Opto Civilitas, Latin for “I choose civility.”

      http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1000687–layton-is-least-civil-mp-study-finds?bn=1

  5. Oh I think things will be more civil now that Mr. Harper will be running the show.
    We don’t have the arrougant and mouthy Liberals calling the shots anymore and
    Jack Layton falling in line behind them.
    Just remember “Taliban Jack” it is Mr. Harper who has the final say now. 

    • Cons are such dreamers.

  6. I think there will be a more civil tone in the house, compared to what we had immediately prior to dissolution, owing to a few factors:

    What we had immediately prior to dissolution was probably a high-water mark in incivility.  I think a big part of that was owing to the LPC-CPC dynamic, and in particular the way Harper was able to wind Liberals up into fits of rage.  Liberals in turn were pissed blue about their opposition status and saw themselves as getting sand kicked in their face by that Big Bad Bully Harper.  That’s the main reason the LPC triggered an election, even though a sensible reading of the polls would have indicated to any sane observer that that was a rather foolish high-odds gamble.  They wanted to punch back at the bully.  Well, now they’ve had that fight they wanted, and they got stomped.

    Now the LPC is going to be comparatively irrelevant, much like the old Progressive Conservative party was in the years immediately following their decimation in the 1993 election.  The LPC members of the house aren’t going to be as wound up as they were, because they will (correctly) no longer see themselves as just a quick election away from power.  And Harper is going to be mostly ignoring them rather than provoking them.  I think the LPC members will be less tempted to look for the scandal du jour sort of stuff, because it’s not going to be a “permanent campaign mode” atmosphere.

    The NDP is going to be busy with a lot of their internal issues, getting up to speed on being official oppo, training up rookie MPs and the like.  Plus their focus won’t be the same old same old — one huge difference is going to be the critical examination that their policies and proposals are going to get from the national media and the PPG — the old free ride is going to be over, and I think that will make the NDP more circumspect in what they say and propose, and they’re going to be on “defence” a lot more than they’re used to being.

  7. Two things that might make the Commons more civilized 1) change the parliamentary system to a more democratic one, much like that of the US, particularly the unelected senate and 2) have both houses represent people, not the number of trees or acres in the country that the vast number of members now seem to represent. One tenth the population of our neighbor but we need 5 more appointed(105)senators, unfairly distributed according to population. 308 members of parliament  to the US’s 435 equals 70% and yet the Canadian population is still about 1/10th so don’t you think we are a bit over-governed and to think what it is costing the Canadian taxpayer in salaries, expense accounts and pensions for this much smaller country. Lesser representation, if it is representation we are getting, should mean lesser bad behaviour in parliament but hey, this is apathetic Canada we are talking about where change doesn’t come easy if ever.

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