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Why do our MPs clap for each other so much?

Our MPs are constantly clapping for each other. In the Mother Parliament, they don’t accept such nonsense.


 
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands to vote in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 30, 2015. Parliamentarians voted to expand Canada's military mission against Islamic State by launching air strikes against the militants' safe havens in Syria as well as Iraq. Chris Wattie/Reuters

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands to vote in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 30 (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

A new Parliament began last week in the United Kingdom and, shortly after its commencement, the Speaker stood to admonish some of the newly elected members for their behaviour. How had these MPs, from the Scottish National Party, misstepped? They’d been clapping.

This is remarkable for anyone who has spent even just a few minutes watching our question period. While their British cousins generally do not cheer their colleagues, our MPs applaud each other incessantly. Each session of question period begins with applause—the official Opposition cheering for whomever is leading the questions that day—and the clapping continues at regular intervals for every question and every response.

I have complained about this before. Frequent clapping is the stuff of kindergarten classes and sporting events. And Parliament should be analogous to neither. It should not be a meeting of competing pep rallies. MPs might continue to render themselves figurative cheerleaders with the words they speak in Parliament, but we might at least draw the line at literal cheering within Parliament.

It was claimed two years ago that MPs spent about half an hour each week clapping for each other during question period. If that’s accurate, MPs will have spent something like 21 hours clapping for each other during the 41st Parliament. And that’s just QP. We might also include the applause that the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and bill sponsors receive during votes, or that leaders receive for speeches.

Here, courtesy of our Nick Taylor-Vaisey, is a supercut of the clapping from just Thursday’s first eight questions and responses during QP.

That analysis in 2013 figured those 30 minutes of clapping were wasted, but I think it’s probably debatable how much business is actually delayed by clapping—specifically, how long MPs have to wait for applause to finish before starting a question or response. (Through eight questions and responses on Thursday, for instance, I counted about 20 seconds of actual delay.)

But wasted time isn’t really the concern. Rather, it’s that clapping poisons and pollutes the culture and atmosphere of Parliament. Or, at least, that it’s a puerile habit our elected representatives should be above.

It also just cheapens the currency of clapping: If everything receives applause, applause ceases to be significant. As explained in this extensive consideration of clapping, incidents of clapping in Britain are rare and, thus, noteworthy.

Four years ago, at the outset of the 41st Parliament, the late NDP leader Jack Layton vowed that his caucus would not heckle. As one observer suggested this week, there’s no difference between shouting and clapping and, really, any commitment to decorum would include generally refraining from both. I’d actually suggest that, if you wanted to improve question period, more would be gained by eliminating clapping than eliminating heckling. The heckle at least has the possibility, however faint these days, of wit. Clapping is just putting your hands together to make noise.

Our MPs shouldn’t need so much positive reinforcement and, even if they do, there’s no reason our Parliament should be used to boost their self-esteem.


 

Why do our MPs clap for each other so much?

  1. Mr. Wherry, clapping has been a sacred convention in our Parliament for close to ten years now. Of course, the convention itself has been in place for much longer, but it’s sacredness has only been enshrined for close to a decade.

    You propose to remove the single opportunity back bench government MPs have of expressing themselves unscripted. What would be left for us voters to gage the performance of whatever particular MP each of us had elected? If these MPs ever actually rise in the house they read from carefully scripted speaking notes. Whenever they send mailers they are centrally written and published. Whenever they appear at my door they read from cards and answer questions with “somebody will get back to you by email.”

    Clapping is all we have. I listen carefully each day to Question Period, honed in on how my MP is clapping. Is it a firm, hardy or enthusiastic clap? Is it an expressively lazier, noncommittal kind of clap? Are they assertively and courageously the first to clap? Do they wait to test the consensus of clap before joining?

    There is much to see in the clap to understand how my MP is representing me. Please, do not take this away. If not for clapping, what then do we have MPs for?

  2. Our members are “seals” of approval for their colleagues’ inane partisan talking points. If we deny them the opportunity to clap, they’ll start barking.

    Which, come to think of it, would at least be more entertaining than mere clapping, especially if paired with the act of balancing balls on their noses.

  3. Clapping actually began on the very first week that the Commons was televised, in the fall of 1978 if I recall. Clapping replaced desk thumping, which was felt to be something that might irritate viewers, if there were any viewers.

    Oddly, no thought or discussion was given to the idea of refraining from both thumping or clapping. The unquestioned assumption was that viewers needed to hear something supportive from the caucus whenever one of their members distinguished themselves by, say, standing up, or sitting down.

    sadly, it was one of many matters regarding the televising of the House to which no, or little, thought was given at the time, or since. Sigh.

  4. Why do our MPs clap for each other so much?

    Because no one else will?

  5. I wished they’d go back to thumping their desks. That was awesome. Now they’re like members of the studio audience.

  6. I always thought it was done in the hopes it makes it into the news highlights. People who aren’t aware this is staged may be fooled into thinking backbenchers really do think the quip by their party leader deserves an ovation.

  7. I have often been criticized for being a prick and insulting people and stepping on their corns and making outrageous comments bordering on all kinds of unsettling topics and all that stuff: In 1978 during my first year at Western University we came up to Ottawa with a Political Science class and watched a debate in parliament: I couldn’t believe it: I asked the Professor why these guys were talking and behaving like grade 1 idiots in the play ground throwing out all of these back to you type stuff and silly stupid insults: he said that is the way it is here and often it is quite effective: Well I took him to heart,

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