Why every day is amateur hour in the House

To call question period a zoo would be an insult to the relative civility of wild animals

Why every day is amateur hour in the HouseApart from sex, the only realm of human achievement where ignorance and inexperience are widely seen as virtues is politics. Sarah Palin is only the most notorious recent example of the phenomenon; the “vote for me, I have no experience” gambit succeeds with remarkable frequency, which speaks volumes about public attitudes toward the political process and politicians. Politics is seen as a profession in the same sense that prostitution is, practised only by people of highly suspect moral character.

Canadian politicians are no exception, and the merits of this judgment are clearest in this country in the daily disgrace known as question period. To call question period a zoo would be an insult to the relative civility and good temperament of wild animals; one suspects that the occasional parleys between Bloods and Crips in South Central Los Angeles are less partisan and hostile affairs.

There is a tendency to chalk this behaviour up to an excess of familiarity among parliamentarians—the result of too many lifelong MPs going at it hammer and tongs day after day, year after year. The obvious analogue here is the famously entrenched U.S. Congress, which is highly professionalized and yet beset by partisanship and scandal.

Indeed, not so long ago there was a gnawing sense among some Ottawa observers that the incumbency rates in the Commons had reached levels dangerously comparable to those in the U.S. Congress.

And so in 2005, Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail wrote a sharp column lamenting the steep rise of MPs’ salaries under Jean Chrétien. Canadians, he argued, had become increasingly alienated from the political process, which they saw as the domain of “an increasingly self-perpetuating political class, or caste, with its own vocabulary, rituals, defence mechanisms and, in many instances, rather old ideas.”

Except a new study out this week from the Public Policy Forum suggests just the opposite. Bluntly stated, the report’s conclusions are that the House of Commons is so bad precisely because it is made up (mostly) of men who have little experience and education, lack any institutional memory of how Parliament ought to function, and are widely ignorant of the proper relationship between politicians and the bureaucracy.

The report’s figures are striking. One quarter of Canadian MPs are newly elected, while just over two-thirds have less than five years experience in the Commons and only three per cent have been serving their constituents for more than 15 years. There is a sharp contrast with U.S. and U.K. figures: two-thirds of the U.S. Congress have more than five years experience and over a quarter of representatives have more than 15 years experience; in Britain, two-thirds of parliamentarians have more than seven years experience, and a third have more than 11 years experience.

There is a similar discrepancy with respect to education: only two-thirds of Canadian MPs have a university degree, while 72 per cent of British members have attended university and fully 93 per cent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives have a degree.

David Mitchell, the head of the Public Policy Forum, finds this all pretty alarming. The amateur character of the Commons has led, he says, to “an unprecedented level of partisan acrimony and a high degree of distrust between elected representatives and the federal public service.”

Well, in many ways times have merely changed back, with the Commons returning to its traditional demographic makeup. A major theme in Ned Franks’ classic 1987 text The Parliament of Canada was that in comparison with other Western legislatures, Canadian MPs are political amateurs, cycling through a House of Commons that exhibits unusually high rates of churn. (When Brian Mulroney swept to power in 1984, the turnover rate was 52 per cent!)

This helps explain many of the more unpalatable features of Canadian political life: not only the monkeyfied feces-toss of question period, but also its more substantial failures of accountability and responsible government. The root of the problem is a mismatch: an entrenched and experienced government facing off against a transient and largely clueless House of Commons.

Mitchell places some of the blame for the present structure on the succession of minority Parliaments that has seen Canadians trudge to the polls three times in the past five years, with yet another election threatening sometime before fall. There’s probably something to this, and—for those keeping score—it provides yet another argument against minority government.

But given the historically transient character of the Commons, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Canadians actually like it this way. The great thing about democracy is, you get the political representation you vote for, which is a polite way of saying we’re the ones who keep sending batches of uncivil, hyperpartisan ignoramuses to Ottawa.

In both Parliament and the bedroom, there is something deeply attractive about someone who has yet to be morally tainted by what goes on once the doors are shut. But in both chambers, if it is civility, consideration and effectiveness you are after, it helps to have someone who knows what they are doing.

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