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.

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