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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