View From the Hill by Keith Beardsley – House of Commons Decorum – May 27, 2011

Ottawa ON – In an out-going interview, former House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken pointed to the advent of minority government in 2004 as the key point from which civility in the House of Commons began to deteriorate.

I would go further back to 1984 and the arrival of the then Liberal “Rat Pack.” Their approach to the daily Question Period consisted of using over the top questions, often yelled at the top of their lungs to get attention. With the Mulroney government dominating the Chamber with some 205 members this was a very effective way for the Liberals to get media attention.

Decorum deteriorated to the point that the time allocated to ask a question eventually became much more constricted. MPs (both Liberal and NDP) were frequently sanctioned by the Speaker and several were dismissed from the House for varying lengths of time.

And while the present NDP leader is being very sanctimonious about how his party will behave today, NDP MPs back then were often leading the charge on bad behaviour. I can recall one NDP MP from British Columbia who wanted to ask a question on the BC fishery, banging the top of his desk with a full sized frozen salmon to get media attention.

Unfortunately the media rewards bad behaviour with extensive media coverage. Which questions get clipped for the nightly news? Most often the ones that were over the top or the nastiest one asked that day. In many cases questions asked by the Opposition Leader are ignored because they have to be more respectful. They are addressed to the Prime Minister and the questioner is demonstrating to the public that they are a Prime Minister in waiting.

While the Liberals may have started the practice in 1984, the Conservatives successfully copied the rat pack system between 2003 and 2006. The Conservatives used Jason Kenney and a few others in that role. Kenney was an excellent questioner who could follow the debate and summarize the issue in a couple of very tough questions that generated considerable media coverage. It is fair to say that part of his reputation today was earned back then in Question Period. The use of Question Period “attack dog” MPs is now the norm for all parties in the House.

Conservative MP Michael Chong proposed a variety of measures to improve Question Period. Others have suggested further restricting the 35 seconds allocated to ask and answer a question. One suggestion is to limit the question to 50 words to cut out the over the top preambles and thus force a minister to answer a direct question.

All of these suggestions have merit, but they can only be enforced if all parties agree to amend procedures and providing the next Speaker is willing to crack down on those that abuse the system.

The Speaker does have the power to sanction a member. For example, an MP can be dismissed from the House or the Speaker can ignore an MP in the question rotation. Unfortunately the MP then runs out to the Lobby to be interviewed by the assembled media where they present their case and the reasons for their bad behaviour. The MP wins the exchange with the Speaker because they got what they wanted- media attention for their issue.

If all the parties could agree that an MP dismissed from the Chamber be adequately punished for their bad behaviour, we might see an improvement in decorum.

Milliken suggests that Speakers be allowed to ban an MP from the Hill and the entire parliamentary precinct. This would include their office. He further suggests that sanctioned MPs should be prevented from using their travel points. I would go further and suggest that in addition to the above disciplinary measures, sanctioned MPs should forfeit their pay for the days they are suspended from the House and until they apologize to all the members.

So far all we have seen from the parties are promises of good behaviour, but no concrete steps have been taken to improve decorum in the House of Commons. The election of the Speaker on June 2nd will provide an opportunity for all of the parties to evaluate what must be done to improve decorum in the House. The real test will be whether or not the new Speaker can get all party cooperation to reform Question Period and whether or not sanctions against delinquent MPs are adequate.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.

Scott Beck



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