Keith Beardsley’s View From the Hill – Fixing a Dysfunctional Parliament (Part one) – January 4, 2012

CFN – Unfortunately our parliament often reflects what we would expect to see in a school yard. We have the bullies, the name callers, those that shout and disrupt and some pretty decent kids who work hard and who for the most part don’t get the same attention or recognition as the others.

Part of the problem is the control the various leader’s offices (including PMO) have over their MPs. This is done in a variety of ways, through promotion to a critic’s portfolio or to cabinet or key positions on committees. The leader’s office picks MPs to ask questions in Question Period, often tells them what to ask and the topic of the day. Compulsory talk points are issued that MPs are expected to follow, MPs are told how to vote on virtually every piece of legislation or motion in the House and Private Member’s Business is no longer the domain of the backbencher, but controlled from the leader’s office. This control also extends to the Standing Committees where MPs are told how to vote on motions or amendments. Essentially the respective party leader’s office or PMO sets the tone for much of what goes on in the House.

In a parliament where caustic behavior has become the norm, bad behavior gets the spotlight (Justin Trudeau as an example), rudeness is rewarded and low-key dedicated MPs who are the backbone of our system are ignored and overlooked by the voting public.  The net result is an electorate disgusted with the behavior that they see on the news and voters are left with a negative view of our politicians and politics in general.

But does it have to be this way? With so much control resting in the hands of the various leaders’ offices, they have the power to clean up the bad behavior, but they don’t have the motivation to do so. Until Michael Chong MP, the media and Jack Layton began talking about a new civility; those in charge had no need to pay attention as the misbehavior often suited them. It is the leader’s office through the House Leader that both sets the tone in the House and who has the power to improve civility if it really wants too. The present situation though doesn’t encourage any intervention by a leader’s office.

Over the top questions are rewarded by a 10 second media clip or mention in the press the next day. For an MP this national media coverage is a reward for bad behavior. Why would they want to change? For opposition MPs this is often the only media coverage they will get.  When in opposition, “feigned indignation” was one term we used when preparing our MPs for Question Period and question slots were set aside for MPs who could ask an over the top question and skewer a minister. We knew that we most likely would get media coverage on that question and get rewarded for bad behavior.

Rude behavior and heckling also serve to shut down the other side’s attempts to ask or answer a question. Yelling, cheering and phony time-wasting standing ovations on the government side help to run out the clock on Question Period.  Other than public pressure there isn’t any reason for those in charge to want to change their behavior. Look at how quickly the NDP’s promise of a new civility in the House has worn off? Did you see any of this new civility on display during December’s Question Periods?

In October 2010, Michael Chong made some interesting suggestions on how to reform Question Period. While he earned bipartisan support from all parties it was largely backbench support. The leaders made the obligatory comments and said his ideas were interesting, yet in the end little was done and with the last election his motion has died. If the leaders were serious, they could have pushed his agenda for change. Obviously they weren’t all that serious or the public hearings that were promised would have been over and a report made long before the last election took place. Perhaps Chong’s suggestions were too radical for the entrenched interests in the various leaders’ offices. Here then are a couple of suggestions to improve behavior in Question Period and they don’t require public hearings, but simply agreement between the Speaker and the House Leaders.

Begin with how you conduct Question Period. If poor behavior is seen as a reward, penalize MPs for it.

1. Allow the Speaker to ignore the question list. Few people know that before Question Period starts, each opposition House Leader hands the Speaker a list of who will be asking questions from their party and their speaking order. Long gone are the days when MPs would stand and be recognized by the Speaker, today he looks at his list and calls out a name. No matter how disruptive you are or how much you heckle, if your name is on the list you will get to ask your question.

The Speaker should be allowed to skip over disruptive MPs. If they misbehave or disrupt other MPs who have the floor, the Speaker should simply ignore that MP in the rotation. The MPs will quickly learn that asking a question is no longer guaranteed, but is based on earned behavior.  The House Leader’s office will also learn that their question period strategy will fall apart if key questions don’t get asked.

2. There is nothing a cabinet minister or PMO dislikes more than watching the clock move past 3 PM. It means any one of the ministers might get hit with another question, perhaps one from left field for which they don’t have a scripted answer sitting on their desk. If it is the government side (whether cabinet ministers or backbenchers that are disruptive), or if there are too many standing ovations, let the Speaker add on additional time to equal that which was wasted by the government side.  It won’t take long for the government side to realize that it is in their own best interests to be civil and get Question Period over as quickly as possible.

Question Period needs to be reformed, but while we wait for a major overhaul, let’s start with a few small changes that will help to tone down the bad behavior that is on display every day.

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.

Laura Flowers

6 Responses to "Keith Beardsley’s View From the Hill – Fixing a Dysfunctional Parliament (Part one) – January 4, 2012"

  1. PJ Robertson   January 4, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    Good suggestions.

    Currently, QP is invariably a collection of loud-mouthed louts – an atrocious display of Canada’s Parliament for visiting dignitaries and Canada’s youth.

    Further suggestions, since you mention bullies:

    3. Empower the Speaker with a rigorous definition of bullying behaviour and the prerogative to have bullies escorted out of the chamber.

    4. Require government ministers/ members to stand in their place and answer questions directed at them; substitutes to answer only if the specific minister/member is not present in the chamber.

  2. smee   January 4, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    One of our youth attended parliament while in session. We received a letter from the teacher a week or as later as they had turned to asking questions without raising their hands and speaking out. It was not one student but a few of them. When we asked why this behavior was happening…the answer was…they do it in Ottawa…they were explained that it was wrong and should not carry on like this out of respect for the teachers. The reply was one of the priceless commercials

    ” if you are teaching us to grow up to be like the adults we are suppose to look up to, isn’t it hypocritical to stop us from acting like them?”

    There was a room filled with stunned parents and teachers…the principal….well can’t say much good about her but the word fits…

  3. Eric   January 5, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    Allowing the Speaker to ignore the question list may not help much. It would not take long until each party member would just get a list of the questions and cross one off as asked and say the next one.

    Less grandstanding is needed I agree with bypassing less acceptable behaviour. Is there a way that media could not use footage within 48 hours for broadcast / print?

  4. Furtz   January 5, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    On the other hand, a lot of voters seem to enjoy QP much as they do The Jerry Springer Show. The most obnoxious offenders like John Baird keep getting reelected. Bad behaviour gets rewarded, so what incentive is there to change?

  5. atory01   January 6, 2012 at 2:12 PM

    PJ: Agree with your point 4 and I will be mentioning that one in an upcoming blog. Ministers should be responsible for answering for their own department. Past practice, ignored by the NDP in the House is to ask questions on past departments a minister may have been running and to ask ministers questions about departments that they do not run or ask questions that are party not government related. This is counter to tradition and in the past was shut down by the Speaker.

  6. atory01   January 6, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    Eric: That is much harder to do than it seems. Even if successful, the impact of a question is also determined by who asks it and their style of questioning. Skipping over someone disrupts the flow and impact. Most parties only have 3-4 top notch questioners.

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