They heckle, demean, and interrupt their fellow elected colleagues – all, apparently, in support of the interests of Canadians like you and me.
Parliamentary behaviour – and the partisanship that drives it – is disgusting, and shameful. It seems to target women disproportionately, and it likely prevents some Canadians from even thinking about running for office.
It’s therefore hardly surprising that, every decade or so, some new political leader pledges to “do politics differently.”
Taking their cue from the Obama Democrats, who proposed in 2008 to “turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington,” in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised “real change.”
Touting reforms he had already begun to make in the Senate (kicking Liberal senators out of caucus; pledging to create a new, non-partisan and transparent appointment process to choose senators if elected), Trudeau claimed to embody a new way of doing politics.
To his credit, after the October 2015 election, there were noticeable changes.
During our 2016-18 visits to Question Period, a significant number of my students noted the difference between the behaviour of the Liberal members of Parliament (who did not applaud, and generally did not heckle), and the more obnoxious conduct of the opposition.
Some students wondered, as I have, how opposing members could possibly explain their behaviour in the house of Commons when they returned home to their kids. How would they respond to a school principal if their children were accused of, or the victims of, bullying?
It follows that many of my students emerged from Question Period with new respect for the Liberal government, regardless of what they thought of its policies.
Regrettably, much of that respect was likely lost by the 2019 election.
Question Period in 2019 was as bad as it’s ever been, if not worse. The election campaign that followed saw all of the major parties, Liberals included, resort to the same demeaning tactics that their advisors seem to think are necessary to “win” in Canada.
I couldn’t watch more than a few minutes of the leaders’ debates, and I get paid to talk about them. (I’ll always read the transcripts if I’m asked to comment publicly.)
So what gives?
I think that part of the problem was the 2015 promise itself. If the Liberals were genuinely committed to improving parliamentary behaviour, they should have paid closer attention to President Obama’s failed experiment.
By pledging to work with the Republicans, he gave his opponents an irresistible incentive to obstruct him. Cooperating in the Democrats in Congress would have enabled Obama to keep a promise and claim political victory.
The 2015 Trudeau Liberals asked Canadians to judge them based the state of decorum in the House of Commons.
In that context, it’s easy to understand why the opposition resisted calls to behave more civilly. They could not risk increasing the number of “promises achieved” on the TrudeauMeter.
Perhaps I’m naïve, but I don’t see the situation as hopeless. In Alberta, Jason Kenney has introduced a series of proposals to improve parliamentary decorum, some of which seem to be having at least a degree of effect. The key, I think, is that he isn’t bragging about what he’s done.
It seems to me that, to succeeed, long-term reform to political behaviour, especially in the House of Commons, needs to be a non-partisan initiative. The moment one party takes ownership, there’s reason to anticipate that things will only get worse.
To learn more about this issue, take a look at the Samara Centre for Democracy’s January 2016 Report, “Cheering or Jeering? Members of Parliament Open up about Civility in the House of Commons.” A PDF of the report is available here or here in French. It includes references to some of the published academic literature on the topic. Maclean’s has also published a number of pieces on heckling. I wrote about this issue myself a number of years ago while I was blogging for a Canadian newspaper.
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