Can I be frank? The National Post is likely correct when they say that the no-heckling restriction Jack Layton has placed on his newly expanded caucus will not likely last a week. And they are also likely right when they say that Elizabeth May’s twin desire to bring civility to the House of Commons by doing unto others as she would have them do unto her will no doubt fizzle out. But don’t tell the Post I said that.
So why does it bother me that they have written as much when I think they are right? For the precedent it shows, I suppose. It admits defeat on an important issue before we have even begun to talk about it in any serious capacity, and that is never a constructive way to approach a problem. And it is a problem. I am not blind to the fact that initiatives to reform the decorum of the House of Commons are likely as old as the House of Commons itself. And that every significant initiative appears to have failed after the introduction of television into the mix. But it would be equally naive to ignore the fact that things are getting worse.
And this is not a partisan issue. While Layton and May have been asking for this and instituting their own micro initiatives, Conservatives have been asking for this as well. Another interesting article in the National Post highlighted the proposals put forth by MP Michael Chong, based on research done on Western European Parliaments that said the declining civility can be traced to the need for media sound bites. Extend the time given to basic questions and answers, and you get better answers. Simultaneously, you get MP’s to breath more, and think things through before they crap out their mouths.
And yet even these initiatives have failed despite by-partisan support. Why?
I think that part of the problem is that there is every reason to support the idea of Question Period reform in principal (after all, who would openly stand against respect and civility?), but in practice, there is simply not enough to be gained, and too much to be lost. To be gained is the high-brow sense that you are above the muddy fray, which may resonate with some voters, but will likely confuse many more who are used to seeing shouting and heckling, and think this is how democracies ought to be run. And to be lost is face time with average Canadians through the medium of the evening news, where voters look for confidence, quick-thinking sound bites, and a good old boy they’d like to have a beer with, apparently.
And as the failed Liberal experiment with Michael Ignatieff showed us all too well, Canadians, on average, do not want to have a beer with a respectful, if not downright meek academic/politician who articulates his meaningful points over time. And while we are a far cry from U.S. Republican House member Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” at the man in charge in America, we are not as far away from that as we might like. Between name-calling and heckling, verbal assaults and obscene hand gestures (yup, just the finger, nothing exciting) and outright threats of violence of the “I’m-gonna-take-you-out-back-behind-the-shed-and-introduce-you-to-Shirley” variety, Question Period has become both the highlight of the day for the media on the one hand, and a cesspool of ramped-up testosterone on the other.
So – what is to be done? Many ideas have been floated about: extending the length of question and answer sections to allow for more substantial debate; doing away with television cameras from the Commons, increasing the authority of the Speaker to crack down on inappropriate behaviour; party discipline for those who go above and beyond proper House decorum, and others. None of these are perfect solutions, and some may be impossible to implement. How, for example, do you reign in a MP that has gone too far when that MP is a high-ranking cabinet minister? Or the Prime Minister? Who would have that authority? The Speaker, who is often selected from the governing party? Not likely.
But I think where the Post’s negativity is inappropriate is that they presume to say the discussion isn’t necessary because the solutions put forward to date have been unsatisfactory. We may not like the current crop of suggestions, and we may be hard-pressed to think of better ones at the moment, but pissing on other people’s efforts to bring more respect and tolerance to Canada’s parliament is just petty and small. It convinces your readership that this issue is trivial and unimportant. It is niether.
Grow up, National Post. We’ve heard enough from the peanut gallery.