The real problem is MP irrelevancy

Recently, Canada’s federal Official Opposition proposed measures for improving decorum in the House of Commons. These measures would require changes to the Standing Orders in order to increase the Speaker’s authority to discipline unruly MPs:

who use harassment, threats, personal attacks, or extreme misrepresentation of facts or position in the House, particularly regarding Statements by Members and Oral Questions, including:

i.  Revoking questions during Oral Questions from parties whose Members have been disruptive
ii. Issuing a warning to Members for a first offense
iii. Suspending Members from the service of the House for one sitting day for a second offense; five days for a third offense; and twenty days for a fourth offense
iv. Suspending Members’ sessional allowance for the duration of their suspension from the service of the House

Reaction has been varied. Sun Media’s David Akin pointed out that new rules aren’t required – if MPs want to stop this sort of behaviour, they can simply stop it. He also suggests that if the rules governing broadcasting of House proceedings were relaxed to allow reaction shots, that too might lead MPs to think twice about behaving boorishly:

The rules require that whenever the Speaker stands, the cameras may only show him. When he is not standing, the cameras may only show the MP who is speaking.

If TV networks – Sun News Network, CPAC, CTV, CBC, etc. – were able to control the cameras, we would certainly zoom in on sleeping MPs, on MPs giving others the finger, and so on.

Knowing that their hijinks would be beamed into the nation’s living rooms would surely be the best corrective.

I am not convinced that reaction shots would change much. The cameras in UK House of Commons do not stay focused on the Member who has the floor, and this does not stop other MPs from gesturing, making faces at, or heckling their counterparts on the opposite side. Akin is closer to the mark when he ends his column with:

But more unworkable and impossible-to-enforce rules?

Newsflash: They won’t work.

The problem isn’t really not enough rules, but that over the years (decades) the rules have been changed in ways that increasingly weaken the opposition and empower the government side – essentially rendering backbenchers – and the legislature – largely irrelevant. And I refer not only to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons, but also Canada’s Elections Act, as Aaron Wherry of Macleans explains in this post. The real problem in the Canadian House of Commons is that backbenchers are not free to ask questions of interest to them, they are given scripted questions by their party Whips. Ditto for most of the highly partisan Members’ Statements – I am certain most MPs would prefer to use their Member’s Statement as intended – to speak of something of interest to them and their constituents. Instead, they are given prepared, highly partisan statements by their party leadership.

What would be needed, more than new penalties the Speaker could impose on disruptive Members, would be rule changes to strengthen the Opposition, and to ease the control party leaders have over their MPs. A lot, maybe most, of the heckling and boorishness occurs because MPs other than those on the front bench are frustrated.

While the clip from the UK’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the above link might not show it, overall, the UK House of Commons is far more respectful and decorous than its Canadian counterpart. And the  main reason for that, I believe, is because backbenchers in the UK have far more freedom than do their Canadian counterparts. Part of that is due to sheer numbers – there are 650 MPs in the UK House of Commons – the Conservative party alone has almost as many MPs as does the entire Canadian House of Commons – and so it is simply impossible for the whips to exert the same level of control over backbenchers that Canadian party whips do. As well, MPs have more control over their party leader. For example, in the UK Conservative Party, a vote of confidence in the party leader can be triggered by 15% of the party’s MPs. This means that if 46 sitting Conservative MPs write letters indicating they are unhappy with Prime Minister David Cameron as their party leader, a confidence vote is held. If Cameron were to lose that vote, he would have to resign as party leader. He would not be permitted to run again for the post of party leader either. The Liberal Democrats require that a majority of sitting MPs pass a motion of no confidence in the leader to trigger a leadership contest, but the defeated leader is allowed to stand again. Labour has no such non-confidence provisions.

The UK House of Commons has also embarked on a series of reforms in recent years which have served to strengthen the House vis à vis the executive. I have blogged extensively about many of these (see, for example, my “Fixing Ottawa” series, first post here). Governing parties in the UK do not expect that bills that they put forward will go through un-amended – or that they will even pass, which is not the case here in Canada. Because the opposition parties in the UK know that they will most likely be able to amend any government bill, there is less need to resort to tactics to try to stymie Government business in the House.

I know some will argue that if a party “wins” an election, then it has a mandate to govern and to get its legislation through the House. This argument would have more weight if our electoral system actually reflected how people voted. I don’t know how anyone can argue that a party elected to majority government with less than 40% of the popular vote (and often dismal voter turnout) has a real “mandate” to push through any piece of legislation virtually unopposed. And no piece of legislation is ever perfect – amendments should be welcomed, not defeated at every turn.

The problems in the Canadian House of Commons are mostly due to the excessive control parties have over their Members, and to years of changes to the Standing Orders which have only served to strengthen the Executive at the expense of the legislature. Fining an MP for being disruptive during Question Period won’t change anything. The problems go much deeper than that.

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