On Heckling in the Chamber

Samara’s recent report into heckling in the Canadian House of Commons (No One is Listening) proposes a number of recommendations to address the situation.

It is important to stress that heckling is not a widespread problem. As others have pointed out, it’s a very localized phenomenon, largely limited to one proceeding: Question Period. This is true of pretty much every single Westminster-style parliament out there. If anyone bothered to watch all other parts of the average parliamentary day, this fact would quickly become quite clear to them. The bulk of the parliamentary day in the House of Commons is very decorous and respectful. The behaviours seen during Question Period are not the norm — far from it.

The Samara Report proposes the following recommendations:

  1. Less use of party lists;
  2. longer time limits;
  3. fewer written aids;
  4. changes in the video coverage;
  5. different seating arrangements

I will address all of these in turn, but — spoiler alert — none of the above will eliminate heckling during QP.

1. Reduce reliance on party lists
“Currently, party whips and House Leaders give the Speaker a list of MPs to be recognized to speak during Question Period. While some coordination may be necessary, at least some Question Period time could be left for backbench MPs to be recognized spontaneously. If MPs have the opportunity to jump in on their own initiative, they may end up more engaged in the debate and come to see heckling as a less valuable tool.”

I will be the first to advocate for (and I have done so many times on this blog) eliminating party speaking lists. However, this really won’t have any impact on heckling. Why?

Lets look at the UK House of Commons. In the UK, which MPs get to ask questions (not just for PMQs but for all of the departmental question periods) is decided by a lottery system. The one exception is PMQs, where the Leader of the Opposition gets 6 questions, and the leader of the next largest party gets 2. But all of the other MPs participating in PMQs, as well as those asking questions in the other daily departmental questions, are chosen by lottery. Yet, as anyone familiar with PMQs knows full well, PMQs is loud, full of constant heckling and cross-aisle banter — not unlike our own Question Period (except the heckling and other interventions tend to be far wittier). What you may not know, however, is that the other departmental questions are the poster children for decorum. Obviously then, it’s not how MPs are picked to ask questions that affects behaviour during Oral Questions.

2. Extend time limits on questions and answers
“Currently, questions and answers are limited to 35-seconds during Question Period. MPs must resort to sound bites as a result. If MPs had the time to make their case, or to pin down a perceived falsehood from another Member (for example), then that rationale for heckling disappears. The Speaker has the authority to determine the length of questions and answers, but dropping the 35-second rule would also require support of the House Leaders.”

I don’t disagree with providing more time for answers. If ministers had a minute or an indefinite amount of time to answer a question, they wouldn’t have to resort to quick soundbites and might actually lean towards providing more substantive answers. That said, I am 100% opposed to providing more time for questions. If anything, the time for questions should be reduced to 10-15 seconds. The question should fit in a tweet. There are legislatures that do allow more time for questions. All that does is provide the MP with even more opportunity to fit in criticisms and attacks of the the government. And exposition — long tedious stories of people they’ve spoken to in a coffee shop. No — cut the time for questions in half, and provide ministers with more time to answer. Another idea would be to have questions vetted by Table Officers first, the way they are in the UK before being submitted into the lottery.

But even if more time was allotted for both the questions and answers — again, that won’t impact behaviour. As stated above, some provincial legislatures do allow for more time for questions and answers, and the heckling is alive and well.

In contrast, questions in the UK departmental questions are very short:

1 Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): What discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on continued participation in the European Arrest Warrant after the UK leaves the EU.

2 David Linden (Glasgow East): What steps his Department is taking to maintain human rights standards after the UK leaves the EU.

3 Alex Burghart (Brentwood and Ongar): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of community sentences in reducing rates of reoffending.

4 Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the legal system of each legal jurisdiction.

They get more lee-way during the supplementaries (which are asked on the spot). Ministers don’t have a time limit — they’re encouraged by the Speaker to keep things short. Yet again, the difference between PMQs and the other departmental questions is night and day in terms of decorum in the Chamber, so length of questions and answers is not a factor.

3. Limit use of written materials
“The practice of reading questions and answers from prepared notes eradicates any sense of a real, live exchange of ideas. It creates a staged atmosphere in which heckling feels less out of place. But MPs might find it harder to heckle during a genuine exchange. The Standing Orders could provide clearer rules on the use of written aids, at least during Question Period.”

The Standing Orders don’t really need to be clearer on the use of written aids — the practice is against the rules, but this is ignored. I am in full agreement that Canadian legislators are far too reliant on written notes, and what passes for debate here is simply one Member after another reading a speech to the (usually almost empty) Chamber. Ironically, this is actually another argument against more time for asking questions — the more time they have, the more MPs will read from a prepared script. If they have only 10-12 seconds to ask a question, I would hope they could manage that without notes.

And again, lets go to the UK, where MPs, for the most part, actually speak without notes — and certainly without reading verbatim from a prepared text. Certainly during their oral questions — they don’t even need to ask the question since it’s on the order paper. When their name is called by the Speaker, they simply call out the number of their question on the Order Paper. And again, PMQs is full of heckling while the other departmental questions are not — so again, it has nothing to do whether questions are read from prepared texts.

4. Get it on camera
“Decisions about how to film and broadcast Parliament are made by Parliament itself—specifically by the Board of Internal Economy (a committee that oversees administration of the House of Commons and is chaired by the Speaker). Parliament could consider extending coverage so that more of the debate is captured on camera. This could help resolve disagreements about what was said and by whom. Above all, it would give Canadians a better opportunity to decide, based on the evidence, whether they think heckling adds to or detracts from debate.”

I support having wider camera angles. If anything, maybe if people saw just how empty the Chamber is for everything other than Question Period, it might shame more people into turning up, although that is unlikely. However, again, the UK House of Commons does allow close-ups, reaction shots, wider shots, etc. And again, repeat after me — it does nothing to prevent heckling during PMQs.

5. Play musical chairs
“(…) requiring at least some backbench MPs to relocate outside their party group is not unduly radical and would not eliminate the distinction between Government and Opposition.”

Sorry, but no. This is just a non-starter. I am in favour of getting rid of the desks and assigned seating on each side, but the two sides should stay apart. The opposition Members can mix it up on their side — beyond the front bench of the Official Opposition (the shadow cabinet), the rest of them are simply opposition Members and there isn’t any real need for them to be separated into parliamentary party groups. But sticking a few opposition MPs over on the government party side and vice versa? No. It’s just a bad idea, and I doubt anyone would actually do it during Question Period anyway.

The report states:

Both the Swedish Riksdag and the Norwegian Storting position ministers prominently, but otherwise seat members by region rather than party. Those legislatures have also been noticed for their relatively high levels of civility. A former Swedish ambassador to Canada once commented, “There is no heckling in the Riksdag”

That may be true, but I’m fairly certain the lack of heckling is due to an entirely different political culture that extends far beyond seating arrangements. Also, I don’t think the Riksdag has an equivalent of the Westminster Question Period.

So if heckling during Question Period can’t really be attributed to order of speaking, reading from texts, time limits or seating arrangements, what is the main cause? Is there a main cause? By its very nature, Question Period is confrontational. Members (all Members) are attempting to hold the Executive to account that that includes asking them tough questions. But the larger issue is that people are actually watching.

Question Period is the only proceeding that receives any media attention. It’s the only thing that explains the behaviour differences between PMQs and the other departmental questions in the UK House of Commons. PMQs is the most viewed and best known part of the parliamentary week — whereas the other departmental questions occur in comparable obscurity. The Commons Chamber will be jam-packed for PMQs — often only a handful of MPs turn out for the departmental questions (namely those who have questions that day and others who hope to be called to ask supplementaries).

Maybe one thing to try would be to pay as much attention to the other parts of the parliamentary day as we do to Question Period. If MPs thought the media and the public were actually paying attention to other parts of their work in the House, maybe they’d put a bit more effort into those proceedings, and feel less pressure to score points during QP.


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