Fix That House?

Two of the CBC’s politics programmes – CBC Radio’s The House and Newsworld’s Power and Politics – are exploring ways to “fix” Parliament. The series is called “Fix that House” and people are being invited to send in via email or Twitter their ideas to improve Parliament. I have been reading through the list of at least some of the suggestions submitted thus far and have found a few recurring themes, as well as an unfortunate lack of understanding concerning how Parliament works and why some things are done the way they are. Consequently, I thought I would comment on some of the suggestions put forward.

First of all, there are a fair number of calls for electoral reform – this was probably the most popular suggestion. Most proposed some unspecified form of proportional representation, and one person called for adopting the preferential ballot.

Different aspects of Question Period were a favourite target. A fair few suggestions called for an end to scripted questions from backbenchers. Unfortunately, this isn’t really something that could be fixed with a rule change. It would be easy enough to add a new Standing Order formally banning the practice, but how could you prove that a question asked by an MP was scripted by their party whip if the MP were to insist it wasn’t? The only way to end this practice is for the party leadership to stop forcing their MPs to read ask these scripted questions. Or for MPs to simply refuse to ask scripted questions. If only one MP in a caucus did so, they’d probably be expelled from that caucus, but if all of the backbenchers in a party caucus refused to ask scripted questions, I would think the party leadership would have no choice to but to back down.

The asking of questions during QP wasn’t the only thing under fire; some suggested that answers to questions be required to relate directly to the question asked, rather than used to attack the opposition or provide an opportunity to sing the praises of the government. It is true that there aren’t any Standing Orders governing the content of answers provided; but even if there were, how would the Speaker – whose job it would be to enforce this new rule – be able to assess if the answer did fully relate to the question asked? In some cases it would be fairly obvious – for example, if a minister was asked about taxation and he or she replied by attacking the opposition leader instead, that is clearly an unrelated answer. However, the Speaker can’t assess this until the answer had been given – and it’s too late at that point. Some suggested imposing penalties for those who would violate this rule – what sort of penalty? Naming them and kicking them out of the Chamber for the duration of Question Period? While I fully understand where people are coming from on this, again, rules won’t really change overall behaviour. It is up to the ministers to take Question Period seriously and provide the House with serious, thoughtful answers.

Related to this, someone suggested extending the time allowed for each question and answer during QP from the current 30 seconds to 90 seconds. I would go one better – get rid of time limits completely. In the UK House of Commons, there are no time limits and ministers frequently give fairly long, detailed answers to questions.

Another reader suggested moving Question Period to 20:00 and broadcasting it nationally (on what network, he didn’t say) so that Canadians could see their politicians in action. Hmmmm… Nice idea but I’m afraid they would lose badly in the rating to the multitude of US TV shows that Canadians would much prefer watching. Even if every Canadian network were forced to broadcast QP in prime time, my gut tells me that most Canadians would just switch over to a US network to catch their favourite show.

Someone suggested that the Speaker be “allowed” to recognize MPs during Question Period. The Speaker does not have to be allowed to do this – he or she has every right to do so – it’s in the Standing Orders. Yes, the parties provide a list of MPs who are to stand to ask questions on behalf of the party, but there is nothing stopping MPs not on those lists from standing to catch the Speaker’s eye and the Speaker calling on them.

One suggestion was for a more general move away from the reading from texts during debate so that “actual debate” could occur. I fully support this suggestion, and have blogged to that effect in the past. This would require a return to giving way as they do in the UK House of Commons. And for giving way to work properly, we’d probably also have to get rid of the existing time limits on speeches followed by the questions and comments section. This is what has killed proper debate in the Canadian House of Commons. If you watch any debate from the UK House of Commons, you will see the difference immediately. The MP who has the floor will give way – meaning they will sit down briefly so that another MP can ask them a question or comment on something they just said, and then the MP will get up again and respond, and then continue on with his or her remarks. We used to do this in Canada as well, but then time limits on speeches were introduced (to counter the opposition’s tendency to filibuster), and knowing they had a time limit on how long they could speak, MPs were increasingly unwilling to give way, so no other MP could ask them questions or comment on what they were saying. A brief “questions and comments” section was then added to the end of each MP’s speaking time. It makes for a very stilted, artificial “debate”.

Some suggestions were rather bizarre. One reader proposed an age limit for politicians to discourage “lifers”. First of all, I would think this would be unconstitutional, and second, it doesn’t make much sense. I think what the person has in mind might be a term limit, not an age limit. I think their goal is to prevent one person from sitting for decades – becoming a career politician, if you will. However an age limit wouldn’t necessarily change this as some people only enter politics when they’re older. If you set the age limit at say, 60, and someone was elected for the first time at age 58, they’d have to retire after only two years of service, while someone first elected at age 25 would (assuming they got re-elected) be able to serve for 35 years!

On a similar note, someone suggested that we should only elect “highly educated/experienced” Canadians to counter the perceived problem of ministers with little or no background in the portfolio to which they are appointed. This I know would be unconstitutional – section 3 of the Constitution Act, 1982 states:

3. Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.

That means that every Canadian, regardless of educational background and experience, has the right to qualify to be a member of the House of Commons (or a provincial legislature).

Someone proposed that MPs vote from their constituency office via the web or social media rather than from inside the Chamber. This is completely impractical and ignores the fact that there is way more to being an MP than voting in divisions. What about participating in debates? Or sitting on committees? MPs need to be in the House.

Still on the topic of voting, another person suggested that MPs be allowed to vote “anonymously” in order to represent their constituents or beliefs rather than as their party whip tells them to vote. The reality is that most votes in the House are sort of anonymous already – they are voice votes. Most Canadians are familiar with the recorded division – where each MP stands and their name is called out as they vote for or against something. That is only one way of voting. There are also voice votes (where members call out Yea or Nay). No names are recorded during these votes, so it isn’t possible to tell exactly who voted how. See this chart from House of Commons Procedure and Practice to see the various ways voting occurs in the House of Commons. Only recorded divisions require that the MP stand and have their name recorded – the other means are, for all intents and purposes, anonymous.

One person proposed that we needed a Speaker with experience and “who has majority approval of each of the parties. Perhaps even right to recall.” The Speaker does have majority approval. He or she is elected by all MPs at the start of each new Parliament, by secret ballot. And the House can move a motion of no confidence in the Speaker if they are unhappy with their performance.

Many people had issues with MPs not being in the House and proposed posting attendance records or similar ideas. While it is true that, outside of Question Period, the chamber is often quite empty, this doesn’t mean that MPs aren’t working. They might be sitting on a committee, meeting with constituents or visiting delegation, taking part in some other House-related activity, etc. Most MPs work 70 hour weeks – you can’t judge the work they do simply by whether they are sitting in the Chamber.

One person oddly suggested that Question Period should be held only once a week for a full hour. I have no problems increasing it from 45 minutes to one hour, but only once a week? This would mean even less holding the government to account.  In the equally odd category, someone else proposed enlarging the House of Commons to “over 1000 members”. I really can’t see that going over well at all. Even with a population of 1.2 billion, India’s lower House, the Lok Sabha, has only 552 members. With a population of only 35 million, it would be very difficult to justify having over 1000 MPs here in Canada. People complain enough about the 308-soon-to-be-338 that we currently have.

There were many calls for an end to political parties, allowing each MP to be elected as an independent. Nice idea, and it works in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but I don’t think it would be practical for a larger Chamber. I think that instinctively, MPs would coalesce into like-minded informal groups.

Another idea put forward was to have an election every 18 months. This would raise some problems. First, the reality is that people don’t like voting that much and I think if we were forced to go to the polls every year and a half, our already low voter turnout rates would just drop even further. Second, it’s not practical. Many policies require a long-term view and if parties had to focus on elections every 18-months, they’d completely forfeit any policy other than short-term, quick-fix ones.

One reader proposed giving the Ethics Commissioner “real teeth” so that they had the power to remove a sitting MP for infractions. The problem with this is that it would violate parliamentary privilege. Under section 18 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which endowed the House with the same privileges, immunities, and powers as enjoyed by the British House of Commons, the House of Commons possesses the power of expulsion. The Ethics Commissioner could at best recommend expulsion; it would ultimately be up to the House itself to decide the matter.

A few people suggested getting rid of the desks and having MPs sit tightly together on benches as they do in the UK House of Commons. I am not certain what problem this is intended to “fix”, but I don’t dislike the idea.

Most of the suggestions were aimed at improving decorum and increasing the independence of MPs/lessening the influence of political parties.

There were a number of suggestions that had little to do with fixing the House – such as abolishing the Senate, or changes affecting the Parliamentary Budget Office, or changes affecting Elections Canada, so I’ve ignored those.

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Faint signs of democratic awakenings

I have written a number of posts on how whipped Canadian backbench MPs are when compared to their counterparts in other parliaments. In recent weeks, it would seem that some backbenchers have maybe had enough of this situation.

One MP raised a point of privilege to argue that prevented by his party whip from delivering a statement in the House during “Statements by Members”, a 15-min period each day during which backbenchers can deliver one-minute statements on matters of international, national or local concern. As per the Standing Orders, any MP can be recognized by the Speaker to speak during this time, but, in practice, the Speaker is guided by lists provided by the respective party whips. The Member, Mr. Warawa, appealed to the Speaker that in being removed from his side’s list last Thursday, his privileges as an MP were breached.

For a detailed overview of the situation, I will refer you to this guide prepared by Aaron Wherry of Macleans. Mr. Wherry’s guide includes a multitude of links to other posts he and others have written on the issue. A number of MPs spoke up in support of Mr. Warawa’s point of privilege, and the Speaker delivered his ruling on the matter last week, which you can read in full here. The Speaker did not find that there was a prima facie case of privilege but reminded backbenchers that the Speaker is guided by the lists, not bound to them, and if they want to speak, they need to “seek the floor”, which they are free to do at any time.

For people unfamiliar with the Canadian House of Commons, it is important to understand that the issue of lists of which MPs will speak is not limited to Members’ Statements. The party whips provide lists to the Speaker for Question Period, for debates on bills – in sort – for virtually every single item of business in the House. And it isn’t simply a matter of these lists largely determining which MPs will be able to speak in the House, if they are on the list, they are often also told exactly what they will say when they do get the floor. They are given scripted questions to ask during Question Period, which means that rather than question the government and hold it to account, questions from government backbenchers are used to attack and question opposition party policy, or to give the government an opportunity to promote a policy or initiative. And sometimes, the question will manage to do both:

Mr. John Carmichael (Don Valley West, CPC): Mr. Speaker, while the NDP members continue to bend and twist Canada’s rich military history to suit their far left leanings, our government is committed to commemorating Canadian veterans and their accomplishments.

In January our government proudly marked 2013 as the year of the Korean War veteran, and today the Minister of Veterans Affairs and the Minister of National Defence made yet another great announcement. Would the Minister of Veterans Affairs please update this House on how we are continuing to recognize Canada’s great accomplishments during the Korean War?

Hon. Steven Blaney (Minister of Veterans Affairs and Minister for La Francophonie, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the member for Don Valley West is right. They were young and reckless. Along with more than 15 countries with the United Nations 60 years ago, they fought in Korea for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law against communism. Today, the Minister of National Defence and I presented a certificate of recognition to our great Canadian Korean War veterans to show our deepest gratitude and recognition for their many sacrifices. I thank our Korean War veterans. Thank you very much.

The Speaker concluded his ruling thusly:

Even so, as Speaker I cannot exercise my discretion as to which Member to recognize during Statements by Members or at any other time of the sitting day if only one Member is rising to be recognized.
As previously mentioned, due to an over-reliance on lists, more often than should be the case, even those Members on the list do not always rise to be recognized.

Were the Chair to be faced with choices of which Member to recognize at any given time, then of course the Chair would exercise its discretion. But that has not happened thus far during Statements by Members, nor for that matter, during Question Period. Until it does, the Chair is not in a position to unilaterally announce or dictate a change in our practices. If Members want to be recognized, they will have to actively demonstrate that they wish to participate. They have to rise in their places and seek the floor.

In the meantime, I will continue to be guided by the lists that are provided to me and, when and if Members are competing for the floor, will exercise my authority to recognize Members, not in a cavalier or uninformed manner but, rather, in a balanced way that respects both the will of the House and the rights of individual Members.

While this should strike most as common sense – if a Member wants to be recognized by the Chair, he or she needs to stand in their place to indicate to the Speaker that they want to speak – what is surprising (also shocking and terribly saddening) is that some MPs apparently didn’t even know that they could do this. As Laura Ryckewaert writes in “Former House Speaker Fraser calls Scheer’s ruling ‘very important,’ but another expert expects MPs won’t do much with ruling” ($):

Mr. Scheer’s ruling isn’t groundbreaking, and he has instead highlighted a pre-existing right that was forgotten over time by MPs but Mr. Warawa and Mr. Chong said they hadn’t previously realized they had the right to stand to be recognized by the Speaker during statements or questions.

Another MP, Mr. Rathgeber, told reports that he planned to take advantage of this new-found right and added that “he thought there would be a ‘transition’ as “members will have to adjust to being able to speak without having been approved, being put on a list.””

Many might wonder how this dire state of affairs came to be. Peter Loewen explains the situation quite well in this article from the Ottawa Citizen. Mr. Loewen writes that prior to 1970, party labels did not appear on ballots, only the names of the candidates running in each constituency. The candidates were representatives of a party, but the situation wasn’t regulated and at times, there could be two candidates claiming to represent the same party. Parliament decided that reform was required and the solution adopted “was to have party leaders sign off on candidacies, officially identifying their party’s candidates.”

This solution created a new problem – the party leaders realized that this gave them enormous power over their MPs:

Since party leaders sign off on candidates, they can also refuse candidates by declining to sign their nomination papers. There is no legal mechanism for locally-selected candidates to overcome this prerogative. Sitting MPs are subject to this signature at every election. As a consequence, MPs serve not only at the pleasure of their electorate but also of their leader.

That MPs work beneath the thumbs of their leaders would be less objectionable if they had some counterweight. In other Westminster-style democracies, the counterweight is obvious: party leaders serve at the pleasure of their caucus.

In Canada, we have delegated the right to remove leaders to party members, that small class of Canadians who pay a pittance each year to carry a party’s card. From time to time, a small minority of them will trek off to a convention centre or a hockey arena to decide whether to renew their leader’s mandate.

They are accountable to no one. It should be no surprise, then, that the leaders they affirm are equally free of accountability.

The neutering of our MPs as free-thinking, independent representatives begins with their nominations and it ends with their inability to keep their leaders in check. In the meantime, the media and the punditocracy do what they can to remind MPs of their diminished role.

Since the ruling, some MPs have tried to stand and catch the Speaker’s eye to be recognized. Some have succeeded, others haven’t. A former House of Commons committee clerk, Thomas Hall, is quoted in the Ryckewaert article as saying that he doesn’t expect this to last: “If the whip wants to, he can crack down on that, he still has the power to discipline Members who disobey him.” In the same article, Professor Lori Turnbull (political science, Dalhousie University) says some MPs would consider this new-found freedom “career suicide”:

If you’re an MP and if you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I want to be on that particular committee, or I want that particular diplomatic post when I retire, or I want to say on [current Prime Minister] Harper’s good side’ or whatever it is, then you’re not going to be the guy who stands up in the House with the explicit knowledge that the Prime Minister and the party whip think you should sit down and shut up.

Still, perhaps the radical idea that MPs have the right to stand up of their own initiative and speak in the House might spark an interest in exploring other ways by which backbenchers might regain some power in the House. There is still a very long way to go before one can speak of real democratic reform, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

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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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Some interesting links: rebel MPs, e-petitions, hung parliaments, and political disengagement

1. Rebels of the Chamber

Isabel Hardman has a fascinating piece looking at some of the most rebellious backbench MPs in the UK House of Commons:

Once an MP starts down the route of the serial rebel, it seems easier for the whips to leave them be. Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn, is one such example. “A whip called me once, saying: ‘I just wanted to confirm that you will definitely be voting against us tonight’,” he says. “I replied, yes, your intelligence is right.”

2. Procedure Committee releases its report on e-Petitions

In an earlier post, I reported on a hearing of the UK House of Commons Procedure Committee into the Government’s e-petitions scheme. The Committee recently released its report. Among their recommendations:

  • Extra sittings: The committee’s report recommends that an extra sitting in Westminster Hall, between 4.30 and 7.30 pm on a Monday, should be created for debates on e-petitions. The sitting would take place only if the Backbench Business Committee had scheduled a debate on an e-petition. The committee proposes that this change should be introduced as an experiment and reviewed after a year.
  • Government website:The committee’s report also recommends changes to the Government’s e-petitions website so that the information provided to petitioners is clearer, fuller and more accurate.

 3. The Hung Commonwealth Parliament: the First Year

The 2010 Australian general election, held on 21 August, resulted in a hung Parliament, with both the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal/Nationals Coalition emerging with 72 seats each in the House of Representatives. The remaining seats were held by one Western Australia Nationals member (Tony Crook); one Australian Greens member (Adam Bandt); and four non-aligned independent members (Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott, Andrew Wilkie, and Tony Windsor). This was Australia’s first hung parliament in 70 years. The Parliamentary Library of the Australian Parliament has produced a detailed overview of the this parliament’s first year and the various standing order changes that have been implemented to better deal with the situation.

4. The Real Outsiders

Samara Canada’s latest report looks at the politically disengaged in Canada:

First, whether they were engaged or disengaged, our participants universally condemned politics. Contrary to the notion that the disengaged are apathetic, we found that those less likely to participate were neither disinterested in nor uninformed about the system. Instead we found that their disdain for politics was driven by an intuitive understanding of how the political system functions and their previous interactions with it.

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No backbench rebellions, please, we’re Canadians

There has been much media focus in the United Kingdom over the numerous government backbench rebellions among both Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs since May 2010. This is regularly monitored on the website. By September 2011, the number of Coalition Commons rebellions so far this Parliament stood at 150, a rebellion rate of a rebellion in 44% of votes. Sixty-six of those rebellions involved Liberal Democrat MPs, a rate of a rebellion in 19% of votes. More recently, Mark Pack took a closer look at the Liberal Democrat rebellions, and provided quite a few interesting statistics which you can read here.

I have previously written that such large scale rebellions are practically unheard of in the Canadian House of Commons. After reading Mr. Pack’s piece, I decided to try to cobble together some statistics from Canada, using information provided by the How’d They Vote website as my starting place. (Note: How’d They Vote closed down in late 2012. I have removed the link to the website for that reason.)

Because the focus of How’d They Vote is not MP rebellions, trying to collate figures comparable to those from the UK isn’t easy. The current Parliament began in June 2011 and, to date, there have been only two MPs who have voted against their party – neither of them Government MPs. I decided to focus on the previous Parliament, which ran from 18 November 2008 to 26 March 2011 and was a hung Parliament with a Conservative minority government. There were a total of three sessions during the 40th Parliament: the first lasted only 13 sitting days (18 November 2008 to 4 December 2008) and had no recorded divisions. The second session ran from 26 January 2009 to 30 December 2009, while the third session met from 3 March 2010 to 26 March 2011.

How’d They Vote does provide information on the number of times MPs “dissent” from their parties on votes. For example, during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament, 116 MPs1 (out of 308) dissented at least once. Of those 116, 59 dissented only once, and 36 dissented twice, leaving 21 MPs having dissented more than twice. Two dissented 5 times, five dissented 4 times, and 14 three times. The 3rd session was even more “rebellious” with 169 MPs dissenting at least once. Of those, 85 dissented once, 38 dissented twice, 18 three times, 9 four times, one MP five times, another 6 times, two MPs dissented 11 times each, nine dissented 12 times, two 13 times, another two 14 times, one 15 times and one 16 times.

But upon closer examination of these votes, these “rebellions” occurred only on votes on Private Members’ bills. I have a bit of a problem considering these votes “dissensions” since (in theory at least), votes on private Members’ bills and motions are not supposed to be whipped votes, so there isn’t (in theory at least) a party position to vote for or against. Members are supposed to cast their vote based on the merits of the individual bill. Private Members’ bills rarely get more than second reading, therefore there is little danger (at least in theory) of MPs voting in favour of them at second reading or report stage. If the Government doesn’t like the bill, it will simply ensure that it dies on the Order Paper. Votes on Private Members’ bills are supposed to be free votes, thus making “dissent” (or rebellion) impossible since there is nothing to rebel against. The fact that such votes are considered “dissent” only serves to illustrate how pervasive the use of the whip is in the Canadian House of Commons.

If we focus only on the votes on Government bills, since what we are trying to assess here is how rebellious are Government backbench MPs, the picture is very different. There were 63 Government bills introduced in the 2nd session, and 60 in the 3rd. Of the 63 Government bills introduced in 40-2, only 22 had recorded divisions at at least one stage of their progress through the House (several had several divisions). That number falls to 15 for Government bills in the 3rd session.

Looking at the data for every single recorded division on Government bills in both the second and third sessions, there was not a single Government backbench MP who voted against his or her party.

Nor did any opposition MP break ranks with their party during divisions on Government bills and motions.

Granted, on some votes, there were a fair number of MPs who were absent for the vote, but it isn’t possible to know if this was because they disagreed with their party’s position or for some other reason.

Simply put, party discipline reigns supreme, and Canadian MPs toe the party line.


1How’d They Vote lists 117 MPs as having dissented during the 2nd session of the 40th Parliament because they include Peter Milliken in the list of MPs. Milliken was Speaker of the House of Commons in the 40th Parliament, and of course, the Speaker does not vote except in the event of a tie, and then exercises the casting vote. There are parliamentary conventions in place which govern how a Speaker should vote in such instances, and thus Milliken’s vote cannot be considered a “dissenting” vote since he was not voting for or against any party position, but rather as per parliamentary convention concerning the casting vote. Consequently, I have not included Speaker Milliken in the above discussion.


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On Members’ attire

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I pay tribute to all the public sector workers we rely on time and time again, and in particular those in Staffordshire. Over many months, I have had letters from serving police officers concerned about the Winsor report and the knock-on effect on morale, and about A19 and losing senior officers. Now they are concerned about the fact that having been called on at our time of need—out on the streets, putting themselves in the firing line—they are having their leave cancelled and having to give up holidays due to overtime requirements. It was an hour and a half before we heard the words “Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary”, and we have heard nothing about Mayor Boris Johnson’s view about policing cuts. Will the Prime Minister finally get to his feet and address the loss of 16,000 jobs?

The Prime Minister: I do not know whether we need an inquiry into safety in the House, Mr Speaker, but someone seems to have stolen the hon. Gentleman’s jacket.

I accept that we are asking police officers to do a difficult job and, yes, we are asking them to undergo a pay freeze, as other public sector workers are doing, but we are giving them the backing they want by cutting paperwork and enabling them to get out on the street and do the job they want to do.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful for the Prime Minister’s concern, but I assure the House that nothing disorderly has happened. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) was perfectly in order. He was focusing not on sartorial matters but on violence, and he was perfectly in order. We will leave it at that. I ask the House to try to rise to the level of events. (Source: House of Commons Hansard, 11 August 2011)

This exchange took place during Prime Minister David Cameron’s ministerial statement on the civil unrest which had occurred in the United Kingdom earlier in the week. The fact that a Labour MP appeared in the House of Commons sans jacket caused somewhat of a stir. Despite the overall seriousness of the subject being debated, ConservativeHome still felt it noteworthy to blog about Mr. Flello’s perceived lack of disrespect for House rules.

The blog post’s author, Matthew Barrett, cites Erkine May, the “bible” of Parliamentary procedure:

This seems to be very much the opinion of Mr Speaker Bercow. Erskine May specifically says:

“The Speaker has also stated that it is the custom for gentlemen members to wear jackets and ties.”

It appears that Mr. Barrett doesn’t have the most current edition of Erskine May, which was published this year. In the 24th edition, it states:

It remains the custom for gentlemen Members to wear jackets and ties, but the Speaker has not enforced the practice in all circumstances. (p. 451)

Examples cited of Speakers not enforcing this practice pre-date Speaker Bercow, and so contrary to comments made by readers and Mr. Barrett’s insinuation, this isn’t simply the opinion of Speaker Bercow, who has been criticized by some for shunning the Speaker’s traditional garb and wig. Here is one such example from 1989:

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes) :On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I clearly heard you call the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). It is the third time in the past half hour that you have called him. We are in danger of a precedent being set as not only is he not wearing a jacket when you have called him, but he has his shirt sleeves rolled up. Will you please ask him to withdraw from the Chamber until he is properly dressed, or not call him again?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I know that Mr. Speaker has dealt with this matter on a number of occasions. He has requested normal dress in the Chamber, but he has never said that it is an absolute condition for an hon. Member being called. He has merely deprecated abnormal dress. I call Mr. Nellist.

The Canadian House of Commons has a similar tradition. As we learn from House of Commons Procedure and Practice (2nd ed.), p. 603-4:

While the Standing Orders prescribe no dress code for Members participating in debate, Speakers have ruled that all Members desiring to be recognized at any point during the proceedings of the House must be wearing contemporary business attire. Current practice requires that male Members wear jackets, shirts and ties. Clerical collars have been allowed, although ascots and turtlenecks have been ruled inappropriate for male Members participating in debate. The Chair has even stated that wearing a kilt is permissible on certain occasions (for example, Robert Burns Day). Members of the House who are in the armed forces have been permitted to wear their uniforms in the House. Although there is no notation to this effect in the Journals or in the Debates, a newly-elected Member introduced in the House in 2005 wore traditional Métis dress (including a white hooded anorak bearing an embroidered seal emblem) on that occasion without objection from the Chair.

In certain circumstances, usually for medical reasons, the Chair has allowed a relaxation of the dress standards allowing, for example, a Member whose arm was in a cast to wear a sweater in the House instead of a jacket.

Interesting to note that Members who are in the armed forces can wear their uniform in the Canadian House of Commons, but Erskine May states that “the wearing of military insignia or uniform inside the Chamber is not in accordance with the long-established custom of the House.”

New Zealand and Australia also have specific guidelines governing proper attire for their elected representatives. In the Australian House of Representatives, while the standard of dress is left to the individual judgement of each Member, the ultimate discretion rests with the Speaker. In 1983, the Speaker explained that his rule in the application of this discretion was “neatness, cleanliness and decency.” In 1999, another Speaker noted that Members traditionally chose to dress in a manner similar to that generally accepted in business and professional circles. It was generally accepted that the standards should involve “good trousers, a jacket, collar and tie for men and a similar standard of formality for women” but that he would not apply these standards rigidly. For example, should the air conditioning fail, it would be acceptable for male Members to remove their jackets. Clothing with slogans, however is not generally allowed (House of Representatives Practice, p. 157).

In New Zealand, while there are no fashion codes prescribed, the Speaker normally takes issue with any Member not dressed in appropriate business attire. However, the Speaker regularly polls male Members regarding their attitude to wearing a jacket and tie in Chamber. (Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, p. 125)

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Some interesting links

1. Time to salute the post-2010 election Parliament

BBC parliamentary correspondent Mark D’Arcy has a good column providing an interesting overview of the current UK Parliament and an assessment of some of the many reforms introduced in the dying days of the previous Parliament and at the outset of this one: “So I’m afraid, as I head off for my holidays, I’m going to indulge in a little optimism. A stronger Parliament is doing a better job. And that is a good thing for the country.”

2. The Death Penalty: A Matter of Emotion, Not Reason

With efforts underway by pro-capital punishment forces to force the House to debate the issue by gathering 100,000 signatures on an e-petition, the Spectator’s Alex Massie provides a thoughtful piece on the subject: “I have a little more faith in the British justice system than I do in its American counterparts but not so much that I’m happy to grant the state this kind of sanction. If I won’t trust the state to issue an ID card why should I trust it with the death penalty?”

3. Can David Cameron and George Osborne defy history and remain friends?

The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt looks at the long history of Prime Ministers falling out with their Chancellors of the Exchequer, and ponders if Cameron and Osborne can avoid a similar outcome.

4. MPs find their voice at last

Complementing Mark D’Arcy’s article about how reforms have made the UK Parliament stronger, Steve Richards writes in The Independent about how these reforms have shifted power to MPs and away from the executive: “Until recently the committees were something of a backwater for MPs, largely ignored by the media and viewed with indifference by ministers. They produced their reports. Some of them were extremely insightful and provided an important alternative commentary on various governments. Rarely did they get much publicity. No member acquired such an aura that he or she became associated with sex appeal. This has changed. Suddenly committees are sexy.”

5. An interview with the creator of PMQs – The Game

Helen Lewis-Hasteley interviews Mark Richards, creator of the PMQs computer game I’ve previously blogged about: “I had really enjoyed doing retro video game-style caricatures of political figures and, one day, it just occurred to me that Prime Minister’s Questions is a real-life turned based battle, like those bits from the old Pokemon games.”

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It’s my party

About a month ago, Samara, an independent charitable organization, founded in 2008 to study citizen engagement with Canadian democracy, released three reports based on exit interviews with Canadian MPs who had decided not to seek re-election in the next general election. While all three reports are worth looking at, I was particularly interested in the findings of the third, entitled, “It’s My Party”: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered, which blamed much of the “brokenness” of Canada’s Parliament on political parties and how they manage themselves, their members and their work.

The report describes two trends. First, it found that what MPs described as their “real work” was done away from the public spotlight, in venues such as committees and party caucus meetings. The politics that played out on TV, such as Question Period, embarrassed them and accomplished little. Second, the report also found that even though the researchers did not specifically ask about political parties, over and over again, the MPs they interviewed stated that the greatest frustrations they faced came from their own parties.

On the first point, when discussing their work, MPs stressed that it was only when they worked away from public scrutiny – and the dictates of their party -  were they able  to work constructively:

It was in the less publicized venues of committees and the private space of caucus that they said they were able to transcend the partisanship on display on TV, engage in vigorous debates, advance policy issues, work within and across parties to improve legislation, and influence their party leadership.

Public aspects of work on Parliament hill, such as Question Period, bore little relationship to the actual work they did. Indeed, the MPs interviewed insisted Question Period “misrepresented the daily work of a Parliamentarian” and “stained the public’s perception of politics and those who practiced it.” One MP went so far as to say “I think that Question Period had become the greatest embarrassment and one of the reasons politicians are frowned upon.”

The MPs also disliked how party leadership “staged” Question Period, how MPs were required to fill empty seats around the televised speakers, with some characterizing their role as that of a potted plant moved around for decoration. Others compared themselves to trained seals, where all they had to do was show up and clap on demand. Other work carried out in the House – attending and participating in debates – wasn’t much better. MPs felt the debates had little significance, and were ignored by both the media and the parties. Many MPs were told to make speeches on topics they knew little or nothing about, and often with little or no advance notice.

Voting procedures in the House also came under criticism. This was in part due to the fact that it was the party leadership which dictated, more often than not, how they had to vote, often without any form of consultation. Many MPs said they didn’t understand how their party determined its position on various issues, and that it was often impossible to keep track of what they were being asked to vote on:

“Virtually all MPs, with the exception of maybe the whips, go into the House of Commons with a bill and 18 to 20 amendments, and don’t have a damned clue of what the amendments say,” said one MP.

Furthermore, many said it was impossible to keep track of  the bills on which they were called to vote. “I hate to tell you how many bills I had very little idea what I was voting on. That’s not necessarily my weakness, that’s just the reality,” one MP said.

Others felt voting interfered with their “real work” – forcing them cancel committee consultations in other cities because they had to return to Ottawa for a possible vote. Many recommended that some form of electronic voting or remote voting be adopted, so they wouldn’t even have to be in the House to vote in divisions.

All of this contrasted with the parliamentary work done in more private settings. Committee work was highly valued, and while most committee hearings are public, they are rarely covered by the media, which allows for more constructive debate and creates a largely non-partisan environment. Party caucus meetings, which are limited to only MPs, Senators and senior political staff were also productive:

In caucus meetings, the MPs told us they were able to engage and debate with their party colleagues and leaders, raise constituents’ concerns and through coalition building with their fellow MPs, push local issues onto the national stage.

Unlike in the House, differences of opinion were valued in caucus.

As stated at the start, the second trend identified by the report was that the MPs overwhelmingly felt that the political parties were more of a hindrance than a positive force. They complained that the party leadership regularly encouraged the overly partisan behaviour familiar to all during Question Period. There was also the problem of rather arbitrary decisions regarding advancement and discipline. And lastly, the parties also interfered with what MPs called their “real work”.

The MPs interviewed lamented that they had no idea how their party leadership evaluated individual MPs, deciding who would be promoted (to cabinet or committees) and who would be punished. Many felt frustrated that some appointments to cabinet were clearly undeserved, but given to less competent people because of political debts, and some who were promoted to cabinet were often baffled by the post they were given – it often had nothing to do with their background or area of expertise. MPs were also confused over to what extent they could risk disagreeing with their party.

When it came to their “real work” however, MPs complained that the parties intervened too much in that area as well. As stated above, while usually open to the public, most committee hearings aren’t televised. However, if one was, the the parties would substitute committee members, removing the usual member and replacing them with “hitters” who would put on a more partisan show. Similarly, any committee member suspected of not toeing the party line would be replaced without notice. One MP recalled:

“We had members of the committee listening to witnesses and coming up with agreements on amendments. On the day of the vote, the whip substituted every member of the committee on the government side. They’re out and new bunch of guys are in, whose only qualification is that they will vote the way they’re told.”

Parties also interfered with so-called free votes, which normally were limited to votes on private members’ bills. These are bills introduced by individual backbench MPs from any party, rather than by the government. These are supposed to be free votes, with MPs from all parties free to vote as they see fit. However, most MPs interviewed said that even with private members’ bills, they’d be pressured to vote a certain way. They also complained that parties would encroach on MPs’ freedom to introduce their own bills, using them instead to test a potential piece of legislation.

Most MPs interviewed also felt they received little or no guidance from their party on how to do their jobs effectively:

In fact, most MPs said they were left with little direction on how to perform their roles effectively, and it was the random and often opaque leadership of the political parties in the House of Commons that perpetuated a political culture dominated by aggravation and resentment.

There is much more in this report, and I would encourage readers to take a look at the entire report since it touches on issues that are central to the health of Canadian democracy. As the report concludes:

Political parties are organizations made up of citizens. Reforming them, therefore, requires citizen participation. However, it would seem that we are currently in a vicious circle. parties need to be renewed, but parties turn people off from politics. Disengaged citizens do not want to join parties, and so parties are not being renewed or reformed in the direction the citizenry would like.

Perhaps the first step in breaking this circle is to openly discuss how exactly Canadian want political parties to work within our democratic institutions – essentially, how we want them to work for and with us.


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The empty House

If you limit your viewing of parliamentary proceedings to Question Period (in Ottawa) or Prime Minister’s Questions (in the UK), you may be under the impression that the House of Commons is always well-attended. Indeed, both events usually play out to a full House as MPs from all parties turn up for what is without question the most media-friendly event in the House.

Should you decide to watch other proceedings in either House, you may well be shocked to see that more often than not, the Chamber will be close to empty, with only a skeleton crew of MPs present to ensure that the required quorum is met. In the Canadian House of Commons, 20 MPs (out of the total 308) constitute a quorum. That means only 6.5% of MPs need to be present for business to take place and for Parliamentary decisions to be valid. In the UK House of Commons, that number is 40, out of 650 MPs, which represents just over 6%, and that quorum is needed only for votes.

In Canada, it is sufficient that 20 members be in attendance, regardless of their party affiliations or whether they are in government or opposition. In this regard, the Deputy Speaker of the House stated in 1998:

The count is for the minimum number of 20 members. If 20 members are present the debate resumes. The Speaker is disinterested as to whether it is all government members, all opposition members or a mixture of members from both sides forming the quorum. As such the Speaker is not in a position to tell members from either side of the House who should be in his or her place or how many members should be available for any debate. (Debates, May 7, 1998, p. 6644.)

This number, 20, has remained unchanged since Confederation in 1867, although there have been several attempts to increase it. At the time the House is scheduled to meet, a count of the House is taken by the Speaker. If fewer than 20 Members are present, the Speaker may adjourn the House until the next sitting day. During a sitting, any Member may draw the attention of the Speaker to the lack of a quorum, requesting a “count” of the Members present. If a quorum is obviously present, the Speaker may simply announce that there is a quorum and dispense with the count; the House then returns to its business. If there is some doubt as to there being a quorum, a count is made by the Speaker. If a quorum is present, business continues. However, if no quorum exists after the first count, the bells are ordered to sound for no longer than 15 minutes. Within that time period, if a second count determines that a quorum is present, the Speaker will order the bells silenced and the House will proceed with the business before it. If at the end of the 15 minutes a second count reveals that there is still no quorum, the Speaker adjourns the House until the next sitting day, and the names of the Members present are recorded in the Journals.

In the UK, quorum is required only for Parliamentary decisions to be valid. There is no need for a quorum to be present at all times – in fact, Commons debates could theoretically continue even if attendance in the chamber dwindled to just one MP and the Speaker. But if a division (vote) is called and fewer than 40 MPs are present to vote, then a decision on the business being considered is postponed and the House moves on to consider the next item of business.

The glaring reality is that apart from the well-attended occasions of Question Period and PMQs, major debates and roll-call votes, the House of Commons in both countries is nearly deserted. The question then arises as to why so few MPs are present most of the time. In many instances, the absences are justifiable. Modern-day demands on Members’ time are such that attending the sittings of the House is only one of many duties. MPs have myriad other responsibilities they must attend to, from committee work to dealing with the concerns of constituents. Ministers are almost never in the House, except for perhaps the one responsible for whichever bill is being debated, but even then, it will usually be the parliamentary secretary who is present. The government House leader is usually present since he or she is the one who determines which piece of government business will be called. Ministers have numerous meetings to attend outside of parliament – department meetings, meetings with lobbyists and stakeholders, etc. Party leaders (as well as MPs) must also attend to party-related functions that take them away from the House.

However, in both the UK and Canada, there is no way to know how present MPs are over the course of a parliamentary session. As this Globe and Mail article states:

Unlike senators, whose appearances in the Red Chamber are made public each month, MPs’ attendance records are confidential, offering little accountability on one of elected officials’ most basic functions: being present to debate and vote on the laws of the land on behalf of their constituents.

In the UK, attendance by MPs in parliament is not required or monitored.

While there are legitimate reasons why some MPs would need to miss some parts of the parlimentary day, this doesn’t explain why most MPs seem to be nowhere to be found. They can’t all be attending committee hearings, meeting with constituents or attending a party fundraiser all at the same time.

In a report prepared by Samara, It’s my Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered, exit interviews conducted with MPs who were not seeking re-election in the recent 2 May 2011 general election found that:

Outside of Question Period, most MPs sit in the Commons only when they’re on “house duty” – a period of time assigned by the party whip when they are required to represent their party in the House. Most MPs we spoke to viewed house duty as monotonous and a general waste of time.

The report goes on to state that even when in the House, most MPs were “on their computer, catching up on correspondence”, most there only because they had to be, few there because they actually wanted to be. Many felt debates didn’t matter because they were ignored by the media and other MPs. Other MPs stated they were “told to make speeches on subjects they knew nothing about.”

The over-focus on Question Period (and in the UK, PMQs), is reflected in this devastating assessment of Canada’s Parliament by Aaron Wherry:

Except for perhaps a dozen MPs and the odd tourist group, the vast room sits empty for almost the entire day. Thousands and thousands of words are spoken to little obvious notice or consequence—the press gallery mostly ignoring the proceedings and almost all votes of any importance destined to break along party lines. Power has coalesced around the offices of party leaders. Decisions are made elsewhere and then imposed on this place, debate seemingly rendered moot. For all its hallowed tradition and sombre ritual, the floor of the House of Commons cannot now be said, except on a purely geographic level, to be at the centre of political life. But for all the modern laments about the emptiness of our politics, here would seem to be the yawning gap at the heart of it all.


In the beginning, House debates were covered extensively in the popular media. Up until the mid-1980s, the Canadian Press kept a reporter in the House for the duration of each sitting day. But those days are gone and, besides, despite the impressive decor—carved sandstone and wood, chandeliers and stained glass—a lack of wireless Internet access makes the chamber something less than a modern workplace for reporters.

But the sight of the ornate room sitting mostly empty, an MP on his or her feet pontificating into the abyss, speaks as well to the undeniable obscurity of the institution at this point in history. Because the debates don’t matter, the press doesn’t cover them and because the press doesn’t cover them, the debates don’t matter. Instead of covering the exchanges that occur each day in the House, the evening political shows prefer to assemble their own panels of MPs to exchange shouted talking points.

Because the House is so sparsely attended most of the time, this helps foster the impression that MPs are lazy and don’t do any actual work. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as this column by C.E.S. Franks points out:

Studies have found that the time devoted by MPs to their jobs far exceeds that of most working Canadians. MPs spend as much as 70 hours a week on their various tasks as elected representatives when the House is in session, and 45 when it is not.

The Hansard Society found a similar situation in the UK:

While most MPs had expected to work a 60-hour week, on average they were doing nine hours more.

The respondents said they spent more time on constituency casework than any other matter and that they passed 63% of their time in Westminster compared to 37% in their constituency.

C.E.S. Franks concludes his article:

For most of the time, our House of Commons is like Canada itself: a vast sparsely populated tract dotted with isolated human settlements. Is this what we want?

I don’t think it is what most Canadians want, but there are no easy ways to “fix” the situation. I have tried to suggest some ways of improving how business is conducted in Ottawa in my Fixing Ottawa series of posts, yet most of those suggestions are based on current practice in the UK House of Commons, and MP attendance at Westminster isn’t any better than MP attendance in Ottawa. Giving MPs more freedom in the House in terms of how they vote on bills, and freedom to ask the questions they want to ask during oral questions would help. Giving more power to the House in general to decide the order of business – essentially moving power away from the executive and giving it back to the legislative, might also help MPs feel as if what they did really mattered. Will this increase overall attendance? It’s impossible to say.

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Do looks matter, Part 2

In an earlier post, I discussed a study conducted by Swedish and Finnish economists which  found that political candidates on the right-wing side of the spectrum were considered more physically attractive, and people were more likely to vote for them at the ballot box.

Today, I read about a new website which allows people to rank British MPs based on their perceived attractiveness. The  creator of the site, Francis Boulle, says the raison d’être of is:

In addition to my wanting to create a fun and memorable tool to help the British public get to know their Members of Parliament, I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to hold the first ever parliamentary beauty contest and find out once and for all which MPs and Parties have the most sex-appeal.

Since the study I discussed in the earlier post concluded that candidates on the right are considered more attractive than those on the left, I found it somewhat interesting that to date, the sexiest UK MPs, both male and female, are from the Conservative Party. These overall rankings are based on the cumulative totals each MP gets every time they show up as one of the options when someone visits the site, so it could simply be that thus far, more Conservative MPs have been offered up as choices to people than have MPs from other parties. This isn’t a controlled, scientific experiment, after all. Still, as I write this, Conservative MPs are definitely leading in the sexy race.

Among the rated female MPs, 9 of the top 10 are from the Conservative Party, and they take 14 of the top 20 spots. Among rated male MPs, Conservatives hold the top 19 positions, with a Lib Dem MP finally breaking that streak by coming in 20th.

Again, I’m not arguing that this confirms the findings of that Finnish-Swedish study. It’s an online poll of sorts and so could  be “freeped” if people were so inclined. I simply find it interesting that thus far at least, people seem to be agreeing that those on the right are sexier than their lefty counterparts.

(Note: what I’ve written above was accurate when I wrote the post. The overall standings may be different when you visit the site.)


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