If you think that the tone of debate on Parliament Hill has become more partisan in recent years, it’s not just you. An analysis of House of Commons’ transcripts shows how one portion of the daily routine in the House has been increasingly used for partisan ends since the Conservatives came to power in 2006.
Prior to Question Period each day, there is time set aside for Statements by Members. According to the Parliament of Canada’s Guide to the Canadian House of Commons, this is an opportunity for MPs to “make a statement on a subject of national, regional, or local importance.” The period generally lasts 15 minutes, with each MP making a statement being given one minute to speak.
In practice, most Statements by Members generally have to do with issues that are of great concern to an MP’s constituents, are of national importance, or bring attention to some occasion or event. For example, a condemnation of an atrocity in another country, a tribute to the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain or a plea for the government to continue to work towards women’s equality. MPs also use this opportunity to mark the passing of an important community figure or to congratulate a local organization or sports team for a job well done. On one day, three MPs rose to wish good luck to the contestants in that year’s edition of Canadian Idol.
Increasingly, however, Statements by Members have been used for partisan ends. More and more, this period contains attacks on another party in the House or the recitation of talking points that laud the achievements of the government in place.
An analysis of almost 1,000 speeches made during the Statements by Members period between 1994 and 2012 over the first three normal sitting days after the summer indicates that the number of partisan statements have almost doubled since the Conservatives were first elected.
Statements were deemed partisan in this analysis if their primary purpose was to attack another party or praise the speaker’s own party, particularly if the statement was overly generalized. Statements that criticized a government’s policy but on a substantive issue were generally deemed non-partisan, depending on the tone. There is a degree of subjectivity in the analysis, but the trends are quite clear.
About 24 per cent of Statements by Members on the sampled days since 2006 were of a partisan nature, compared to 14 per cent in the period between 1994 and 2005 when the Liberals were in power. Four of the five years where more than 1 in 5 statements were partisan took place under the Conservatives. The lone exception is 1995, when the debate over the then-upcoming Quebec referendum was especially nasty.
This change in tone is particularly marked after 2007, with most partisan statements prior to that year being softer in tone and more likely to be positive about one’s party.
There were some notable exceptions to the trends. The 1995 example is one, while partisanship dropped to zero in 2001, as parliamentarians were returning to work just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Partisanship was also among its lowest levels in the first few days of the fall session in 2008, immediately after that year’s federal election. However, the goodwill did not last very long – only a few weeks later, with the start of the “coalition crisis,” partisanship skyrocketed with a majority of Statements by Members being of a harshly partisan nature. Partisanship was also quite low in September 2011, but this is partly explained by the passing of Jack Layton that August. Nevertheless, a few jabs at the NDP and Liberals for supporting “job-killing tax hikes” were common.
Common messaging became prevalent especially after the coalition crisis, with Members of Parliament delivering statements with similar or even identical wording. This sort of key messaging was not apparent prior to 2007 and especially during the Liberal years, when at most partisan statements only had common themes.
In the first three sitting days of September 2009, claims that Michael Ignatieff wanted “to fight the recovery” were uttered at least twice, while the statement that he was “not in it for Canadians; he is in it for himself” was said on four occasions, with little or no variation in the wording. That he was “in it for himself” was also very common in the sampled days of 2010, while in the first three sitting days of last week the term “carbon tax” or “tax on carbon” was used 22 times by Conservative MPs in the period for Statements by Members.
Surely by coincidence, the last Statement is often of a partisan nature. As Question Period occurs immediately afterwards, the final Statement undoubtedly has the largest television audience. Mention of a carbon tax was made in each of the final statements made between Monday and Thursday of last week.
That Question Period has become less civil is perhaps more understandable – it is all about confrontation and is generally what gets the most attention on Parliament Hill. That the Statements by Members period has become more partisan is less so, as its audience is minimal and it is jarring to hear partisan statements sandwiched between tributes to the late Peter Lougheed, former Premier of Alberta, or an homage to the town of Esquimalt’s centennial and a reminder that it is Prostate Cancer Awareness Week.
It is another indication of the degenerating nature of political debate in Ottawa, which can be anecdotally witnessed on the Internet, in Question Period and on political talk shows. If politicians want to fight voter apathy and disengagement, they can start by making their own House a less discouraging place.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.