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Maintenance staff prepare the Senate chamber ion Sept. 16, 2010 in advance of the resumption of Parliament in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Maintenance staff prepare the Senate chamber ion Sept. 16, 2010 in advance of the resumption of Parliament in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

John Ibbitson

Heckling, howling and hijinks Add to ...

There's a new poll showing that Canadians want more civility in Parliament. If only they meant it.

Conservative MP Michael Chong has put forward proposals designed to limit the heckling, howling and hijinks of Question Period.

If adopted, Mr. Chong's reforms would permit longer questions and answers, and give the Speaker more latitude to let backbench MPs question the government.

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The Public Policy Forum, which held a conference on Thursday about returning decorum to Parliament, has released a poll showing that 65 per cent of Canadians believe "Question Period needs to be reformed and improved."

Even John Baird, the newly appointed Conservative House Leader, who has been known at times to offer a convincing imitation of a pit bull having a bad day, is promising to make nice.

He has consulted with his counterparts in the other parties, Mr. Baird told reporters Thursday, and "I certainly signalled to them that we want to make Parliament work."

So there is a wind behind the idea of toning down the political rhetoric. But it is a feeble wind, and it will soon blow itself out.

As John Duffy, a consultant and Liberal political strategist, has observed, the media universe is increasingly dominated by electronic forums that encourage ranting, making it hard to be heard unless you shout.

Within this brazen new world, a lot of people are making a lot of money reinforcing people's prejudices. Whether it's Michael Moore or Glenn Beck, Ezra Levant or Naomi Klein, there's both fun and profit in overstating your case, demonizing your opponents and generally pandering to the paranoid.

No wonder Sun TV wants a licence to run a right-wing news channel in Canada, a la Fox News. Howling about socialism can be a goldmine.

There's another reason to be skeptical that an outbreak of political civility will happen any time soon: You like things just the way they are.

Former Liberal MP Marlene Catterall hit the nail on the head at the Public Policy Forum gathering. Question Period, she observed, is like a hockey fight. Everyone tut-tuts, but everyone watches.

"Would we really watch the hockey game if there were no fights?" she asked afterward. Would we really watch Question Period if the questions were real questions and the answers real answers?

Besides, as pollster Allan Gregg has pointed out, in a political environment where barely half the population votes, mobilizing the base is more important than expanding the base. You don't need to convince people to support you to win an election; you just need to make sure that those who already agree with you go out and vote.

In all these respects, political theatrics in Canada mirror those in the United States. But in another, far more important, respect, the two countries are complete opposites.

Americans disagree passionately on things that really matter: illegal immigration, taxes and deficits, wars past and present. The gulf between the Tea Party and Daily Kos is enormous.

But most Canadians agree about most things, and the two big parties reflect this. Really, how much do the Liberals and Conservatives differ on their approach to Afghanistan, to health care, to eliminating the deficit, to defending Canadian interests in the Arctic?

Sun News is reportedly in danger of not getting the kind of licence it needs to be profitable. But maybe there's a bigger problem: Maybe there's nothing happening here worth getting truly, deeply angry about.

In that sense, political theatre in Canada is just that: loud and colourful posturing designed to disguise consensus.

People like to watch the political equivalent of a hockey fight because otherwise it would be such a dull game.

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