As the House resumes sitting Monday after its summer recess, politicians and pundits alike are again talking wistfully about the need to raise the level of debate and bring civility back to the Commons.
Most Canadians - 56 per cent according to a recent poll - think less of their government when they watch Question Period. Another 65 per cent say the 45-minute daily session, which is sometimes described as "Kabuki theatre," needs to be reformed and improved.
Last week, the Public Policy Forum brought together a group of current and former parliamentarians together for a big think on the issue. They all floated potential ways to transform the mid-afternoon shouting match in the Canada's " main public forum of debate" and to do this with passion and civility.
One of them, Conservative MP Michael Chong, has put forward concrete reforms in the Commons that would permit longer questions and answers, and give the Speaker more latitude to let backbench MPs hold the government to account.
But will that work? Or, as former Liberal MP Marlene Catterall suggested at the forum, do Canadians enjoy verbal fisticuffs on the floor of the House as much as they do physical blows in NHL arenas? "Would we really watch the hockey game if there were no fights," she asked.
With these issues in mind, Mr. Chong - a former intergovernmental affairs minister first elected to Parliament in 2004 - joined us for a live discussion. He graciously set aside 30 minutes to take your questions on the state of debate in the House and his suggestions to improve it.
A transcript of the discussion follows:
Globe communities editor Jennifer MacMillan: Good morning, and thanks for joining us. I'm The Globe's communities editor, and will be moderating our discussion today on civility in the House of Commons with MP Michael Chong. We'll be getting underway momentarily, so feel free to start sending your questions in for Mr. Chong now.
Jennifer MacMillan: Also, thank you Mr. Chong for taking the time to join us today. Let's start things off with a bit of background - What has prompted the recent examination of civility in the House of Commons? Have recent sessions in the House been worse than previous years?
Michael Chong: In the last federal election, 59 percent of Canadians turned out to vote, the lowest turnout since Confederation. I can also tell you that the one thing that Members of Parliament hear consistently from their constituents, is that many Canadians disapprove of the way in which Question Period is conducted. These two things are evidence of a growing divide between Canadians who are increasingly apolitical, and a Parliament that is more and more partisan. For this reason, the reform of Question Period is the necessary first step to restoring Parliament's relevancy. I don't think that the current class of elected officials is any worse than at any other time in Canadian history. I don't think the behaviour is a result of the fact that we have a somehow lesser group of Canadians representing us in the House of Commons. Whether the decorum is any worse in these minority parliaments than it was before is a matter a dispute (think "rat-pack"). The difference today is that the decorum in the House, once witnessed only by Members themselves and by a few scattered observers in the galleries (before television), is now seen by millions of Canadians. As a result, even if the level of decorum has not declined in recent years (which is debatable), it is no longer acceptable. The Canadian public, seeing what was once unseen, is demanding something better.
Brian: How can the speaker be held more accountable, seems what is lacking is control in the house which has consistently gone down hill, the rules are there, why are they not used?
Michael Chong: This is something that I too have wondered about. Speaker Milliken is no different than many of his predecessors in this regard. In fact, what is striking - when one looks at the history of the House over the last 40 years - is the reluctance of successive Speakers to enforce the rules as they exist in the Standing Orders and other conventions, instead deferring to Members in the expectation that they will self-regulate themselves. That is why Motion 517 asks the committee to fortifying the use of discipline by the Speaker. If the committee recommends that the Speakers' role be strengthened, and the House adopts the report, then the Speaker will have a greater mandate to enforce discipline.
Nancy Peckford: Do you think a more gender balanced House would have any effect on some of the behavious we now realiably see in QP, i.e. banging on tables, yelling, cat calling, etc.?
Michael Chong: Yes, I think a more gendered balance House would make huge difference. The fact is that there are fewer women in the Canadian House of Commons today, than there were 20 years ago. Women bring expertise and differing approaches to the table, and that balance that is much needed in our politics.
Jim Newton: Why not just get rid of the TV cameras ?
Michael Chong: Well, for one reason, I think that Canadians should be able to see the proceedings on the floor of the House. This is, after all, their institution.I don't think that TV cameras are the problem.
Michael Chong: TV cameras are in many, if not most, legislatures around the world, and many of those legislatures do not have the same problem. For example, look at legislatures in Europe or in the United States, many of which are televised.
Norm Reading: More time per questions and answers would hopefully lead to more substantive questions, but what's holding ministers to genuinely responding to those questions?
Michael Chong: The Speaker could demand better answers from ministers, if he/she felt the answers weren't sufficient. In fact, this is presently the practice in another Westminster style parliament, New Zealand. A colleague of mine in caucus told me that he had witnessed their proceedings, and the Speaker demanded that a minister re-answer the question and provide a better answer.
Michael Chong: In addition, giving more time to ask and to answer a question would change the tone of the House. For example, if an opposition member asks a flippant twenty second question, and a full one minute answer is given by a minister, more often than not, the questioner will look hyperbolic. And vice versa. If an opposition member asks a serious 90 second question and a flippant twenty second answer is given, the government looks arrogant.
Brian: Hey thanks Michael, while strengthening the speaker could help what good is it if he is afraid/bashful to use the rules currently at his disposal? How can the speaker be held accountable?
Michael Chong: This is the paradox of the House. The Speaker is now elected (by secret ballot) by the members (since the 1980s). The Speaker feels that the current level of enforcement of the rules (which Canadians see as lenient) is what the members want. That's why I put forward my motion. If a committee of the House recommends more rigourous enforcement the rules, and the House adopts the report, then the Speaker has the mandate to do so.
Michael Chong: The real problem with Question Period is that MPs have been stripped of the right to ask questions of the government, with the result that Members are no longer true participants in Question Period, but mere spectators. Rather than being attentive and potential participants posing questions, many behave as any spectator would, cheering or jeering for their side and against the other. Until the 1980s, Members had the right to rise in the House, catch the eye of the Speaker and ask questions of the government, questions that were driven by the concerns they heard from their constituents the previous weekend when they returned home to their ridings. Speaker Sauvé introduced these changes. Every day, each party submits their list of approved questioners to the Speaker. The Speaker recognizes only those on the list.
Jennifer MacMillan: Our time is up for today, but many thanks to Mr. Chong for taking your questions. We very much appreciate it, and will be following future discussion on this issue. Mr. Chong, any final thoughts?
Michael Chong: More than four out of 10 Canadians refused to vote in the last election. In doing so they decreased the legitimacy of our democratic institutions and the authority of Parliament. Canadians may not know the exact statutes, Standing Orders or conventions that need to be changed, but they do know that something is wrong with Parliament, and they want us to fix it. Motion 517 provides some viable and reasonable proposals for reform, and I hope it will pass.
Michael Chong: Thanks everyone for participating.
Nancy Peckford: Thank you!