Keith Beardsley Headshot

New Civility, Out; Bad Behaviour, Back In

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Unfortunately, our parliament often reflects what we would expect to see in a school yard: we have the bullies, the name callers, those that shout and disrupt, and some pretty decent kids who work hard and for the most part don't get the same recognition as the others.

Part of the problem is the control the various leaders' offices (including PMO) have over their MPs. This is done in a variety of ways, through promotion to a critic's portfolio, cabinet, or key positions on committees. The leader's office picks MPs to ask questions in Question Period, often tells them what to ask, and the topic of the day. Compulsory talking points are issued that MPs are expected to follow. They are also told how to vote on virtually every piece of legislation or motion in the House, and Private Member's Business -- the consideration of bills and motions presented and sponsored by private Members -- is no longer the domain of the backbencher, but controlled from the leader's office.

This control also extends to the Standing Committees where MPs are told how to vote on motions or amendments. Essentially, the respective party leader's office or PMO sets the tone for much of what goes on in the House.

In a parliament where caustic behavior has become the norm, bad behavior gets the spotlight (Justin Trudeau as an example), rudeness is rewarded and low-key dedicated MPs who are the backbone of our system are ignored and overlooked by the voting public. The net result is an electorate disgusted with the behaviour they see on the news and voters who are left with a negative view of our politicians and politics in general.

But does it have to be this way? With so much control resting in the hands of the various leaders' offices, they have the power to clean up the bad behavior, but not the motivation to do so. Until MP Michael Chong, the media, and Jack Layton began talking about a new civility, those in charge had no need to pay attention.

Over-the-top questions are rewarded by a 10-second media clip or mention in the press the next day. For an MP this national media coverage is a reward for bad behaviour. Why would they want to change?

For opposition MPs, this is often the only media coverage they will get. When in opposition, "feigned indignation" was one term we used when preparing our MPs for Question Period, and question slots were set aside for those who wanted to ask an over-the-top question and skewer a minister. We knew most likely we would get media coverage on that question and rewarded for bad behaviour.

Rude behaviour and heckling also serve to shut down the other side's attempts to ask or answer a question. Yelling, cheering, and phony, time-wasting standing ovations on the government side help to run out the clock on Question Period. Other than public pressure, there isn't any reason for those in charge to change their behavior. Look at how quickly the NDP's promise of a new civility in the House has worn off. Did you see any of this new civility on display during December's Question Periods?

In October 2010, Michael Chong made some interesting suggestions on how to reform the process. While he earned bipartisan support from all parties, it was largely backbench support. The leaders made the obligatory comments and said his ideas were interesting, yet, in the end, little was done. With the last election his motion has died.

If the leaders were serious, they could have pushed his agenda for change. Obviously they weren't all that serious, or the public hearings that were promised would have been over and a report made long before the last election took place. Perhaps Chong's suggestions were too radical for the entrenched interests in the various leaders' offices. Here then are a couple of suggestions to improve behaviour in Question Period. They don't require public hearings, but simply agreement between the Speaker and the House Leaders.

1. Begin with how you conduct Question Period. If poor behaviour is seen as a reward, penalize MPs for it.

2. Allow the Speaker to ignore the question list. Few people know that before Question Period starts, each opposition House Leader hands the Speaker a list of who will be asking questions from each party and their speaking order. Long gone are the days when MPs would stand and be recognized by the Speaker. Today, he looks at his list and calls out a name. No matter how disruptive you are or how much you heckle, if your name is on the list, you will get to ask your question.

3. The Speaker should be allowed to skip over disruptive MPs. If they misbehave or disrupt other MPs who have the floor, the Speaker should simply ignore that MP in the rotation. The MPs will quickly learn that asking a question is no longer guaranteed, but is based on earned behaviour. The House Leader's office will also learn that its strategy will fall apart if key questions don't get asked.

4. There is nothing a cabinet minister or PMO dislikes more than watching the clock move past 3 p.m. It means any one of the ministers might get hit with another question, perhaps one from left field for which they don't have a scripted answer. If it is the government side (whether cabinet ministers or backbenchers that are disruptive), or if there are too many standing ovations, let the Speaker add on additional time to equal for that which was wasted. It won't take long for the government side to realize it is in their own best interest to be civil and get Question Period over as quickly as possible.

Question Period needs to be reformed, but while we wait for a major overhaul, let's start with a few small changes that will help to tone down the bad behaviour on display every day.