I am back in Ottawa only a couple of days; yet the games have already begun. Private Members’ Bills on First Nation Autonomy and repealing the “Clarity Act” are both ill-fated attempts to pander to certain constituencies. The Opposition House Leader’s attempt to force civility in the House of Commons, meanwhile, completely misses the mark and is a doomed failure.
Tuesday, Nathan Cullen moved a Motion that would give the Speaker more powers to sanction ill-mannered MPs. Civility and decorum are wanting from time to time but time outs, suspensions and fines (suspensions without pay) are not viable solutions.
For one thing, they would be completely unenforceable. The Rules of the House of Commons specify that only the recognized Member has a live microphone. As a result and given the Chamber’s acoustics, it is rare that a heckler’s musings are recorded. It is impracticable to sanction Members in a Chamber that allows free speech based on inaudible evidence and hearsay.
No doubt House decorum, although never angelic, deteriorated once cameras were introduced into the Chamber. Canadian Jurists and lawyers are reticent to allow cameras into Courtrooms similarly because of the fear that actors will “play for the cameras”. Many US trials have turned into sideshows with matters being tried on television rather than in the Courtroom. Some Cable Networks, in an attempt to boost ratings, have viewers text guilt or innocence in real time. This tacky coverage certainly undermines the importance of what the Court is adjudicating.
Thankfully, House proceedings have not yet devolved into the equivalent of an audience voted reality show. However, playing for the cameras and the quest for the ultimate seven second sound bite remain one method of MPs marketing themselves.
But since removal of the Cameras in the House is similarly not a viable option, perhaps the methods of covering proceedings should be modified. By allowing the cameras and the microphones to be live only on the person recognized by the Speaker, the result is a highly sanitized version of what is actually going on. Wide angle or even random camera shots would certainly give the public a more realistic display of proceedings including questionable behavior. The advent of camera phones means that a public official’s behavior may be recorded and scrutinized in any public location. Yet, off camera conduct in the House of Commons allows bad behavior to occur with virtual impunity.
But a better solution to improve decorum in the House would be to change the significance of what actually goes on there. A lawyer in a Court of Law would never goof off because he must intently listen to the proceedings in order to prepare his next line of questioning or closing argument. But overreliance on Talking Points in Parliamentary proceedings has made following the previous debate unnecessary and formulating one’s argument essentially non-existent. Reading a prepared text (often prepared by an official) means literacy skills have supplanted actual debating skills.
Moreover, since the votes, almost without exception, break down strictly on party lines, there is even less need for non-participants in the actual debate to follow along. The Whips Office will happily advise them when to stand and how to vote.
There is an actual rule (unenforced) against reading prepared speeches. Notes and outlines are acceptable and reliance on technical data to support an argument is necessary. There is your starting point at civility—a reasoned argument supported by facts rather than an ad hominen attack. Moreover, debating rather than reading will force debaters to listen to the proceedings in order to prepare their rebuttal. And allowing Private Members some ability to judge the debate and vote according to their refection of the merits of that debate will similarly require their attention to the proceedings. Actual debate without predetermined outcomes increases the importance of the proceeding and the conduct of all Parliamentarians by necessary extension.
The key to improving decorum lies in reducing minimum engagement.