MP Report by Jay Hill, M.P.
“MPs in the House of Commons or Schoolyard Bullies?”
It’s not just their September return to Ottawa for a new sitting of Parliament that has compelled Canadians to compare Members of Parliament to school children returning for a new school year. It’s their behavior during Question Period in the House of Commons.
This Fall, Conservative MP Michael Chong’s private member’s motion, M-517, will be subject to a vote. He has proposed that the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs consider and recommend to the House changes to ensure the effectiveness of Question Period.
If successful, it will be one of the largest overhauls to Question Period (QP) in our nation’s history.
After my many years as a party Whip, responsible for discipline and morale, and as House Leader, responsible for effectively advancing my party’s agenda in the House, including during QP, I was asked to speak on this issue at the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa this week.
I reminded those in the audience that this is far from the first time MPs have examined how to institute better decorum during QP.
When I was first elected in 1993 as a Reform Party MP, we came to Ottawa looking to change the way politics was done, including Question Period. For the first few months, we asked probing, thoughtful and respectful questions, sat in silence during the answers and only occasionally applauded one of our questioners…usually our leader Preston Manning.
Meanwhile, the Liberal front bench hurled insults, shouted and jeered, and the media derided us as ineffective and naïve. Even our supporters began to question when they didn’t see us on the nightly news. So we eventually gave up, feeling that if we couldn’t get the House to change when so many were new, it was highly unlikely it would ever change.
Now here we are, 17 years later, and the only thing that’s changed is that it has somehow gotten even worse. Successive minority governments have likely contributed as MPs know they may be thrust into a partisan campaign at any time.
Yet the deterioration of QP into a mudslinging theatre began long before, such as when TV cameras were introduced into the chamber in 1977. Just think of how people’s behavior changes when a camcorder is brought out during a family gathering.
TV cameras in the chamber have also impacted the media covering politics. Reporters more frequently depend on QP and the scrums that follow for their stories, instead of focusing on in-depth coverage of the issues before Parliament. They can have their basic research for their story wrapped up in just over an hour.
This generally means that Question Period is all Canadians get to see of their MPs at work.
I believe any real reform to QP requires a tough disciplinarian Speaker with the support of all four House Leaders, Whips and Party Leaders, and a media that stops giving the ‘bad actors’ in QP positive coverage.
In the end however, with images of elected officials in other legislatures and parliaments, like Taiwan, South Korea, and the Ukraine, throwing punches rather than insults across the aisle, I have to realize that as noisy and disparaging as our Question Period is….it could be a lot worse!