Sur­vey says politi­cians are be­hav­ing badly

The Amherst News - - OP ED - Jim Vibert

Some years ago, a young teacher was herd­ing 30 or 40 kids, likely aged 12 or so, out the doors of Prov­ince House when an idle reporter asked how they liked the show.

She wasn’t an­gry; maybe sad, ob­vi­ously de­jected when she an­swered that she brought her stu­dents to Prov­ince House be­cause they’d been learn­ing Cana­dian civics. Then, with un­con­cealed con­tempt, she said, “and I showed them that.” They had ob­served ques­tion pe­riod.

She felt she’d let the kids down, and pos­si­bly in­val­i­dated ev­ery­thing she’d taught them about pub­lic ser­vice. Over the years, that ide­al­is­tic teacher wasn’t the only one who left Prov­ince House feel­ing that way.

Lit­tle has changed. Politi­cians still be­have badly. ey do it pri­mar­ily in par­lia­ment and leg­is­la­tures across the land, and most bla­tantly dur­ing daily ques­tion pe­riod.

A re­cent sur­vey of Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment sug­gests they un­der­stand that their con­duct is un­be­com­ing, but don’t seem in­clined to change.

In April and May 2017, Sa­mara Canada can­vassed MPs and slightly more than half of the re­spon­dents be­lieve heck­ling is a prob­lem in the Com­mons, yet more than two-thirds ac­tively en­gage in the be­hav­iour.

e sur­vey is pep­pered with ap­par­ent anom­alies like that. ere is not only dis­agree­ment be­tween MPs as to the ap­pro­pri­ate level of deco­rum, but in­di­vid­ual mem­bers seem con­ficted about what con­sti­tutes proper com­port­ment.

Sa­mara, a non-pro t or­ga­ni­za­tion cre­ated in 2009 to in­crease en­gage­ment in Cana­dian pub­lic life, re­leased the sur­vey re­sults to­day (Wed­nes­day). Salt wire re­ceived an ad­vance copy on an em­bar­goed ba­sis.

e sur­vey shows vet­eran MPs are more ac­cept­ing of heck­ling; women ex­pe­ri­ence it dif­fer­ently than men; Tories are the most for­giv­ing of bad con­duct; New Democrats be­lieve they are the most fre­quent tar­gets; and mem­bers from all par­ties know the pub­lic says the con­duct is dis­rep­utable.

To el­e­vate de­bate, Sa­mara of­fered some idea rang­ing from the worth­while to dead-on-ar­rival.

Main­tain­ing deco­rum in par­lia­ment and leg­is­la­tures is an un­wel­come, some­times im­pos­si­ble task that falls to the speaker.

Nova Sco­tia MP Geo Re­gan, cur­rent House of Com­mons Speaker is cred­ited as im­prov­ing the dig­nity of that place and, from ob­ser­va­tion, Kevin Mur­phy, Speaker of the Nova Sco­tia Leg­is­la­ture runs a tight ship.

Long-serv­ing MPs ar­gue that heck­ling is a mostly harm­less par­lia­men­tary tra­di­tion. In the early years af­ter Con­fed­er­a­tion, there are par­lia­men­tary records of MPs me­ow­ing like cats, play­ing mu­sic to drown out other mem­bers and, on at least one oc­ca­sion, set­ting off fire­crack­ers in the House.

Sa­mara found that half of the rook­ies in the House – those elected in 2015 – are both­ered, even ap­palled, by some of the an­tics in their new work­place.

MPs say they heckle to hold govern­ment or other MPs ac­count­able; or be­cause their emo­tions run away with them, or to join the pack, which doesn’t bode well for change if the rook­ies em­brace the in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture.

Ideas for im­prov­ing deco­rum in­clude chang­ing the rules to give more MPs an op­por­tu­nity to en­gage le­git­i­mately in ques­tion pe­riod, which could re­duce their urge to in­ject un­in­vited com­ments.

A ban on writ­ten ques­tions and pre­pared, “talk­ing point” re­sponses, and lift­ing the re­stric­tions on television cov­er­age are two highly de­sir­able pro­pos­als.

TV cam­eras are xed on the mem­ber who has the oor, free­ing oth­ers to heckle with near im­punity. Maybe If the of­fend­ers were caught on cam­era they’d be less in­clined to throw ver­bal spit balls.

Writ­ten ques­tions and canned re­sponses are com­mon in leg­is­la­tures and en­demic in Nova Sco­tia. ey turn ques­tion pe­riod from an ex­change of ideas to a chore­ographed po­lit­i­cal theatre.

Pre­pared ques­tions usu­ally in­clude a par­ti­san slight, while pre-pack­aged replies an­swer ques­tions no one asked. Both are mag­nets for de­ri­sive re­tort.

The suggestion that seat­ing ar­range­ments be changed so mem­bers aren’t with their party cau­cus friends has no chance. It was a fa­vorite tac­tic of ju­nior high school teach­ers, rarely worked there, and won’t wash in par­lia­ment or leg­is­la­tures.

The gen­der gap was ob­vi­ous in the re­sults, with 67 per cent of women re­port­ing gen­der-spe­cific slurs, while only 20 per cent of men said they heard them.

In al­most 40 years haunt­ing the Nova Sco­tia leg­is­la­ture, I’ve heard heck­ling that added wel­come hu­mour and colour to oth­er­wise te­dious pro­ceed­ings, and nasty, out-of-line com­ments. You take the bad with the good.

As with so much of our liv­ing na­tional po­lit­i­cal mem­ory, par­lia­men­tary per­si­flage evokes Pierre Trudeau. He once in­sisted, some­what face­tiously, that he may have said “fud­dle dud­dle” in the Com­mons, when oth­ers heard some­thing quite di er­ent.

Jim Vibert, a jour­nal­ist and writer for longer than he cares to ad­mit, con­sulted or worked for ve Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ments. He now keeps a close and crit­i­cal eye on pro­vin­cial and re­gional pow­ers.

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