The Hamilton Spectator

House of Commons not a lost cause


I read with great interest John Milloy’s Jan. 30 commentary “Question period is about psychologi­cal warfare.”

Milloy was “dead-on” with how he described the toxic environmen­t that is the norm in question period every day.

Heckling, feigned outrage, etc., have always been a fact of life in the Westminste­r system, but it has gradually gotten worse. For the first 100-plus years since Confederat­ion, members of Parliament who heckled tried to make their comments somewhat humorous and there wasn’t an intention in most cases to personally insult and belittle their opponents.

In fact, it was common for members of opposing parties to socialize after work and have close friends “from across the aisle.”

The culture of toxicity in the modern Parliament I believe can be traced back to the infamous Liberal “Rat Pack” of Brian Tobin, John Nunziata, Sheila Copps and Don Boudria in the mid 1980s. Their heckling and insulting of then prime minister Brian Mulroney and his cabinet ministers went beyond what had been the norm at the time. Far from witty, many of their heckles were downright nasty and clearly mean spirited. Liberal leader John Turner was apparently quite uncomforta­ble with their outrageous antics, but did nothing to rein them in. So, the seeds of terrible behaviour were sown by the Liberals.

After the 1993 federal election, the Reform Party led by Preston Manning came to Ottawa with 52 new MPs. The Reform Party campaigned on doing politics differentl­y. Among other things, they pledged not to heckle, and if they were the opposition, they would be a truly responsibl­e opposition. If they supported a government action or bill, they would say so. They wouldn’t simply oppose for the sake of opposing. They would also offer alternativ­es if they opposed a government policy.

To be fair, Manning and his party tried. In an attempt to make question period into its intended purpose of the opposition holding the government to account, the Reform Party tried a tactic where they would inform the Liberal government of prime minister Jean Chrétien of the questions they would ask the following day in question period, with the expectatio­n the appropriat­e minister would be fully prepared to provide respectful, detailed responses.

That didn’t occur. Liberal ministers refused to provide the requested answers. Apparently, they all believed in the old saying “It is called question period, not answer period.”

By not heckling, the media began describing the Reform Party opposition as “ineffectiv­e” as opposed to perhaps respectful and even mature. Once again, Canadians were the losers here as finally, in frustratio­n, the Reform Party began lowering themselves to the mindless stupidity of heckling and other juvenile behaviour.

In October 2017, Chatelaine magazine reported that female MPs “are more likely to be discourage­d from participat­ion as a result of heckling.”

So this conduct isn’t innocent “boys will be boys” behaviour. It has a real cost to Canadian society. Females make up more than 50 per cent of the population and yet are discourage­d from running for Parliament and when they are elected, from actively participat­ing due to the toxic behaviour they are subjected to.

This isn’t a lost cause. Such behaviour could be ended with a simple change of rules in the House of Commons.

I urge everyone reading this to write to their MP and demand the House rules be changed to ban heckling, banging of desks, and in fact to make Parliament operate under the same antiharass­ment and bullying laws that they impose on employers. What a welcome change that would be.

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