So last week there was a minor kerfuffle when the prime minister grabbed a Conservative MP by the arm, and walked him through a crowd of NDP MPs, elbowing one of them in the chest as he did. I’m not going to talk about that, because every two bit columnist with a platform covered every inch of that story last week (for my money here’s the best take). But it raises broader questions about decorum and why the House of Commons seems to be populated entirely by braying jackasses. So, by request, here I go.
The question basically amounts to why footage of the HoC always seems to have a lot of yelling, while CSPAN footage of American Congress doesn’t. If Canadians have a tendency to think of ourselves as more polite and less crass than our neighbours, why isn’t that reflected in our national legislature?
There are basically two kinds of moments in the House of Commons. The vast majority of the time, there are few people in the actual House. There are routine member statements, or other assorted business, and during those debates, the HoC is all but empty. There’s a famous story about an MP who, realizing no one was listening to what he was saying, just plain stopped talking in the middle of his speech and sat down. These moments in the House are filmed, but are unexciting and rarely newsworthy, so you don’t see them (unless you’re an avid CPAC watcher).
Then there are the other kinds of moments, when the House is full (or at least has a few hundred MPs present). Question Period is one such moment. You also see these debates when a controversial bill is being discussed, or when the government is on a tight timeline. If, as is currently the case, the government is eager to get something done within a short period of time, the opposition can (and will) put a stick in the wheels by resorting to procedural techniques. This raises tensions, which leads to what we saw last week. But that’s not the whole of it: you see similar behaviour in Question Period even when the stakes aren’t especially high.
Which brings us back to the original question. Why is Parliament more boisterous and childish than Congress?
The first answer is partly perception. If you compare the majority of business of Congress to the majority of business in the House of Commons, you’ll find that both are pretty dull. You’ll also find that at certain times American Congress can get pretty rowdy. But it’s not entirely about perception, either. There is a definite difference between the two.
The second reason is due to the difference in systems. Broadly, Canada has a Parliamentary system while the US has a Presidential one. For our purposes, that means two important differences:
-In Canada (as in other Parliamentary systems), the head of government (the PM) is an elected member of the legislature. This means that the opposition has a chance to take on the head of government directly (and expect a response), even when he or she isn’t there. While American Congresspersons do go after the head of government (the president), he or she is not a member of Congress and so doesn’t face the attacks directly. This creates a different atmosphere.
-Parliamentary systems tend to feature much stronger party discipline than the American presidential system does (I’ve discussed this before). While Congressional Democrats are part of the same party that Barack Obama technically leads, they are much freer to vote however they please, and disagree with their party, and distance themselves from it. So there’s less pressure for party members to act as a cohesive unit. In Canada, unfortunately, what has tended to happen is that elected members adhere to party discipline mindlessly. So even if the opposition raises a valid critique, government MPs will boo and hiss by rote. In heated debates, this reduces Parliament to what we frequently see on the news.
Can something be done? Sure. Every prime minister since Trudeau Sr. has promised to improve the tenor of Parliamentary debate. Mulroney’s government even made a few changes in that direction (the McGrath Committee). But despite repeated promises, including from our new prime minister, the situation remains the same. It’s not impossible that things will change. Certain simple changes, such as banning heckling or cheering, could, perhaps, improve the tenor of Parliamentary debate. Given the history, though, I’m skeptical.