Loose Cannon: Taming MPs a small town affair

Thursday, September 23, 2010

  • With few
exceptions, business at the level of cities and towns is discussed with far
less drama and partisan bickering than at

    With few exceptions, business at the level of cities and towns is discussed with far less drama and partisan bickering than at

Written by Greg Beneteau

The House of Commons resumed sitting on Monday with guns drawn – not the kind that need to be registered, mind you, but the kind that fire verbal ammunition across the room during Question Period.

Decorum in Parliament is a hot-button topic this fall, with both the Conservative government and opposition Liberals putting their best attack dogs on the front lines to fight over issues like gun control, immigration and the economy.

In federal politics, the decibel level tends to rise and fall tandem with the stakes. In an unstable minority parliament where neither party has enough support to gain a majority, CPAC viewers would be wise to invest in a pair of earplugs and a language filter for their TV sets.

But not everyone has resigned themselves to accept the screaming match that passes for debate in Parliament. In the coming weeks the House will debate a set of proposals put forward by Conservative MP Michael Chong, who has championed the reform of Question Period.

Chong’s six suggestions are brilliant in their simplicity. He proposes giving the Speaker greater leeway to enforce House rules, increasing the time limit for questions and answers (currently set at 35 seconds) to elevate discourse beyond snappy one-liners, allocating half of daily questions to randomly selected MPs, requiring Ministers to be present during Question Period at least two days a week and answer questions directed to them, and allocating a specific day for questions to the Prime Minister.

I don’t know where Chong got his ideas, but one hopes he was inspired by municipal politics. With few exceptions, business at the level of cities and towns is discussed with far less drama and partisan bickering than at Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill.

In Guelph, cheering and jeering is not tolerated during council meetings. If a councillor is asked a question, he or she can’t defer to someone else. Councillors take turns and answer questions on their own time, perhaps with some gentle prompting from the mayor to stay on-topic.

So when I started thinking about other ways to improve the behaviour of elected officials, I close to home.

Seating arrangements are one way to discourage the kind of childish antics that have become commonplace in the House. The current set-up of Parliament is reminiscent of a partisan cheering contest: divide people into different sections based on allegiance so that they can scream at each other more effectively.

Municipalities avoid this pitfall through non-partisan assigned seating. The City of Guelph, for example, designates seating at council by seniority: the Mayor sits at the head of a circular table, the two council members who have served the longest sit closest to the Mayor, and so on. Other municipalities organize seating by alphabetical order or random draw.

Imagine for a moment if MPs from different parties were forced to sit next to one another. They’d no longer able to hide in the crowd, an arrangement that would rob all but the most pugnacious politicians of their bluster.

With mixed seating, politicians would also be more likely to address the Speaker during debate, since it becomes difficult to stab a finger and yell at someone who’s sitting behind you.

While they’re changing the seating around, MPs might also consider overhauling the spectator’s gallery. In Guelph’s Council Chamber public seating is located on the same level as that of council so that members of the public can see their elected officials – and elected officials can see them.

In Ottawa, the Speaker will often have to remind MPs to behave themselves during Question Period while a group of public school children is watching the proceedings from the second level. If MPs could see the people who will be witnessing their behaviour, they might think twice about throwing a tantrum in their seats.

There are tons of other examples of good practices that can be derived from municipalities across the country, and Chong’s bill is great first step. The question is whether enough of his colleagues have the courage to fix the dysfunction in Parliament, rather than just complaining about it.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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