There is a way for better Parliamentary decorum

Par Ken Boshcoff

house-of-commons-canada

I truly believe that the Canadian public, confronted by the behaviour in the Commons, would welcome a leader or a Member or a party that vows to restore the honour in the House.

In October of 2004 along with dozens of other rookies of all the stripes we were feeling the vibe of the awesomeness of being in our nation’s Parliament. The common theme would have been “gushing with honour” at the privilege of serving the people of Canada.

What a balloon-busting shocker that first hour was! Shortly after the pomp, the dignity, the solemnity, the gloves came off and what a portent of things to come was that inauguration into a world without decorum.

I had just witnessed only a couple of hours before in the antiquated weight room in the Confederation Building, a panicked Giles Duceppe worrying around the machines if his intransigence would bring the House down on its first day! He was so distraught that his mind wasn’t on anything close to a workout as he moved from weights to bikes and back again. Much like the House was to be for the next four and a half years- a constant state of precipitous tension

Although the Bloc would end up supporting the Throne Speech that evening thanks to a miracle amendment, the acrimony of a Minority Government was just starting to ferment.

As we newbies witnessed the cacophony I couldn’t help but study the faces of the classes of students who assembled in their clusters in the Gallery. Their excitement at being on a field trip to the House of Commons dissipated rapidly. You could tell, as one could tell for the next few years, that they were all perplexed at the immaturity of the catcalls, the unimaginative banality of most, and in general – the rudeness.

It is seemed by nods and winks that the students got the message but their collective minds were thinking one common thought….”If we behaved like that for even 30 seconds we would be out in the hall and out of the school!”

After several weeks of this faux-combat I resolved to do something about it. I read the monstrous 1000 page treatise that determined the rules and concluded two things.  One, the Speaker COULD do something and two, the precedent of Parliamentary actions neutralized the Could by deciding that the noise, body part sounds, heckling, naming, stomping, clapping, whistling, were regrettably ……part of the Canadian Parliamentary tradition!

With this in my mind and after discussing the plan with many MPs I received some remarkable historical background. It turns out that many new Members and indeed new Parties such as the Canadian Alliance had resolved that they would set new standards of which Canadians would be proud.  Sadly, many of these MPs eventually fell to the frustration of dealing with a minority Government and began honing their hooting and whooping skills.

Still I had hope. I had sent a personalized form letter to each MP of every party asking if they would support a motion that gave the Speaker the power and just as importantly the support to actually enforce the rules that were on the books against unruly unruliness.

The results were very positive at first with about 45 of my own Liberal colleagues, the Independents, numerous Conservatives notably Michael Chong of Halton , a few New Democrats, and even a few Bloc Quebecois – all supporting the concept. My idea was that if I could show some critical mass it just might work.

Well there’s this business of Order Papers and lists and timing and regrettably the system always wins. Thus the election of 2005-06 meant starting from the line again.

I lost the 2008 election but as many will recall 2006-2008 won’t be remembered as stellar by many in the decorum camp.

However I truly believe that the Canadian public who views the behaviour in the Commons with the same disgust as those high school students did, would welcome a Leader or a Member or a Party that vows to restore the honour in the House so all Canadians can feel proud of their democratically elected civil representatives.

APPENDIX: Excerpt from a speech made by Ken Boshcoff, House of Commons,  May 3rd, 2005

Madam Chair, I was really looking forward to this debate. I am so pleased that it has come forward as a take note debate because one of the major reasons that I ran was to involve more people in the democratic process, and citizens’ engagement is truly a worthy endeavour for all parties in this House.

I believe that as parliamentarians we have the ultimate role to play in bringing people back into the parliamentary and democratic process. The best way we can do that is to set the highest possible standards for ourselves as members of Parliament. This implies respect, honesty, integrity, trust, accessibility and accountability. I will focus my time on the impressions that we convey to Canadians, especially young people and visitors to this House.

Reforms must start right here in the heart of it all. I find as a first term MP that the lack of decorum, civility and just good manners is generally very appalling. When I see the high school groups come here, and these are award-winning students in many cases representing a forum of young Canadians, Rotaries, youth scholars, Student Connections, and they watch the debates, they just leave shaking their heads. I watch them and they are very disappointed. If any one of them had ever behaved such as we might in this House, they would be booted right out of class and suspended.

That in itself should give each and every one of us in the House pause for concern because several hundred young people a week come to see the speeches here in the House, at question period in particular. For those of us who come from a municipal background, and I have spoken to members from all parties, they are generally astounded at the lack of civility and the type of antics that go on here, especially disruptions. When we talk about respect, this would never happen in any municipal forum anywhere in the country. That it goes on is really quite shocking, particularly to people who have already served in some sort of democratic process.

When we think about people who are involved, who are engaged, people who are close to local government, who appear as deputations and delegations, they see firsthand the mayor, the head of council, the reeve rule anyone with the least provocation starting to speak out of order or out of turn and immediately order is restored. Why we cannot do that here in this very impressive chamber is something that I have not yet come to understand.

Indeed, immunity applies somewhat in municipal spheres, but here it seems to have been stretched to its ultimate limits of abuse. The ultimate test should be that if someone truly had something to say that was honest and truthful, they would be able to say it outside in the hall. The fact that they never dare to do that, even when challenged, should give each and every one of us pause to think of what is really happening in this House.

Are people taking advantage of a process that protects them and impugns others? Once it is out, once the media in the gallery hears the statement, once it goes into Hansard , then it is there and it can be used, no, it can be abused far more greatly than anyone would ever want their own name to be impugned.

As I have been watching this for the past number of months, it occurred to me that perhaps something in the order of a private member’s motion would be appropriate because when we talk about the engagement of citizens, they are not going to come back if they do not respect what we are doing. They are not going to participate in something that they cannot relate to, and if they are appalled and disgusted, then they are not going to project that to the young people or to other voters.

What I am proposing in my private member’s bill is to restore civility and decorum to the House, particularly under Standing Orders 16 and 18. Standing Order 16 is that there will be no interruptions while someone is giving an answer or asking a question. Standing Order 18 is that people will act respectfully toward each other.

It will take all parties to agree to this. I know some people are smiling and saying “mission impossible”, but we have to agree that if it can be done in other orders of government, it certainly should be here in this Parliament.

As a student of this exercise, I undertook some light reading, House of Commons Procedure and Practice . I came across many interesting things. I have read it cover to cover. I am not going to say I just read it during opposition speeches. I read it while I was in the House doing my House duty. We know attempts have been made in the past by other parties to try to restore decorum and civility. In at least one case, historically, it came to third reading and someone was almost getting there.

I have met people from all parties who I feel share these values, who are cordial and respectful. Therefore, there is no one monopoly and there is no one guilty party in this exercise.

I guess we can use the adage of the mother asking the two children when did they start fighting and one says, “It started when he hit me back”. We know this is the kind of thing where there is no sense trying to say “You guys are the bad guys” or “You are the bad people”. We might as well just ask if there is a way that we can do this better for the people of our country. I believe very strongly that we have to do it.

We also get visitors from other countries. Some may think our rules or our procedures may be lax. I do not know. I have not seen many other houses. I am only concerned about this one.

I believe that if we are absolutely serious about citizen engagement, citizens will become engaged when they see us behave with respect, decorum, civility and when a question is asked, the person is allowed to ask it without being heckled and someone is allowed to answer without being chastised or commented upon.

This book of course has several interesting things. It does prohibit singing, except for the national anthem. When one reads some of the anecdotal history of some of the infractions, it is possible that perhaps there is a requirement for more enforcement by the Speaker, I do not know.

However, I know that among ourselves, as good parliamentarians who care about the country first and foremost, we are only here by the good graces of the people who elected us. The least we can do for them is to show them how much they mean to us. For me, it means that I can go back and say to them, “I asked your question. I got your answer”, and they can say to me, “I actually could hear you ask the question and get the answer”.

If we want to be closer to the people, it must start here. I look forward to presenting that. I thank the hon. members for allowing me to speak tonight. I am glad I stayed to hear the arguments put forth on all sides.

 

 

Ken Boshcoff is a management consultant in Thunder Bay and was MP for Thunder Bay-Rainy River from 2004 to 2008.

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