NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen summoned the press to the Foyer this morning for another episode of what is soon going to be known as “Monday morning sanctimony,” in which he pledged that they were going to work on restoring decorum to the House of Commons – although “restoring” may be the wrong word as there never really was a golden age of decorum and civil debate.
Cullen says that he wants to negotiate with the other parties to approach the Speaker and give him permission to deny questions of those MPs who are being disruptive. The Speaker already has the power to turn off an MP’s microphone, and even eject them from the Chamber if they’re being too disruptive – though Speaker Milliken had largely ruled out such a tactic because said MP would simply call the press over to make an event about getting tossed out.
What Cullen wouldn’t give were any kinds of specifics about what kind of behaviour he wanted to see sanctioned, saying it would be up to the Speaker’s discretion, but hoped that it would lead to better self-policed behaviour from MPs of all parties, once people had their questions taken away.
Part of the problem, however, is that Cullen over-exaggerates the appeal of questions to the government benches. While he likens them to precious baubles that the backbench MPs covet, they are in fact divvied out in a kind of rotation by the PMO or House Leader’s office, unless of course there is a particular policy hobbyhorse or local issue that needs a softball address on that particular day, in which case they go to the front of the line. Government backbench questions might be precious baubles if they were in fact actually genuine questions that raised legitimate concerns about local issues or that were designed to provide a check on the government, but the current incarnation of our government doesn’t allow that. In fact, calling a scripted question designed to provide a scripted head-pat as “coveted” is actually a bit insulting to those backbench MPs.
When it was pointed out that the Speaker of the Commons in the UK has the power that Cullen wants to sanction, but that their House is just as rowdy, Cullen wasn’t fazed. Nor was he when it was pointed out that no democracy isn’t faced with the same criticism that the people wish it were less irreverent and more decorous. It just doesn’t happen. When pointed out that Cullen’s own MPs don’t necessarily behave in decorous fashions – be it Pat Martin’s colourful tweets, or the un-clever and insulting questions posed by their front-bench critics, he gave a vague shrug about how they all need to be better. What about the fact that going negative gets rewarded by voters? That’s part of the political culture, he demurred, and kept going on about setting examples.
And with pushback from reporters increasing, Cullen abruptly headed off.
Like many propositions for increasing decorum in the House, Cullen’s is pretty reliant on the existence of unicorns to be successful, it part because it seems to miss the point about the “robust” and “passionate” debate that he at the same time defended when his own MPs behaviour was brought up. There is nothing wrong with heckling. There is nothing wrong with saying clever bon mots. The problem is that most MPs these days are not witty or clever, and rely on insults and name-calling, and yes, this includes the NDP on an almost daily basis. Sure, they may rarely heckle, but how is it any more decorous for Charlie Angus to stand up every day and deliver an unfunny denunciation of the “Minister of pork,” or the “Minister of gazebos,” or whatever epithet he’s come up with that day? (It’s also not exactly decorous that he delivers what he believes to be clever one-liners to his own backbenches – by physically turning to deliver it to them, thus taking him out of his own microphone range – but that’s a topic for another day).
The same applies to heckling. Yes, heckling is bad when it’s nothing more than loud braying or personal insults, but I’ve often found that the heckling or cross-talk can be more informative than the non-answers that ministers are delivering. Heckling, when used effectively, can also knock ministers off of their scripts, which is part of the purpose. It demonstrates that they don’t know their files, and that they may not be suited for their roles. That’s part of the opposition’s role. I also fail to see how it serves democracy for MPs to simply sit quietly while ministers deliver insulting or misleading talking points without any kind of pushback, which could include heckling. What kind of message does that send? Bad or insulting answers should be shouted down – otherwise the tacit message is that they are accepted unchallenged.
I have yet to be convinced by Cullen’s enthusiasm for his role in upholding decorum, even if he is the “new sheriff in town.” I may be convinced if he starts taking away the speaking slots of Charlie Angus the next time he delivers an insulting tirade in the form of a question during the next QP, or from Niki Ashton when she decries at top volume the government “conspiracy” to re-open the abortion debate when it has explicitly been denounced by the government’s own Whip (a speech she delivered a tone-deaf reply to immediately thereafter). But I have a feeling that Cullen will consider those instances “passionate debate,” and let it slide.
In which case, the NDP falls back to its usual position of unctuous sanctimony and tutting like schoolmarms, blaming everyone else for the problem while doing nothing on their own to raise the tone of the debate itself. So much for doing their part for decorum.