Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Why decorum in the legislature is appalling

In the people's house, you might expect our MLAs to be on their very best behaviour. Instead, our MLAs behave worse in the legislature than they do in any other part of their lives. They heckle, distort, deflect, and pontificate.

We should be able to say to our MLAs 'act like grown-ups,' says Steele

Recently MLAs were chastised by Speaker of the House Kevin Murphy for their decorum. (CBC)

In the people's house, you might expect our MLAs to be on their very best behaviour. This is, after all, the showpiece of our democracy.

For many MLAs, it is the pinnacle of their life achievement.

Instead, our MLAs behave worse in the legislature than they do in any other part of their lives. They heckle, distort, deflect and pontificate.

They don't listen, except to troll for material from the other side which can be fashioned into rhetorical arrows.

The quality of debate is abysmal. In fact, there is no debate at all, because everybody ends up voting exactly the way they knew they were going to vote when they walked in the door.

Recently MLAs were chastised by Speaker of the House Kevin Murphy whose unenviable task it is to maintain order.

In the parlance of parliament, the Speaker is the person who chairs the meetings. The Speaker, oddly, is the person who speaks the least, so a speech like this is unusual.

Bottle throwers

The Speaker read a litany of misbehaviour, from inappropriate clothing, to whistling and singing, to interrupting a recorded vote. Each item is small, but together they speak of an institution rotting from the inside.

Here is my favourite:

"I also observed that a member was tossing a bottle across the chamber towards a wastepaper bin - which missed, by the way, and then rattled around the floor, causing even more disturbance. Throwing things in the chamber is inappropriate behaviour."

Is it really necessary for the Speaker to have to say, out loud, that throwing a bottle across the legislative chamber is inappropriate? In the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, apparently the answer is yes.

Nothing that happens in the legislature really matters, especially under a majority government.- Graham Steele

Bad behaviour is nothing new. The details changed in my fifteen years in politics, I never saw a bottle-tosser, but the decorum of the House has been poor for as long as I've been watching.

I suspect it goes back much further than that. The same problem is evident across Canada, and the House of Commons is amongst the worst.

The current crop of Nova Scotia MLAs are guilty, but they are following a well-worn path.

Why does it happen?

Let's be blunt: Nothing that happens in the legislature really matters, especially under a majority government.

That's the fundamental problem. All important decisions are made elsewhere, behind closed doors. In the House, members merely ratify those decisions. They're going through the motions. They get bored, and boredom begets boors.

Besides, public policy issues are really difficult. The provincial government is a massive, complex organization.

It is beyond the capacity of most MLAs to understand the issues, so they take shortcuts. It's a lot easier to shout someone down than come to grips with what they're saying. It's a lot easier to think in partisan terms, "our party is good, your party is bad" than to think in policy terms.

It's a lot easier just to vote for a bill because you're told to, than to read it and try to understand it well enough to make up your own mind.

There is also a distinct lack of behavioural leadership from the front benches, and a culture that encourages well-behaved MLAs to keep quiet and let the hecklers heckle.

Consequences needed

Change should be easy. We should be able to say to our MLAs "act like grown-ups."

But that doesn't work, and never will.

In the short term, the behaviour might improve if there are real consequences for bad behaviour. But the Speaker is the servant of the House. He can crack down only if the members want him to crack down, and they don't. The bottle-tosser deserved to be tossed for the rest of the week, and to have her pay docked accordingly. Instead, she earned nothing more than a rebuke.

In the long term, the behaviour will change when what goes on in the chamber really matters, and when MLAs are genuinely struggling to deal with the issues in front of them. In other words: no time soon.

In the meantime, be prepared for more metaphorical bottles to rattle around on the floor of our democracy.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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