The House is back, and it's time for members of Parliament to grow up
Our MPs behave in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated in a Grade 8 classroom
This column is an opinion by Tamara Miller. She holds a PhD with a specialization in Canadian history, and has had a 20-year policy career with the federal government. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
The federal cabinet has been chosen, rookie MPs have had their orientation, and the House of Commons comes back into session today. It's time for our elected officials to get down to business, but recent experience has shown that modern governing looks more like a combative sport than a reasoned approach to making decisions in support of the country and its citizens.
On a visit to the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa in the fall with a middle school class, I was mortified to watch the example our elected officials set on the House floor during Question Period. Though I understand the tradition of heckling, the level of disrespect was an embarrassment as shouts and jeers, some of them personal, routinely drowned out the recognized speaker.
And it wasn't reserved to one party. Members across parties were intent on shouting over each other, name calling and launching sarcastic retorts.
After our visit, the Grade 8 students spoke not about the issues that were being discussed, nor about the parliamentary process. What drew their attention was how adults yelled each other down, instead of engaging in reasoned debate.
It didn't take the kids long to notice that the political leadership in this country acted in a way that would never have been tolerated in their own classrooms.
Their observations were consistent with a 2016 Samara Canada study. It found that 69 per cent of MPs surveyed believed heckling was a problem in the House of Commons — and yet 72 per cent of MPs admitted to doing it.
The same survey noted that 20 per cent of respondents, especially those who are female, reported that heckling affected their job performance in the House.
That report was released two full years before the kids' visit, but based on our experience, nothing has really changed.
It seems we have come to a place in our politics when there is more civility in the average middle school classroom than in the House of Commons.
Look, I get it. Barbs and jabs do stand out better than policy announcements, and what's more, they work. Throwing out slights does get attention on the news.
But the problems facing this country require our leaders to put aside childish political posturing and get to work.
The climate change crisis is upon us. Across the globe, there has been a rising tide of nationalism spurred by weakening economies and the largest mass migration of people since the Second World War. And the next generation is predicted to be the first in history that will be worse off than their parents.
These are big, complex problems and we need equally big, complex solutions. And we aren't likely to get those kinds of solutions from our elected government, given the level of acrimony and divisiveness on display in Question Period on the House of Commons floor.
Refusing to listen to the person across the aisle because they wear a different political stripe is not just impolite; it is foolish, and a betrayal of the principles of public service.
As the recent election kicked off, I sent an identical letter to each of the four main national party leaders asking the following questions:
- If elected to the House of Commons, are you open to listening to ideas and working with all MPs, regardless of political affiliation?
- Will you commit to improving the level of civility in the democratic process and the House of Commons?
The answer from all, except for Green Party leader Elizabeth May, was a resounding silence. A member of Ms. May's campaign team responded to my query directing me to the pages in the Green Party Platform on Good Governance, but did not expressly respond to my questions.
From the tone of the party leaders during the campaign, it was clear civility and respect were not on their radar.
Politics in Canada seems to be well on its way down the same toxically divided partisan path as our neighbours to the south.
Cindy McCain, the wife of the late U.S. Senator John McCain, recently noted: "We have little hope of overcoming our common problems, defending our common interests and advancing our common ideals if our public debates imitate the angriest Twitter feeds."
Now that the Canadian federal election is over, the time has come for our politicians to take a lesson from the middle-school kids — grow-up.
Start working towards finding solutions to the bigger problems we are facing, rather than competing to see who can yell the loudest or throw the best insult inside, and outside, the House of Commons.
- This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.