Naming and shaming hecklers in the House of Commons
As Parliament resumes this week, Speaker Geoff Regan's approach to heckling will be tested again
On a sunny day in June, the noise on the floor of the House of Commons as MPs read out statements is like that of a busy cafeteria. In the gallery above sit a few dignitaries, tourists in shorts holding ear pieces to the sides of their sweating heads, a class of elementary school students on a field trip, and a handful of journalists.
The ear pieces are a necessity. Without them, it is impossible to hear what an MP on the floor is saying.
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This is not something that comes through on television. The microphones placed on the desks of MPs do their jobs impressively well. The House of Commons is a very noisy place, even before question period gets started.
And then come the heckles.
Some heckles have substance, pointing out contradictions or errors in a government member's answer. But most are less substantive — exaggerated laughter, theatrical groans, schoolyard insults. A few Conservative MPs on this June day mocked the prime minister when he stumbled over the pronunciation of "collaboratively."
"Big words!" yelled two of them.
Heckles can easily drown out whoever is speaking, and beating back the wall of derisive sound coming from across the aisle is not for the faint of heart.
But Geoff Regan, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has taken a new approach to heckling, one that previous Speakers have eschewed.
He has called them out.
On 25 occasions when Parliament was last sitting before the summer recess, Regan interrupted question period to bring the House to order, calling out a heckling MP by the name of his riding (MPs cannot be identified by their actual names in the House).
The goal is to name and shame MPs into better behaviour and improve decorum in the House, a goal that Regan will continue to strive towards as the next sitting of Parliament begins today.
Who's being named?
Over the last sitting, two Conservative MPs got the lash from Regan most often.
Ed Fast, MP for the B.C. riding of Abbotsford, and Steven Blaney, MP for the Quebec riding of Bellechasse–Les Etchemins–Lévis, were each called out by Regan three times.
Chris Warkentin (Grande Prairie–Mackenzie) and Michael Cooper (St. Albert–Edmonton) were both named twice.
In all, Regan called out Conservative MPs in the House 20 times over 77 sitting days.
He also rebuked three New Democrats and two of his fellow Liberals.
Every MP that Regan has named and shamed has been a male.
Men tend to do the bulk of heckling in the House.
Who's being heckled?
While 100 per cent of the MPs reprimanded by Regan were men, 32 per cent of the MPs being heckled — defined as who was last speaking before Regan named a heckler — were women. That is, however, a lower share than the proportion of women holding cabinet or parliamentary secretary positions in the Liberal government.
The most frequently heckled MPs in the last sitting were Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef, who were each heckled four times. Finance Minister Bill Morneau, his parliamentary secretary François-Philippe Champagne, then-government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were each heckled twice.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg, those times when Regan interrupted debate to call out an MP.
As any observation of question period will reveal, plenty of heckling goes unpunished.
That is because it is difficult to identify individual hecklers. The House of Commons is an echo chamber (literally and, at times, figuratively) and when multiple MPs are hurling invective at their opponents it is virtually impossible to single any of them out.
The Speaker also sits at one end of the House of Commons, a vantage point that is less than ideal for his work. This was one of the reasons Peter Milliken, who was Speaker between 2001 and 2011, did not name and shame MPs for heckling, as MPs sitting closer to the Speaker have a disadvantage.
Perhaps that is why two-thirds of the MPs called out by Regan have been those sitting in the front two benches. Nevertheless, in an apparent bid for fairness, Regan has called out some MPs sitting at the other end of the House.
Hold your applause
Regan's new approach to heckling was not the only attempt to improve decorum in the House over the last sitting. Starting in June, the Liberals stopped applauding their own MPs in question period.
This seemed to have a positive impact on Regan's ability to single out heckling MPs. Over the first 64 sitting days in the House, Regan's average rate of calling out hecklers was once every 3.6 days. But after the Liberals began to hold their applause, Regan called out a heckler once every 1.9 sitting days.
If question period remains a time when one side of the House sits on its hands and the other side heckles at its own peril, there is a chance that decorum will indeed improve over the longer term.
While that might sap some of the cut and thrust of politics out of the place, it would certainly be a relief to those sweating tourists in the gallery, who choose to spend their few vacation days in the nation's capital watching grown men and women, with their six-figure salaries and tailored finery, yell incoherently at each other.
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