Power to the Speaker: To Increase Civility in Federal and Provincial Parliaments Speakers Need to do More to Clamp Down on Uncivil Behaviour

Lack of civility has been an ongoing problem in Canadian parliament. At the federal level the scandal that erupted when Justin Trudeau accidentally elbowed an NDP MP, Ruth Ellen Brousseau, while trying to force the Conservative whip, Gord Brown, back to his seat demonstrated a lack of decorum in the House of Commons. In Alberta the berating of Premier Rachel Notley while she introduced Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to the Alberta legislature also demonstrated a lack of appropriate behaviour. None of this is anything new to parliaments in Canada, or indeed in many other countries. Heckling is common practice in Canadian (and many other countries’) parliaments and every parliamentary session has its fair share of inappropriate outbursts. In my last post I wrote about how parties needed to work together to re-establish norms to govern the way that parliament used its time. In that post I noted that there are some, albeit limited, changes to the way parliament operates that could increase civility. One way to increase civility in parliament would be to empower the speakers of the House of Commons and provincial legislatures to enforce more rigorous standards of civility and decorum, including strict limitations on the heckling of MPs.

It has been common after elections for one or more parties to make a commitment to make parliamentary debate more meaningful and to increase the level of civility in the House of Commons. At various points different parties have claimed that their members will either reduce, or altogether stop, heckling speakers from the other parties. These commitments rarely last through to the end of a parliamentary session. The problem with commitments made by individual parties is that each party faces a collective action problem when it comes to enforcing stricter standards of civility on their members. Parties that remain silent while their opponents speak allow opposing parties to get their message out clearly and without interruption while their members have to try to speak over the shouting of their opponents. If one party unilaterally decides to stop heckling it puts itself at a disadvantage when engaging in parliamentary debate, making it easier for their opponents to present their case to the public while ensuring that it remains difficult to present their own case. As a result, it is difficult to reduce heckling and similar uncivil behaviour through trusting parties’ and individual MPs’ self-restraint alone.

A way to get around the collective action problems that surround enforcing decorum would be to allow the Speaker of the House of Commons or provincial legislature to intervene to a much greater extent than they currently. Singling out members who speak out of turn or are otherwise uncivil for warning, and if need be, expulsion from the day’s sitting would be a way to ensure a higher level of civility and orderly conduct. Under current rules and practices Members of Parliament are expelled from the House if they use unparliamentary language that includes swearing or accusations of lying directed toward other Members. The Speaker could do the same for members who insist on speaking without being recognized by the Speaker. This would place a much greater deal of pressure on Members of Parliament to conduct themselves civilly than any self or party discipline can. If British House of Commons speaker John Bercow can remove an MP for referring to the Prime Minister as “dodgy Dave” than it seems reasonable to allow the Speaker to remove individuals who attempt disrupt the speeches of their colleagues by heckling.

Heckling is often defended by traditionalists as allowing for witty exchanges between Members and increasing the level of exchange between Members during the debates. The problem with this is that, while at its best a heckle might be witty or funny, it is almost impossible to make a good argument in the approximately 15 seconds that a heckle lasts for.  To make a meaningful contribution to a debate a speaker needs a reasonable amount of time to present an argument, explain, and provide evidence in support if it.  That cannot be done in the time a heckle takes. While a good heckle might be able to get laughs from other Members and from those watching, it cannot present the information needed to know why a particular Member supports or opposes a particular piece of legislation or government policy. A good heckle can amuse observers, but it cannot make them more informed nor does it do much to improve the quality of parliamentary debate.

At its worst heckling disrupts debate. It drowns out speakers making it difficult for observers and Members to fully hear each member speaking. It belittles individuals who make important and extraordinary contributions to public life. It can discourage participation in parliamentary debates by individuals who may have valuable things to say, but whose personalities do not relish trying to shout above the noise created in the House when each member feels the need to talk at the same time. Finally, there is some evidence that suggests that heckling in the Canadian House of Commons happens more frequently towards women, and at times includes language that is sexist, racist, religiously discriminatory, or homophobic. At its worst heckling can be use to denigrate and to make participation more difficult for individuals from backgrounds that are almost always underrepresented in parliament.

Often the response to uncivil behaviour parliament ends up being pressure on politicians to change their behaviour. This can be successful in changing parliamentary behaviour for a short period of time, but debate in parliaments usually ends up degenerating over time. Uncivil behaviour often creates incentives for other parties Members to also behave in a way that is uncivil. Rather than putting pressure on parliamentarians to change their behaviour pressure should be put on them to create rules and empower the Speaker to enforce them. This can ensure that all parliamentarians act in a orderly manner, and that if they do not, that they can be removed from parliament so that they cease to disrupt debate.


Meet the New Parliament, Same as the Old Parliament: The House of Commons Suffers from a Lack of Norms governing Debate

This past week was a bad one for parliamentary civility. In what is now being called “elbowgate” the Prime Minister has gotten in trouble for grabbing the Conservative whip and taking him to his seat, elbowing a New Democratic MP out of the way in the process. The incident occurred in the broader context of a competition between the government and opposition over the use of time in the House of Commons. As Elizabeth May explained in one of the few carefully thought through assessments of the incident, opposition MPs were stalling to try to delay a time allocation vote on the Liberal’s assisted dying bill while the Liberals were trying force one. In this case, as in many others, there is a broader problem in that parliamentary debate has become subordinate to parliamentary tactics for both government and opposition parties. Parliament is in need of stronger norms, accepted by all MPs, that constrain the extent to which it is acceptable for MPs to make use of tactics that decrease the quality of debate in parliament.

One of the commitments that the Trudeau government during the 2015 election was to improve the tone and quality of debate in parliament. The use of omnibus bills, non-answers in question period, and the failure to get the agreement of opposition parties for changes to electoral rules were all noted as particular problematic abuses of parliamentary norms and processes taken by the Harper government. Less than a year into the Trudeau government’s time in office things do not look much different. The incident on May 18th came during an attempt by the Trudeau government to use time allocation to limit debate on their assisted dying bill (though this was later withdrawn in wake of the fallout from the incident).  The Liberals have used time allocation and closure motions to limit debate on an earlier debate over their assisted dying bill, their budget implementation bill, a bill on Air Canada, and a bill on collective bargaining for the RCMP.  The Liberals have, further, given themselves a majority on the committee examining electoral reform.  This will allow them, like the Conservatives under Harper, to push through changes to the electoral process without the consent of any of the other parties.

While the Liberals’ failure to significantly change the qualify of democratic debate in the House of Commons is disappointing, it should not be surprising. There is a collective action problem that exists with respect to debate in parliament whereby parties can be hurt politically if they are the only ones to avoid the use of parliamentary tricks and tactics to advance their agenda. Closure and time allocation motions are often a response to efforts by opposition parties to needlessly extend debate in parliament and limit the ability of the government to pass their agenda. There is only so much time available in parliament to legislate. If the opposition can force the government to spend as much as time as possible on each bill brought forward, the opposition can limit the total number of new bills that a government can pass. If the Liberals refuse to make use of omnibus bills, time allocation, or closure motions (which end parliamentary debate on bills and bring them to a vote), they run the risk of opposition filibusters that waste the government and parliament’s time and limit their ability to legislate. If the Liberals unilaterally refuse to use parliamentary tactics to strong-arm the opposition, the opposition can use their own tactics to make it difficult for the Liberals to govern.

The same is true for electoral laws and for question period. If the Liberals refuse to change election laws without the support of the other parties, but the Conservatives use their majorities to change election laws, than the country will end up with election laws that favour the Conservatives. Similarly, if the Conservatives dodge questions in question period when they are facing criticism for the Liberals, there is little incentive for the Liberals to take Conservative questions any more seriously when they are in government. It is notable that, while the Liberals had promised a better tone in parliament, less than two months after the election Liberal cabinet minister John McCallum had to withdraw an answer in question period because his comments belittled the question as opposed to providing a serious answer to her question. The failure of one party to follow norms that produce good debate in parliament ends up leading other parties to abandon such norms as well. The more each party in the House disrespects parliament the more likely it is that other parties will do so as well.

Unfortunately there is no easy solution that improves parliamentary debate. Some good might be done by giving the House of Commons Speaker more leeway to enforce stricter rules for parliamentary debate. Allowing the Speaker to limit or end heckling (which the new Speaker, Geoff Regan has already done to some extent), force cabinet ministers’ responses to questions to stay on topic, and to eject MPs who fail to comply with the most basic of rules for civil behaviour (which Justin Trudeau breached by grabbing an opposition MP and which Thomas Mulcair breached by subsequently shouting at Trudeau) would go some way to improving the quality of debate in the House. The Speaker, however, has limited power to address the problems that stem from parties trying to unduly limit or extend parliamentary debate or trying to unilaterally change election rules. These problems can only be addressed by all parties working together to re-establish norms of conduct that create productive parliamentary debate. At some point, government and opposition MPs need to come together and agree to avoid the using certain tactics. The government might agree, for example, not to use omnibus bills, time allocation, or closure to limit parliamentary debate in exchange for a good faith effort on the part of the opposition not to use parliamentary debate for the sole purpose of slowing down the government’s agenda. The acceptance by all parties of some general norms that can govern how parties and MPs behave is necessary in order to create a more civil and productive parliament.

Parliament can be an important venue for democratic debate when it functions well. Norms play an essential role in ensuring a high level of quality in parliamentary debate. When parties abuse parliamentary procedures to try to gain an upper-hand in debate it weakens the quality of parliamentary debate and Canadian democracy. It also creates a vicious cycle whereby one party’s failure to follow norms that allow parliament to function leads other parties to discard those norms as well. Voters in Canad ought to pay careful attention to the way that parliament operates. When MPs, either in government or opposition, fail to act in a way that creates quality democratic debate, voters ought to remind them that their conduct is not meeting the standards that one would expect parliamentarians to aspire to.


Political Diversity in a Two Party System: Trump and Sanders Show What Happens When Political Diversity is Crammed Into a Two Party System

The American Presidential primaries have produced surprising results. Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primary has shocked followers of American politics, many of whom expected the nomination process to lead to the nomination of a moderate candidate. Bernie Sanders, while not having the same success as Trump, has managed to turn what was supposed to be an easy contest for Hillary Clinton into a reasonably close race. Both Trump and Sanders are outsiders to their parties. Trump is very clearly not a traditional Republican while Sanders was not a member of the Democratic party until he made his Presidential bid. The success of both Trump and Sanders mirrors a widening of the political spectrum that is occurring across North American and Europe. The difference between the United States and most other developed democracies, is that American political institutions force new political movements into existing party structures while most other countries’ institutions allow for the formation of new parties. As a result, it is harder for candidates from new movements to make political break-throughs in American politics, but when they do, they can leverage the resources of traditionally strong parties in order to increase their likelihood of winning government.

The United States is not the only country that has seen a large shift in its politics over the last decade, indeed the emergence of Trump and Sanders as strong non-traditional candidates for office has happened relatively late compared to other developed democracies. As I noted in a previous post, the far-right has been making substantial gains across Europe that go back to the early 2000s. In 2002 French far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into a run-off for the top two candidates vying for the French presidency and far-right parties from the UK, to the Netherlands, to Poland have been making steady gains over the past two decades. Even Germany is likely to see a far-right party in the form the Alternative for Germany enter their parliament in the next election. The rise of these parties looks very similar to the rise of Trump in the United States, and suggests that politicians outside of the United States capitalize on xenophobia at least as much as Trump has.

The increasing diversity in European democracies is not unique to the far-right though. In Germany the Left party (previously knows as the Party of Democratic Socialists) went from around 5% of the vote in the 1990s to 8%-11% of the vote over much of the 2000s and 2010s. In the Netherlands the Christian Democrats have been replaced by the Liberal VVD as the leading right of centre party, in France the communist presidential candidate took 11% of the vote in the 2012 election, in Spain a brand new party called Podemos emerged in 2015 to take 21% of the vote, and the UK has seen first the Liberal Democrats and then the Scottish Nationalist Party take significant seat shares in their most recent elections. Most party systems in developed democracies now feature a diverse array of parties that represent a broad range of political opinions. Countries that did not see much of an increase in the diversity of their parties often already had diversity amongst their political parties by the early to mid 1990s. This was the case in countries such as Belgium, Italy, and Sweden. Given that partisan diversity is now normal across most developed countries, it should not be a surprise to see insurgent campaigns in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

The American political system, however, treats insurgencies very differently than most other democratic institutions do. In most countries third and fourth parties can be quite viable electorally. In the United States two factors combine to force new political movements into the two existing parties. The first is the electoral system used to select the President. The preeminent national political contest in the United States, the Presidential race, is a winner-take all contest in which only the party with the most votes get anything. This places strong pressure on voters to back one of the two major parties because it is unlikely that a vote for a third party will have an impact on the election result. Absent a serious Presidential candidate, third party and independent candidates often face a significant disadvantage in Congressional races. This makes it difficult for new parties to enter the American political system.

In contrast, parliamentary systems usually ensure that third parties get some representation and therefore give voters a reason to back these parties. In proportional systems parties are almost guaranteed representation in parliament provide they can marshal a modicum of support. Even in first past the post systems though, third and fourth parties can win significant parliamentary representation if they are regionally concentrated (e.g. the Bloc Quebecois, the Reform party, and the Scottish National Party) or can win enough of the vote nationally to become competitive in a significant number of ridings (e.g. the Liberal Democrats and the NDP). Finally in Presidential systems that use an Alternative Vote or Run-off electoral system (which the United States does not) third and fourth parties can be reasonably competitive because their voters are secure in the knowledge that if their first choice does not end up being viable they can express a second choice preference for a party more likely to win office.  They can vote for a third party candidate for President without losing their chance to vote against a strongly disliked candidate in a future round of voting.

The second factor that pushes new political movements into the existing American parties is the openness of both parties to a wide range of views. This results from the incredibly lax (compared to most other countries) party discipline in Congress and the openness of the nomination processes for both parties. It is easy for well organized political movements to win Congressional primary races and to compete in Presidential races. Unlike in most countries, voters in the United States do not have to be paid members of a political party in order to vote on who the party nominates for different political offices and there is very little pressure on elected members of a party to conform to leadership’s interests in order to advance their political careers. If a Canadian Member of Parliament tried to exercise the kind of independence that American congress people often do they would never be promoted to cabinet, risk having the party leader refuse to allow them to run for the party in future elections, and could face expulsion from the party. Unlike Canada and much of Europe, new political movements in the United States do not need to form their own parties in order to gain representation in government. This creates space in both the Democratic and Republican parties for new movements to express themselves and to influence policy.

The ability of new political movements to advance their interests through existing parties has important implications for the likelihood of success of new movements in the United States. Outside of the United States new political movements often have to compete as new parties. They have to develop their own campaign resources and expertise and develop their own party loyalties. They have to do this while competing with more established parties that already have significant resources and have developed their own loyal bases of voters. In the United States candidates for new political movements can compete in the primaries of major parties. In primaries, no candidates has the full support of the party and therefore no candidate can rely on the parties’ resources to campaign. Additionally, since there are no parties in primary contests there are no long-held party loyalties that new candidates have to overcome in order to be successful. In any other country Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would have had to form their own parties and compete with the Democrats and Republicans to try to win office. In contrast, the American political system allows candidates such as Sanders and Trump to compete to win control over the Democratic and Republican parties and, if they are successful, to use each parties’ resources and voter loyalties to further their own campaigns. This makes it more difficult for new candidates to establish themselves in American politics because they have to convince members of one of the two major parties to support them. At the same time, once a new candidate establishes themselves as competitive they can grow in support quite quickly because they can co-opt the resources of one of the major parties in a way that third and fourth parties in other democracies cannot.

If the United States had Canadian or European political institutions the five longest lasting primary candidates, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, would have all had their own political parties. Rather than competing in primary races, they would have had to compete against each other in a general election. Rather than seeking to co-opt the resources of a well-established major political party, Sanders and Trump would have to run against both of the major parties. This would likely ensure that each is represented in political institutions, third and fourth parties are often well represented in Canadian and European politics and most European candidates have seen Trump-like parties emerge over the past decade. At the same time though, these institutions make it difficult for candidates like Sanders and Trump to win power once they gain a foothold in the political system. American politics would likely be much better off if Trump had to face a Republican candidate in the upcoming general election instead of being able to use Republican resources and capitalize of Republican party loyalties in order to try to win the Presidency.