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by the Trudeau government to use time allocation to limit debate on their assisted dying bill (though this was later withdrawn in wake of the fallout from the incident).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.