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.


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