MPs behaving badly undermine our faith in Parliament

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The Gazette, Monday, September 20, 2010

They're back. Just when you thought it was safe to venture outside, MPs have returned to Ottawa for the fall sitting of Parliament.

The session resumes today at a time when government and politicians have seldom stood in lower repute with voters.

First, there are the behavioural issues, the loss of decorum and elementary decency among MPs. And there's the dysfunctional aspect of an institution designed for majority government being reshaped by minority outcomes.

We are on our third minority government in a row, the first time that has occurred since the Diefenbaker-Pearson era in the 1960s. There's no expectation of a return to a majority rule by either the Liberals or Conservatives anytime soon. A fourth consecutive minority government would be the first such series since Confederation.

Minority governments can be very productive, as the Pearson minorities were in mid-'60s, but they're inherently unstable environments, with the government always in danger of falling and all parties constantly on a campaign footing.

And when the news is recycled every 15 minutes on cable channels, the appetite of the media beast is insatiable. Thus, the clamour of question period, preceded by the appalling spectacle of Standing Order 31 speeches, during which MPs make the most disgraceful comments about one another.

The media are not blameless, either. Instead of holding MPs to a higher standard of decorum, they are co-conspirators in a very low-brow spectacle. The parties need to get stuff on the air, and the media need stuff to put on the air. That's their symbiotic relationship. It might fill the airwaves and cyberspace, but it's a bad bargain in terms of public policy. There being no institutional memory in the media anymore, there has been a debasement of standards as to what is newsworthy.

The result is a kind of white noise, like the sound of an old air conditioner that drowns out other noises, until you no longer even notice.

And when hardly anyone pays attention to Parliament, it's no surprise that the institution and its members are in such low repute. A poll by Nanos Research finds that only 10 per cent of Canadians are satisfied with the effectiveness of Parliament, while another 25 per cent are somewhat satisfied. Canadians, Nanos writes in Policy Options this month, are "turned off and tuned out."

If it's any comfort to MPs, things are even worse in the U.S. A Pew Centre survey finds voters trust Washington barely 20 per cent of the time, down from over 50 per cent after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

The good news is that most MPs are no happier than their constituents with their dysfunctional workplace. They know that question period is a waste of time, and it's their time being wasted, which is why they spend most of it in their seats, multi-tasking on their BlackBerries or laptops.

They have no control over, and very little input into, this chaotic theatre. Like the meeting of managers and umpires at home plate, batting orders are submitted by house leaders to the speaker, who then yells play ball. Each team has its innings at the plate, and MPs who are meant to be players are mere spectators.

Exasperated backbenchers in all parties will have an opportunity to change that this fall with a vote on a resolution by Conservative Michael Chong, seconded by Liberal Martha Hall Findlay and others, to reform question period by, among other things, allocating half of each day's questions to backbenchers of all parties.

The reform would also emulate the Westminster model by making Wednesday prime minister's question time, and not wasting his time the rest of the week. There would also be designated House days for ministers, who spend hours with their staffs preparing for questions that are never asked.

Every resumption of the House provides an opportunity for a change of tone. Unhappily, this week's proceedings will be highlighted by a wedge issue, a vote on whether to abolish or retain the long-gun registry, which is guaranteed to drive the partisan furies of the place.

Perhaps when this vote is over, MPs and media alike can stop playing the game and start raising their games.

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