It was interesting to hear that Layton has decided to clean up parliament by ending heckling from the NDP benches. Unfortunately he ignored Conservative MP Michael Chong’s other recommendations which would certainly have gone a lot further and dramatically changed the tone in the House.
Heckling is a time honoured tradition in Canadian politics which unfortunately over the last few years has taken on a much nastier tone. For one thing the very layout of the House encourages MPs to make comments back and forth. Sit any two groups of opponents across from each other, roughly two sword lengths apart, and there will be verbal barbs going back and forth.
A few years ago when in opposition, the Conservatives brought MP constituency staff to Ottawa to learn how the Hill works. One of their main complaints was the tone and behaviour of all MPs in Question Period. After explaining in detail how Question Period worked, the strategies employed and what to look for when viewing Question Period, we divided the staff into an opposition side and a government side. I taught them how to write 35 second long questions based on issues in the news that day and my staff helped the government side write answers for the same issues. We then moved into the actual chamber for a mini Question Period. It took less than 15 minutes for the heckling to start and emotions rise to the point where their behaviour was slipping into the same pattern as that of elected MPs.
Until there is meaningful reform of Question Period along the lines of Chong’s suggestions, we can’t expect much to change. Electing a strong Speaker, one who is willing to enforce the rules and sanction MPs when necessary will help, but Question Period structured as it is now is simply not working.
Row after row of NDP backbenchers sitting as mute as the statues on Easter Island simply won’t happen. I will predict that the “no heckling rule” will be one of the first promises the NDP breaks this session.
Layton missed an opportunity to use his press conference to press for meaningful reform of Question Period. Canadians will see just how serious the NDP leader is when his MPs begin violating this latest decision. Just how will Layton discipline those in his caucus who start heckling? Will he sanction them? Will he ask them to forfeit their pay? Will he ask them to leave the Chamber? Will he keep this promise or is it just more smoke and mirrors?