by Tim Harper
Late last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion rose in the Commons to answer a question on our policy on Ukraine.
As he stumbled slightly, someone from the Conservative side shouted: “It’s not easy making priorities.”
The Dion line was either funny, mocking an infamous fumble from the former Liberal leader, or the type of shouted intervention Canadians have had enough of from their elected politicians.
You’ll have to take my word for the fact it was shouted, because you wouldn’t hear it on TV or read it in Hansard, and, further, I couldn’t make out who shouted it, because the most skilled hecklers in the Commons can generally shout in anonymity.
More than 38 years after television cameras were allowed in the Commons, Canadians still don’t really see what happens there.
The new speaker, Geoff Regan, like so many before him, has donned the robes and vowed to end heckling.
It’s not working, but there’s a simple way to do it. Open the place up.
A government that is touting more transparency and accountability should use its resources to convince the Commons to put all the cameras on and open up all the microphones. If Canadians see who is doing the shouting, a public shaming on camera might stop some of these inanities that litter our political discourse.
I’m betting it would.
Under House of Commons rules, cameras in the Commons can only be trained on the MP or minister who has the floor. If Regan rises to admonish a heckler – and he has been doing a lot of that – the rules say the camera is trained only on him, not the miscreant.
I’m not even allowed to take a photo with my phone in the Commons press gallery.
Moments after Dion spoke that day, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan rose to answer a question on the anti-ISIS coalition.
“Spit it out,” said someone from the Tory benches.
Before that, the derisive laughter and calls of “yes or no” when Finance Minister Bill Morneau tried to answer a question made it impossible to hear his reply.
There’s no shortage of things going on in this place to fire passions, but decorum in the daily theatre of question period has always been low on my list of concerns.
But I’m probably not a good gauge, more likely living proof that one can be desensitized after years of exposure to a toxic work environment.
I get it, though. If I began to speak at a news meeting at the Star, I wouldn’t expect someone from the other side of the table to yell, “Spit it out.”
Conservatives seemed to be the greatest culprits last week, but all parties do it in differing degrees.
Television came to the Commons in 1977 but just down the hall, Senate proceedings are still not televised.
A former Senate speaker, NoÎl Kinsella, said a couple of years ago he would begin work on getting cameras into the Senate. Nothing seems to have happened and Kinsella is retired.
One advocate of extending Commons television coverage, political communications expert Ian Capstick of MediaStyle, says there is a simple reason MPs have not moved on this initiative.
“They’re scared of it,” he says. “They’ve all done something in the Commons they’re ashamed of, whether a hand gesture or an inappropriate shout.”
If all the cameras were turned on we’d see the empty seats, the backbenchers on their iPads and smartphones, the dismissive or hostile hand gestures, the unnecessary standing ovations. Behaviour would be quickly cleaned up under the camera’s glare.
In the meantime, Regan is left to stand and tell MPs that “it’s not a 1950s old boy’s club in here.”
Another day he told the opposition side, “This is not the Muppets,” a reference to cranky balcony hecklers Statler and Waldorf, believed to be – we think – former Conservative ministers Erin O’Toole and Steven Blaney.
Another former minister, Jason Kenney, made news in India last week when he shouted at Sajjan that he needed “English to English” translation to understand the minister’s answer in the Commons.
Liberals later asked him to apologize. Kenney refused, but later apologized on Twitter.
MPs seem to know what they are doing is wrong, but they just can’t help themselves.
Samara, a non-partisan democratic research organization, found about seven in 10 MPs believed heckling is a problem. Yet seven in 10 admitted to doing it themselves.
Put the cameras on them and see what happens.
You don’t really see what goes on in the Commons. And you shouldn’t have to take my word for it.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services